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Mike Daisey goes after Apple, Jobs

Mike Daisey flew to China to investigate how those smooth, beautifully designed hand-held gizmos are made. What he found was horrific labor conditions and the use of crippling, repetitive motions.

world Updated: Oct 15, 2011 13:57 IST

Normally, the launch of a new Apple device such as the iPhone 4S would make Mike Daisey salivate. But not this year.

Daisey, a monologuist in the vein of Spalding Gray and a recovering "Apple fanboy," has not upgraded his phone since flying to China to investigate how those smooth, beautifully designed hand-held gizmos are made.

What he found was horrific labor conditions, impossibly long hours and the use of crippling, repetitive motions. He met very young factory workers whose joints in their hands were damaged because they performed the same action thousands of times a shift.

"I was woefully ignorant most of my life. Even though I love the devices deeply, I never had any idea how they were made and never thought about it in the least," says Daisey, who had assumed robots put together his iPad and iPhone.

"I know that people in charge know about these things and chose not to address them," he adds. "And that's hard to swallow when you see the damage it does and you know how little it would take to ameliorate a high degree of human suffering."

Daisey's undercover investigation forms the backbone of his latest monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," which he began working on 16 months ago and has had to alter to acknowledge the death this month of the Apple co-founder.

"In a profound way, this will reinvent the monologue," Daisey says. "The context of it shifts so much that it will be like blowing a wind through it. I think it's going to stir up a lot of things."

While the piece specifically targets Apple, most of what he discovered is applicable to all high-tech manufacturers. Daisey has performed the new monologue for some 50,000 people from Seattle, Washington, to Washington, DC, and it is now at The Public Theater in New York until mid-November.

The death of Jobs did not prompt Daisey to pull any punches. While he considers the man a visionary, he also calls him a "brutal tyrant" who "failed to think different about anything."

"When the design is really good, it connects to the human and actually creates empathy with the devices, so it's really absurd how there's no empathy between the people running the company and their own workers," says Daisey.

Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey's frequent director and also his wife, says her husband's sense of betrayal is heightened by his great respect for Apple and his belief that Jobs could have fundamentally changed the lives of his workers but chose not to.

"Steve Jobs really was a hero to Mike and I think there was a part of him that really hoped that perhaps the fact of this monologue might actually cause Steve to change the way that he practices business," she says.

Daisey's eyes were opened when, posing as a businessman, he traveled to the Chinese industrial zone of Shenzhen and interviewed hundreds of workers outside the gates of the secretive Foxconn Technology Group, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer. A string of suicides at the heavily regimented factories also have drawn attention to conditions faced by workers inside.

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, says the company has long required its suppliers to commit to a code of conduct. Its representatives visit suppliers to check compliance and do follow-up audits to verify that corrections are made. It also has implemented training initiatives to educate workers on the rights and protections available to them.

"Apple is committed to driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply chain," Dowling said. "We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made."

Daisey is not holding his breath. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak saw the monologue and apparently cried, but Daisey says Apple has not changed its practices. And Daisey says that Tim Cook, Jobs' hand-picked successor, is part of the problem. "Tim Cook is personally responsible for the deals with Foxconn and the way things are set up today," he says.

Having to confront how his beloved devices are assembled has profoundly changed Daisey, who, simply as a way to relax, used to strip his MacBook Pro down to its 43 component parts and then reassemble it.

"It ruined my hobby," says Daisey. "It died the way that things we love often die: We still go through the motions, but fundamentally the connection is not what it was. And so I don't take the pleasure that I used to from my devices at all."

To those who argue that improving conditions for workers will only jack up the costs of our phones and tablets, Daisey shakes his head. "The labor cost of an iPhone is about $8," he says. "Eight dollars! We do this thing to ourselves where we make excuses for why we don't do anything, why we don't hold anyone accountable."