Now Can We Start Talking About the Real Foxconn?

Photograph by Imaginechina/Corbis

Crowds of Chinese Foxconn employees have lunch in a dining hall at Foxconn's Shenzhen plant.

So Mike Daisey’s been outed. The things he said he saw, he didn’t. The people he said he spoke to, he didn’t. The discoveries he said he made, he didn’t. He lied.

It matters a lot that Mike Daisey lied, and it matters that he was caught. You really should listen to the episode of This American Life in which Ira Glass takes a deep breath and lets it all out. It’s great storytelling by Rob Schmitz, as fantastic as the story Daisey himself told. Anyone who has become invested in this story of Apple and Foxconn needs to listen to that episode. If you’ve ever tweeted about how bad Apple is, blogged about the evils of Foxconn’s sweatshops, or “Liked” a Facebook post excoriating how iPads are made, then you should listen. Don’t take the word of the dozens of bloggers and news outlets who’ve tried to summarize the whole saga into bite-sized morsels—go listen for yourself. Go on, do it now. I’ll wait. You heard it? Good.

Now let me tell you what I’ve seen at Foxconn. I’ve covered the company as a reporter for more than a decade, since before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye and just after Foxconn landed Dell as a PC customer. Then in 2010, when a series of suicides caught the world’s attention and made sure you now know who makes your iPhone, my colleague Frederik Balfour and I started looking deeper. The result was “Inside Foxconn,” a 6,000-plus-word cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek.

We interviewed Foxconn’s founder Terry Gou for many hours. But before sitting down with Gou (and walking the Shenzhen campus with him), we spoke to dozens of people who worked at, dealt with, supplied to, bought from, or otherwise had firsthand dealings with Foxconn and its founder. Foxconn doesn’t know who most of these people are, and they never asked. We also had a Foxconn-led tour inside dorm rooms, the pool, the cafeterias, and a factory line. We knew very well they were trying to show their best side. We smiled and nodded and did our own research anyway.

Photograph by China Photos/Getty Images

Terry Gou, chairman of Foxconn, at an award ceremony for employees.

Among those we spoke to were about two dozen workers, mostly factory personnel, who spoke without supervisors present and spoke freely. Again, Foxconn doesn’t know who we spoke with, and they never asked.

Mike Daisey claimed to have come across 12-year-old workers, armed guards, crippled factory operators. We saw none of that. And we did try to find them. Nothing would have been more compelling for us and our story than to have a chat with a preteen factory operator about how she enjoyed (or not) working 12-hour shifts making iPads. We didn’t get such an anecdote.

In our reporting, as “Inside Foxconn” detailed, we found a group of workers who have complaints, but complaints not starkly different from those of workers in any other company. The biggest gripe, which surprised us somewhat, is that they don’t get enough overtime. They wanted to work more, to get more money.

Less than a year later, I went back again with another colleague.

We went inside the same Longhua campus in Shenzhen, which required Foxconn’s approval, and chatted with workers. We stood outside the gates (possibly the same gates where Daisey claimed he found underage workers), with Foxconn unaware we were there. We wandered farther into the local neighborhood shopping strip, among the bubble-tea stands and food vendors, where the young workers went on dates and caught up with friends. These weren’t Daisey-esque scenes of woe and horror.

Rather than forced labor and sweatshop conditions, workers told of homesickness and the desire to earn more money-two impulses that seemed to drive each other for workers planning to go home once they’d earned enough. The homesickness had been alleviated, somewhat, by more Foxconn-led extra-curricular activities, with one worker elated to share that “now I have a girlfriend.” And the drive for money satiated, somewhat, by a large pay raise a few months prior.

It wasn’t paradise, either. Some workers were confused about their payslips, others said some of their managers were harsh (but none had an example of abuse or physical violence), and yet others found their job boring. Some were just plain homesick.

There are also some nasty facts, most of which I’ve written about in the past two years, including about a dozen suicides among Foxconn workers throughout China in 2010 (not just at Longhua). Workers died last year after a factory explosion that could have been prevented. Labor group SACOM was prescient in talking about the dirty conditions at Foxconn’s Chengdu facilities just before last year’s explosion. That organization and China Labor Watch have spent considerable time detailing other problems among Apple’s suppliers, such as the continued and illegal overtime. Even one death is horrible, and I remember the knot in my stomach each time I had to write about them. Yet we could do well to put that in context. As Forbes has pointed out, the number of deaths and suicides that have been reported in Foxconn’s factories indicate rates that may be lower than at other places in China—and in the U.S. You can see that in this graphic.

There are also things happening at Foxconn that just aren’t sexy to talk about: the cheap accommodation and subsidized food for workers, the Foxconn-run health centers right on campus, the salary that’s well above the government minimum and other companies, the continuous stream of young workers who still want to work there.

The problem with Mike Daisey’s lies is that they’ve painted a picture of the Evil Empire, a place devoid of any happiness or humanity. A dark, Dickensian scene of horror and tears. They also make anyone who tries to tell a fuller, more balanced account look like an Apple or Foxconn apologist because your mind is already full of the “knowledge” of how bad it is there.

To the public, a story about a 19-year-old shrugging her shoulders and claiming work is not so bad just can’t stand up against a 12-year-old working the iPad factory lines. The naïve and youthful smile of a kid having found his first girlfriend at a Foxconn work party pales in comparison to a crippled old man holding an iPad for the first time. Compared to the lies, the truth just doesn’t make good theater.

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