Tag Archives: Apple

Bonus Friday Post (A Novel Approach, Prayer and Perspective)

I want to end this week with a couple of different thoughts I’ve been having on the Apple factory situation.

New CFML Challenge

As I said on Monday, I understand the impulse to want to tell a story, a narrative that can make people care about the conditions at the factories that make our electronics. I know there are some creative people that follow this blog and I thought it might be interesting to see what you can come up with.

Prompt: Create a story/poem/piece of artwork from the perspective of one of the actors in the Apple factory situation. It can be from the perspective of the workers, owners of the factory, Apple executives, engineers or consumers.

If anyone wants to do this please share it here.

Prayer and Perspective

We were discussing the blessing and woes section of Luke (6:20-26) in Life Group on Wednesday, and it helped to put into perspective some of the feelings I’ve been having about this whole situation. God’s really been working to challenge me on the ways my actions have an effect on others, even in indirect ways. The things that I buy, and the consumer culture I’m a part of, have an effect on the way people have to live and work. I’m really blessed, and some of it is at the cost of those who are poor.

It’s a complex situation, and one that can’t be looked at from an American perspective alone. For some of these workers, these factory conditions are better than what they were doing before, but that doesn’t make them right. Still, I think it is important to consider all sides to this story and I thought I’d share a blog post by Eugene Cho (thanks Dad for bringing this to my attention).

I particularly like the prayer at the end for the blessing of the hands of the workers who made this device I am about to enjoy. I pray that prayer before meals as well, and regardless of the way things change or stay the same, it is important to pray for those who are less fortunate than we are.

Have a good weekend!

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Once More With Feeling

“Where do we go from here?”

What are working conditions really like in the factories that make our electronics, and should we feel guilty about it? The retraction of Mike Daisey’s story from January’s This American Life prompts this question. In the third half of the TAL Retraction show Charles Duhigg, co-author of the NY Times investigative series on conditions at Foxconn, tries to answer both of these questions, and I thought it would be a good idea to present the basic arguments here.

Duhigg classifies working conditions at these factories into two categories. The first is unpleasant or harsh working conditions: long hours, low pay, repetitive labor, etc. The second, smaller category are outright safety violations resulting in worker injury or death.

There have been some recent reports of safety violations that have resulted in two explosions at different factories. The second of these, months after the first, has been in the news lately, as it has recently come to light that Apple inspectors had just checked out the plant mere hours before the explosion. The root cause of both explosions was build up and ignition of aluminum dust, a problem which can be easily addressed with proper ventilation. These incidents, while isolated, are appalling especially given the amount of time between them to correct the fault.

But again, the amount of safety violations is relatively small. The real story is the amount of hours workers are required to work, and the conditions of that work. Duhigg states that worker overtime is one of the biggest problems, and one that can be looked at from two perspectives. The workers may be demanding this overtime in order to earn more money for their families back home, or the workers may be coerced into worker longer hours for fear of job loss or not being able to get overtime when desired.

Duhigg then outlines what some of the costs would be to manufacture the iPhone, and other products like it in America. Labor is not a significant part of the cost of an electronic device, and estimates vary widely as to how much more it would cost in America (from $10 to $65 a device). Some might consider this a lot, but when we’re talking about iPads, which already cost in the $499 – $649 range, we’re not significantly changing the market for those devices by passing that increased cost fully onto the consumer. If an iPad cost $50 more or less, I’m still not buying one.

Do we really need any of these things? My experience, and the experience of most people I talk to, is that we live just fine without an electronic gadget until we buy one. Then it becomes a “need” and we cannot find a way to de-integrate it from our lives. Checking e-mail everywhere we are is not a necessity, even in business. Some people (managers/CEOs/project leads) need real time communication, but those of us in the cubicle trenches, we can wait until we can check it on our desktops or laptops.

Duhigg’s final argument is I think the most interesting, and one I’ve touched on a little before. We used to have conditions like the ones in China during the industrial age of our country. And then we had a labor movement, we formed unions, and we fought for better working standards, better pay, saner hours, healthcare. We can manufacture these products under American standards, it just might cost us a little more to do it and force us to separate our needs form our wants. If we don’t, then we are exporting the harsh labor conditions we fought in this country to get rid of. In another century, who will the Chinese export their labor standards to?

Are working conditions something we only care about for ourselves? We’re a nation that seems to care about others. We  try to spread democracy, give humanitarian aid, prevent genocide, and in general spread the American dream beyond our borders. Why then do we think differently about our gadgets?

Maybe that’s the kind of thinking differently Steve Jobs meant.

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Pushing Daiseys

“Inspired by true events”

These four words should precede Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed stage play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. Instead the events presented in this monologue, detailing Mike Daisey’s 2010 trip to Foxconn and other factories that manufacture Apple products, are presented as the truth, or at least they were when a portion of this stage play was excerpted on This American Life.

Last Friday, This American Life host and producer Ira Glass issued a press release stating they were retracting their January show, which had featured a 39 minute excerpt of Daisey’s stage play, because it “contained significant fabrications … we can’t vouch for its truth.” The story of this retraction was featured on last weekend’s TAL episode, which you can listen to here.

The fabrications consist of exaggerations regarding the amount of workers interviewed and factories visited, as well as meetings with workers that never took place. Two significant examples of this were meetings with workers who had been exposed to n-hexane, a neuro-toxin that was used in the cleaning of some iPhone screens, and with a worker with crippled hands seeing an iPad for the first time. In the case of the n-hexane exposure, Daisey admits he inserted this detail from a story that happened in a different factory 1000 miles away and that he never met workers who were exposed to n-hexane. In the case of the crippled worker, Daisey’s translator, whose name Daisey lied about, disputes his account of events saying this incident, which is one of the most emotional moments of the stage play and the TAL show. never happened.

“My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” Daisey responded to questions from Ira Glass and Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who first broke the story. Daisey later went on to say that he stands by the work as a piece of theater.

This gets into the troubling part of this story. What Daisey says about many of the conditions at Apple factories is true. Where he lied is his own experiences, the ones he talks about in his monologue. The monologue is a work of fiction, strung together from real things that have happened, just not to him, and not all in the same area. It is a simple narrative designed to tug at the heart strings, which I can attest it is very effective at doing.

I understand this idea of trying to tell a truth in a fictional way, because when I first heard these stories I was inspired to do much the same thing. The result, my short story “Competitive Edge“. There’s a proud tradition in science fiction of talking about societal problems in a fictional context, from Orwell to Heinlein to Star Trek. TAL itself has used fictional stories to highlight ideas about every facet of life, from love to job loss to rejection. In this case, however, Daisey’s story has a more documentary feel, and is presented if not “as” then certainly “like” journalism.

There’s a marked contrast between the way Daisey talks about this mistake and the way Ira Glass talks about it. When confronted with the fact that he had lied about the n-hexane workers Daisey’s response is “I wouldn’t express it that way.” In contrast Ira clearly calls the decision to run the story “a mistake” and is very clear about the fact that while Daisey had lied, it was ultimately TAL’s responsibility in not killing the story. Rob Schmitz describes talking to Daisey as “exhausting” and listening to the interview I would agree. I kept wanting Daisey to admit that he had lied openly, to “man up”. Instead he kept coming back to this idea that the cause and the “truth” of the problems was more important and that he wanted to construct this show to get people’s attention on this issue.

Again, I sympathize. I’m trying to do the same thing with the stories and blog posts I write about this issue. But I can’t help but think that Daisey’s approach lacked rigor. On TAL he exaggerated the number of factories he visited and workers he talked to, perhaps in an attempt to make it sound like he had been more thorough than he really had been. I’m not a giant fan of Michael Moore’s, but I was contrasting Daisey’s story to Moore’s first documentary Roger & Me. As with all documentaries there is definitely a narrative being told, but the amount of “boots on the ground” work that Moore did is astronomical when compared to Daisey. If Daisey had really wanted to construct a stage show based on the truth he should have spent several months in Shenzhen not several days, and let the truth speak for itself.

Daisey was not how I first heard about this issue. It was Jon Stewart, and I find it kind of amusing that Stewart’s story had more journalistic integrity than one presented on TAL, both shows I love. When Stewart is at his best he is telling the truth, and it’s the truth itself that is funny, or his reaction to it. The conditions at these factories are appalling, and are not in need of embellishment.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about the second half of the TAL program, regarding what is true, and how we should feel about it.

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Amazon’s Secret eBook Deal (and other headlines from the Pricing Wars)

Today only you can buy Michael Lewis’ Moneyball from Amazon for only $0.25 cents! This isn’t the Kindle Daily Deal, or even an official Amazon deal.

Actually, it’s Google’s “Play of the Day“. Since the launch last week of Google’s new service, Google Play, Amazon has been price matching this “Play of the Day” under the terms of their licensing agreement. Any book sold on Amazon cannot be sold for cheaper anywhere else. If it is, they price match, hence the super secret $0.25 cent Amazon deal.

These new deals come in the same week the justice department warned Apple and five publishing firms that it may sue them for price collusion. Under an agreement between the publishers and Apple, publishers would pay a flat 30% fee to Apple for each eBook sold in return for the ability to set their own prices. Additionally, books sold on Apple must be the same price as books sold in other venues, and other vendors must agree to the Apple price. Ostensibly the reason for this was to break an Amazon monopoly on eBooks.  According to Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post:

“What looked to consumers like a great bargain at $9.99 a book looked to others in the industry suspiciously like predatory pricing, or selling below cost today in order to gain a monopoly and raise prices in the future.”

Amazon seems to love the $9.99 price point, and has been incentivizing authors who participate in Kindle Direct Publishing to publish to sell their books between $2.99 and $9.99 in return for a 70% royalty. Outside of this range the royalty is 35%, meaning an author would need to sell an eBook at $19.99 to make the same royalty as selling it for $9.99. But is this predatory pricing? How is Amazon’s “price-match guarantee” different from the Apple proposal?

The difference is pretty simple. Amazon does not want any other vendors to sell a book cheaper than they do and so they lower their price to match. Authors can set an upper bound on price (the digital list price), but the selling price is determined in real time by Amazon. Apple and the five publishers, on the other hand, want to establish an agreed upon list price, and not allow other vendors to sell the eBook for cheaper than that price.

Where this becomes a concern, as Pearstein writes, is in the “winner take all” environment of digital content. Consumers will tend to stay with who they started to build their media library with, especially since the costs in terms of new devices, or repurchasing media can be high. (In my view one way to remove this “winner take all” property is to remove DRM from the associated materials and to allow content from one seller to be read on a multitude of devices. Baen publishing takes this stance with its eBooks which are DRM free and provided in all major eReader formats. Amazon MP3 is another example of this in the digital music arena.)

Both sides are interested in making sure that neither side has an unfair advantage in attracting new customers, because those customers are likely to stay where they start.

For the moment, it seems like Apple’s tactics are considered price collusion, but their concerns about Amazon’s monopoly may be addressed on another front with Google’s revamp of Google Books as part of Google Play. Google is reportedly producing a tablet to compete with the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet.

What do you think is a fair price for eBooks and who should be determining it (Authors\Publishers\Vendors\Consumers)?

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Apples To Apples

Do we care about labor conditions in other countries?

Last week Apple announced the Fair Labor Association would be inspecting Foxconn and other factories that manufacture Apple products. Preliminary reports are coming out that Foxconn has “tons of issues“, details of which should be coming out on FLA’s website in March. Foxconn has made an effort to raise salaries, which does seem to be a step in the right direction, but there are still many issues to be addressed.

But, whether or not the FLA is effective in its audit (which sometimes is in doubt), and whether or not workers salaries increase, are we going to change our behavior if conditions do not get better?

Jordan Terry of Forbes thinks we won’t. In a blog post from yesterday “So What If Apple Has A Chinese Labor Problem?“, Terry conducts a detailed financial analysis on the impact to Apple’s sales and share price of the Foxconn issue, and potential solutions to it.

I’d like to address two assertions Terry makes in this article:

1) There’s a “cognitive dissonance” in protestors who are at the same time carrying Apple products.

2) Our country has enough issues to deal with to worry about labor practices overseas.

Let’s address the cognitive dissonance first. Terry is right that sub-optimal working conditions in China are nothing new, and it hasn’t seemed to bother us before. As previously stated here, I think we all had an idea of what conditions were like, but convinced ourselves that they were only a little worse. But now that we know, should we continue to use technology or change our buying and using behavior?

It’s tough in this world to be completely pure. I like the romantic idea of a grassroots movement traveling via only world of mouth to convince people to stop buying Apple or any other electronics until practices change. But that would deprive this movement of the effective social tools of this decade, social media and twitter, and even things like this blog. Like it or not, we live in a technological world, and at least for the things we already own, there isn’t a lot we can do about it so we might as well use it.

It’s that future device that makes all the difference. Terry makes the assertion that it would be difficult for Apple people to be caught dead with a non-Apple product. Whether or not this is true, it’s missing the point. All electronics are bad apples in this fight. Foxconn supplies all of them, and it is not the only company with sub-par labor conditions. The question is are we willing to not buy any new electronics until something changes? That’s a tough sell, and leads us to the next issue Terry raises.

Should we solve our own problems first before worrying about those in other countries? I think morally we know the answer to this question. American businesses, justified by capitalism or not, are responsible for their actions in hiring Foxconn to do the work. It might be (and is) a perfectly sound business decision, but it compromises other values in the process. It doesn’t matter that we’ve got a lot of other things on our mind right now, it’s our responsibility. It may be difficult to enforce labor laws in other countries, but just because it is difficult doesn’t make it worth doing.

How do we get people to care? By educating ourselves, by raising awareness, and asking questions of the companies that make our favorite gadget, and perhaps being willing to sacrifice our next new toy. I respond by writing stories, maybe you do art, or writing your own article, or telling a couple of your friends. Whatever you do, do something.

You can share your thoughts and responses on our CFML page or on the Facebook group, or right here!

Note: It can be difficult to find news stories once something has passed out of the news cycle. A good newsletter for tech news is http://www.circuitnet.com/ where I found most of the stories for today’s post.


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Where Does My Stuff Come From?

Why did I write yesterday’s story?

The idea came from something I first saw on the Daily Show. In the segment, Jon Stewart describes the conditions at the “Fear Factory”. Workers are underpaid, forced to work long shifts in total silence. They live in dorms with 13-14 strangers in a 10′ x 10′ room, with bunks stacked 6 high.

Some of the workers jumped from the top of the building rather than continuing to work under those conditions. Their supervisors put up nets to catch them. The nets didn’t work.

This is the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, and they make most of the electronics we know and love.

Foxconn has contracts with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, ASUS, HP, Samsung, Toshiba, the list goes on. They make the iPad, the iPhone, the Xbox, the Kindle I bought my dad for Christmas, and maybe even the netbook I’m posting from. My Kindle Fire was not made by Foxconn, but they have a contract for the new 10.1” version.

I knew my stuff came from China, and so did you. I think we all have this idea that conditions aren’t quite as good as America, but that things are basically the same. We envision large efficient machines, or thousands of workers in lab coats. We even resent these people, for taking the job from us.

I type for a living. I write code, e-mails, short-stories, novels and this blog. I’m  at a risk for carpal-tunnel or some other repetitive stress injury if I’m not careful, but that’s probably a long way off. By 26, my current age, many of these workers have ruined their hands forever. Their hands shake like someone in their seventies with crippling arthritis. And then they’re out of a job.

When I first heard these stories it hit me like a punch in the gut. I’m not an Apple guy, but I do love my gadgets as much as the next person. I like that the price of these toys has been coming down. I even have a little of the tech-geek alpha male in me, wanting to have the latest thing and the widest array of technology. I’m one of the reasons these people have to work harder than I can possibly imagine. I’m complicit in their suffering, whether I knew it or not.

Apple is investigating the working conditions at this and other factories. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the other companies that partner with Foxconn do the same. I could be comforted by this. I could think Apple will do the right thing, and that I don’t need worry about it. I think that’s what a lot of us do. We hear about something that makes us angry, maybe a little guilty, and we let it go at the first hint of something being done about it, with no follow-through.

That’s not good enough.

My wife and I have formed a Facebook group, Consumers for Fairness in Manufacturing and Labor (CFML). Our challenge is simple:

1) Pick ONE electronic device you own (cell phone, eReader, tablet, computer, etc.). It can be your latest gadget, or a device you use all the time.

2) Find out where your device was made.

3) Find out how much the workers who made your device are paid, the hours they work, and the conditions they work and live in.

4) Post what you’ve learned on the Facebook page, this blog or share it with your friends.

We’ll be on a lighter note tomorrow on the blog, but I really hope you’ll take some time to learn more about this. Thanks in advance!

NOTE: I’ve been learning a lot about this subject the last couple of weeks, and have posted a number of links in the Facebook group. One that I would highlight in particular is “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory”, which was featured recently on This American Life. The NY Times featured Foxconn as well in an article last Thursday found here.

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