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True Chinese factory horror stories Mike Daisey might have told, had he not been such a lying liar

At the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, India-based journalist Adam Matthews writes about the rising labor movement in China.

Below, a snip from his most recent piece on the phenomenon of "bloody factories" in China, which he argues is a far greater problem than Foxconn.

Matthews interviews a labor advocate and self-taught "barefoot lawyer" for migrant workers who have experienced workplace injuries; the man takes him on "a tour that even Daisey couldn’t have dreamed up."

We traveled through hardscrabble sections of Dongguan’s Tangxia Town, a factory town near the coast in Guangdong. He introduced me to a worker fired for organizing a union, a man denied overtime payments and a woman whose symptoms mirrored those of the Wintek workers. The notes about her on his printed spreadsheet were: “leg can’t move.”

That woman is Shi Yuping, a mother of two with short black hair, capris and flip-flops. Shi is in her late thirties but looks much older. We sat at a picnic table outside a convenience store as Shi told her story. Her husband Jiang Ancai stood nearby and listened.

Shi worked for a Hong Kong-owned plastics factory. The factory used a chemical as toxic as n-hexane to clean plastic parts. Shi fell ill during a trip home to Henan province to see her mother and her children (many migrant workers send children to stay with grandparents so the parents can both work). She received no compensation and no reimbursement for her 20-day hospital stay. “She called the company to ask for continuation of the leave,” Wang explained. Instead, she was fired. The factory held two months of salary, money that Wang was suing to recover. Shi suffered degenerative nerve damage and can no longer work. When she got up to leave the picnic table her left leg went lame. She had trouble even getting into her flip-flops.

Shi did not work for a supplier of a high-profile brand, like Apple. There was no coverage of her case in the English-language media.

Image, courtesy pulitzercenter.org: Zhang Zhiru (seated), a "barefoot lawyer," meets with workers. The younger man (l) was suing his former employer for wrongful dismissal. His case didn't look promising: the factory was illegal. Li Zuping (r) lost part of two fingers while cleaning a factory machine. Image by Jocelyn Baun. China 2011

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks to employees during a visit to the iPhone production line at the newly built Foxconn Zhengzhou Technology Park, in Henan province, China. Photo taken March 28, 2012 (REUTERS). Reports and analysis on the significance of the visit: Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Bloomberg, Wired News, IBT, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times.

ICYMI: a robust BB comment thread on Foxconn, labor standards, and Pogue's recent column

On Friday, I threw together a quick blog post about a recent David Pogue column on Foxconn, and responses to that column by others around the web. The resulting Boing Boing discussion thread was full of thoughtful, interesting stuff, and (for the most part!) surprisingly non-inflammatory. Give it a read. I've also updated the post to include a few relevant links I neglected to include, like this related ABC Nightline TV episode, and another Pogue column on the hidden cost of cheap gadgets.

Pogue on Foxconn: hey, at least it's not rice farming or prostitution!


A job seeker yawns as he queues outside Foxconn recruitment center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Tan


New York Times tech columnist David Pogue sure has an interesting take on the Foxconn/worker's rights debacle.

One point I agree with: it's a mistake to focus solely on Apple. Many, many Western technology companies work with Foxconn, and with factories where conditions are worse. From the January 25 NYT piece on Foxconn:

Foxconn Technology [is] China’s largest exporter and one of the nation’s biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers. The company has plants throughout China, and assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, including for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung.

Let that sink in. Foxconn outputs nearly half of all the world's consumer electronics.

Few tech companies have taken the kinds of early steps Apple has to try and improve matters, and share information about the process.

And while Pogue doesn't explicitly address this point, I'll throw it out there: cheap overseas labor in rotten conditions with poor labor law standards are part of what keeps gadget prices where they are. If we mean what we say about wanting better lives for the men and women who make our consumer electronics, are we willing to change consumer culture, and pay more? I'm not optimistic.

What do you think? And is there *any* reality-based model that could lead to some of those manufacturing jobs coming back to the US (or, name your labor-friendly nation here) in our lifetimes? Again, I'm not optimistic.

Edit: Here's an Economist item about the Pogue column, and reactions focused in the study of global economics. Economics consultant Adam Ozimek has a thoughtful reaction to the Pogue column here, focusing on labor laws, and what factors motivate change. And Mike Daisey has quite a rant here. He's the author and monologist behind "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." I'll post other interesting pieces here, pro or con, as they bubble up.

Update: Responding to a portion of this post, Pogue points me to "The Dilemma of Cheap Electronics," another recent column in which he addressed the "why our gadgets are cheap" issue relative to labor costs and standards. Snip:

That Chinese workers are paid less than American workers is no big shock. We’ve known that forever. That’s why everybody outsources to China in the first place. There’s a long list of Chinese manufacturing costs that are lower than American manufacturing costs: hourly employee rates, worker benefits, taxes, the cost of power, buildings and equipment, and more.

Bringing workplace standards and pay in Chinese factories up to American levels would, of course, raise the price of our electronics. How much is hard to say, but a financial analyst for an outsourcing company figures a $200 iPhone might cost $350 if it were built here.

Do we care enough about Chinese factory conditions to pay nearly twice as much for our phones, tablets, cameras, TVs, computers, GPS units, camcorders, music players, DVD players, DVRs, networking gear and stereo equipment?

Not everybody will say yes.

But suppose they did. How would we get there? Which electronics brand would jump first?

Related viewing: This ABC Nightline episode, inside Foxconn.

Apple and Foxconn to engage in Fair Labor Audit

Foster Kamer at Betabeat writes: "Apple released an announcement today explaining that the Fair Labor Association will be conducting an independent audit that is 'unprecedented in size and scale' in the electronics industry. As part of it, they contend that they’ll be interviewing thousands of Foxconn employees, and that the FLA will be taking the 'unusual' step of identifying the individual factories audited in their report."

Apple audits supply chain, vows to fight for reduction in worker abuses, environmental damage

Computing giant Apple today for the first time released an unprecedented trove of information about its supply chain: the "Apple Supplier Responsibility Report." Some industry observers believe the move indicates Apple under Tim Cook may turn out to be a more transparent company than under previous CEO Steve Jobs. "I would like to totally eliminate every case of underage employment," said Cook. Here's a PDF of the report. Some labor rights groups say the release is a step forward, but not far forward enough. (via @joshgreenman) Xeni

The future of Foxconn

At TechCrunch, John Biggs presents a series on the future of Foxconn, a major supplier for western consumer electronics companies such as Apple. Made infamous by a series of suicides, the truth is more complex, found in the statistics of China's economic rise and the countless human stories that add up to it. The firm's vast campus city is home to thousands of workers, many of them living in company dormitories. Just feeding them is a massive, industrial-scale operation in its own right. In Shenzhen, home of its HQ, the median age is under 25. And while conditions are in fact better than other firms like it, its sheer size makes its problems so much bigger.