Apple got a lot of attention recently over conditions in the Chinese factories that make its iPhones and iPads. The public radio show "This American Life" aired an electrifying account of one man’s visit to several factories. The man was Mike Daisey, a storyteller who is widely credited with making people think differently about how their Apple products are made.
It’s Daisey’s story about visiting a Foxconn factory in China where Apple manufactures iPhones and other products. With the help of a Chinese translator, Daisey finds underage workers, poisoned workers, maimed workers, and dismal factory conditions for those who make iPhones and iPads.
“I’m telling you that in my first two hours at my first day at that gate I met workers who were 14 years old…13 years old…12," Daisey recounted. "Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”
Daisey told This American Life and numerous other news outlets that his account was all true.
But it wasn’t.
For the past year and a half, I’ve reported on Apple’s supply chain in China, where I work as Marketplace’s China Correspondent, based in Shanghai. When I heard Daisey’s story, certain details didn’t sound right. I tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator to see for myself.
For years, reporters in China have uncovered a sizable list of problems that have shown the dark side of what it’s like to work at factories that assemble Apple products. Mike Daisey would have you believe that he encountered—first-hand—some of the most egregious examples of this history all in just a six-day trip he took to the city of Shenzhen.
Take one example from his monologue—it takes place at a meeting he had with an illegal workers union. He meets a group of workers who’ve been poisoned by the neurotoxin N-Hexane while working on the iPhone assembly line: “…and all these people have been exposed,” he says. “Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can't even pick up a glass.”
Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator in Shenzhen, was with Daisey at this meeting in Shenzhen. I met her in the exact place she took Daisey—the gates of Foxconn. So I asked her: “Did you meet people who fit this description?”
“No,” she said.
“So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?” I continued.
Lee’s answer was the same: “No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.”
I pressed Cathy to confirm other key details that Daisey reported. Did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey? With each question I got the same answer from Lee. “No,” or “This is not true.”
Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn. He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling. But Cathy says none of this happened.
Last week, together with Ira Glass, the host of This American Life Host, I confronted Daisey in an interview. I brought up the workers he says he met who were poisoned by N-hexane. I tell him what Cathy said.
Rob Schmitz: Cathy says you did not talk to workers who were poisoned with hexane.
Mike Daisey: That’s correct.
RS: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?
MD: I wouldn’t express it that way.
RS: How would you express it?
MD: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.
Ira Glass: Did you meet workers like that? Or did you just read about the issue?
MD: I met workers in, um, Hong Kong, going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was a constant conversation among those workers.
IG: So you didn’t meet an actual worker who’d been poisoned by hexane.
MD: That’s correct.
Daisey apologized to Ira Glass for not telling the truth to him and his listeners.
“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “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.”
This American Life Retracts the Story: This American Life devoted this weekend's episode to a retraction of "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory." Listen to the full episode.
This American Life wasn’t the only journalistic outlet for Daisey. For the past year, he’s been in the news constantly: newspaper articles, op-eds, magazine profiles, online news sites. He’s made numerous television appearances—CNN, C-SPAN, Bill Maher. And he usually says things like this, from an appearance on MSNBC a month ago:
What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show (PDF) the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.
“People like a very simple narrative,” said Adam Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg who’s spent years visiting more than 150 Chinese factories. He’s writing a book about the scrap recycling industry.
He says the reality of factory conditions in China is complicated—working at Foxconn can be grueling, but most workers will tell you they’re happy to have the job. He says Daisey’s become a media darling because he’s used an emotional performance to focus on a much simpler message:
“Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good,” Minter says. “That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much traction.”
And Minter says the fact that Daisey has not told the truth to people about what he saw in China won’t have much of an impact on how the public sees this issue.
And Apple will continue to try to clean up its image. The company’s hired an independent auditor to inspect its suppliers throughout China. Charles Duhigg is a New York Times reporter who helped write an investigative series on Apple’s supply chain. He told us that it may be hard to track whether conditions are improving because Apple hasn’t yet released data that can be compared on a year-by-year basis.
“My understanding is that Apple has said that they are going to begin releasing essentially granular data, and so we're looking for that to test the claims that things are improving as a result of Apple going in and demanding changes,” Duhigg said.
And if Apple does become more transparent about its supply chain, that’ll mean one step towards better working conditions, something Mike Daisey has been fighting for all along.
Listen to the full episode of Marketplace from Friday, March 16, to hear the report with an introduction from Kai Ryssdal.