Like many twentysomethings living in the Northwest, I am a proud Apple devotee. Ever since the Dell laptop I’d had since high school crashed for the millionth and final time in 2008, my aluminum MacBook and I have been inseparable. I’ve laughed at my PC-owning peers whose machines regularly contract viruses; I’ve marveled at the seamless way each laptop, iPhone and tablet in this apartment syncs with my roommate’s Apple TV; and, I admit it, I’ve watched a handful of Steve Jobs presentations in awe.
Yet until recently, I never stopped to wonder why the back of each Apple product I own proudly bears the statement “designed by Apple in California” but fails to disclose where the electronics are manufactured. Now, thanks to monologist and author Mike Daisey, I know why–and part of me wishes I didn’t.
Daisey’s one-man show at Seattle Repertory Theatre, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” describes the daily lives of 450,000 workers at Foxconn, the manufacturing plant where most Apple products are made. The plant is in Shenzhen, China, a city whose name most Americans have never heard even though more than 14 million people live there. Defying others’ advice, Daisey visited the plant even after several journalists and an Associated Press photographer attempted the same and were escorted off the premises; he successfully managed to talk to hundreds of workers in their teens and 20s who were made to pull 12- to 16-hour shifts performing just one task over and over again for years on end. He heard from 20-year-olds who were crippled for life from the repetitive labor. He described how these young workers–the kind of intelligent people who here in the U.S. would go on to be doctors, lawyers and respected academics–lived in quarters nearly as cramped as those I saw at a concentration camp in Terezín. One young worker told Daisey she spent her workdays wiping thousands of iPhone screens clean; when Daisey asked her age, she said she was 13.
Most harrowing of all is the knowledge that dozens of the plant’s employees–perhaps more–have committed suicide from the top of the Foxconn building. While both Apple and Foxconn have acknowledged at least one of these deaths, neither seems to have investigated this deeply tragic trend.
Daisey’s stories left me in a temporary state of shock. That afternoon, I sat in my apartment building for a while, staring around, unable to open my laptop or turn on my cellphone. To think that my consumer tendencies were to blame for the unfair treatment of workers, many of them 10 years my junior, was heartbreaking and nauseating. How did I trick myself into believing I needed all these whirring, blinking machines? How did I live so long in blissful ignorance, not knowing the origins of my most prized electronics?
And here’s the big question everyone came out of the theater asking: If Steve Jobs knows about the working conditions at Foxconn–and he must–why hasn’t he done anything about it?
I’m now aware of and informed about workers’ horrendous treatment in Shenzhen, which Daisey says is half the battle. I’ve also spread the word, something he hoped we would all do. But still I feel I haven’t done enough. Though I’ve often felt compelled to do so in the last few days, I know throwing out every electronic device I own isn’t the answer; as a 21st-century aspiring journalist, I can’t quit blogging, Tweeting and keeping abreast of news online. Someday, I may be one of the reporters who helps expose injustices like these and forces corporations to take a harder look at their outsourcing practices.
But for now, the knowledge that I’ve informed just a few more people of Foxconn’s heinous crimes against humanity will have to sate me.