This American Life (TAL) is an awesome program that Ira Glass and company have been producing for years. This week, for the first time, they ran a retraction of one of their recent stories: Episode 454, Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory. But the facts about Chinese labor conditions at Foxconn persist.
The retraction of the story didn’t really change the substance of the description of working conditions at the factories that make Apple products like the iPad and iPhone. Retraction | This American Life. Sure, Mr. Daisy was caught embellishing his stories by blending conversations, making up colorful asides, and making assumptions that he perhaps should not have made. After all, this tale originated as a monologue to be delivered to a live audience.
TAL took his story, which was intended to raise awareness of Chinese labor conditions while entertaining the audience, and turned it into “journalism.” After they released the story, and after it became one of the most downloaded podcasts that they ever ran, they did some after-the-fact fact checking and found some discrepancies. This week, they devoted Episode 460 to retracting Episode 454.
Notably missing from the retraction, though, was a denial of the stern labor conditions inside the factories. As Mr. Daisy described, “The Chinese work hour is a full hour: 60 full minutes, made up of 60 full seconds, routinely running 12 to 16 hours per day.” With supervisors and cameras watching every move looking to squeeze maximum efficiency from each second. No talking allowed. No breaks allowed. Endless repetitive motions, resulting in countless repetitive motion injuries. Swollen legs resulting from long hours standing. Inspections pre-announced, so that the managers have plenty of time to shuffle the players to the pre-planned satisfaction of the inspectors.
What TAL did not address in its retraction was a simple fact that many Chinese friends say is obvious to them: If you’re a Chinese laborer, and you tell a Western reporter the truth about conditions, and you are later contacted by the authorities and asked if you REALLY told the truth, what are you going to say? You’re going to say that you never said those things, that the Westerner must have gotten it all wrong, because you know full well that there is an implied threat in the fact that you’re no longer anonymous in the Chinese system. Words are dangerous things in China. It is not surprising that Cathy (the translator and tour guide in the story) would change her story to “save face” for the Chinese system at the expense of the Westerner.
The fact that TAL has retracted the story should not be interpreted as a clean report card for Apple and its suppliers. Apple should still work to demand that the workers that created Apple’s $98 billion cash-in-the-bank fortune enjoy decent working conditions and the standards that all unions work for: a living wage, a safe workplace, and the freedom to enjoy life outside of work.