Apple in China: Real problems vs. fabrications

I've been out of the office, and will be for another week, but this merits mention: Mike Daisey's widely quoted account of labor conditions at an Apple contractor's plant in China has been retracted by This American Life, the radio show that broadcast it, for what host Ira Glass calls "significant fabrications."

I cited Daisey's report in a column two weeks ago about Apple's China problems, though I also noted that Apple was quietly questioning some of Daisey's most dramatic assertions, including the presence of underage workers at a Foxconn final-assembly plant.

In a blog post, Glass says the fabrications included some of those assertions:

Daisey's interpreter Cathy [Lee] also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey's story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey's iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:

He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, "he says it's a kind of magic."

Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.

You can listen to the retraction, or find a transcript, by clicking here.  Despite its embarrassment, This American Life wisely tries to focus its latest account on the problems that Apple has publicly acknowledged at plants in its supply chain. For instance, as I wrote two weeks ago, Apple's "Supplier Code of Conduct" limits workers to 60 hours per week, and requires at least one day off out of seven. Yet Apple own 2012 "supplier responsibility" report said that more than half of the workers at each of 93 facilities had labored more than 60 hours during at least one week in a 12-week sample. And more than half the employees at 90 plants had worked more than six days in a row at least once per month. (You can find Apple's reports here.)

Apple deserves credit for its transparency, and genuinely seems focused on improving conditions for those who make its dazzling products.  But Daisey's journalistic sins shouldn't obscure the fact that conditions at plants that make products for Apple - and for virtually all its high-tech competitors - would violate norms throughout the West, and sometimes pose threats to workers' health and safety.