Public Radio International, to its credit, after some digging into claims made against Apple by Mike Daisey, not only found that he told a number of lies but also retracted its previous coverage in which PRI had assumed that he was telling the truth. All of the retraction is one direction: pointing out that the extreme claims that Daisey made about horrible working conditions were untrue.
You can read the transcript and that's normally what I do because I can read so much faster than I can listen.
In this case, though, the interview with Daisey was so revealing that I recommend that you actually listen to it. You'll need about 40 minutes. To listen, go to the retraction and click on "Play."
Rob Schmitz: Let's talk about the hexane poisoned workers. Cathy says that you did not talk to workers who were poisoned by hexane and were shaking uncontrollably.
Mike Daisey: That's correct. I met workers in Hong Kong going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was like a constant conversation we were having about those workers. So no, they were not at that meeting.
Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn't what you saw.
Mike Daisey: I wouldn't express it that way.
Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?
Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.
Ira Glass: So you didn't meet any worker who'd been poisoned by hexane?
Mike Daisey: That's correct.
In the last ten minutes, Ira Glass interviews New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, who gets to the actual facts about working conditions in China. Interestingly, Duhigg points out that long working hours are often what workers in China want because they want to make as much money as possible. So, for example, even though it's against Apple's own rules for subcontractors, some subcontractors have people working for 2 12-hour shifts in a row and some of these workers want to do this. I was reminded of my job in a nickel mine in northern Manitoba in the summer of 1969. I volunteered two different times to work 3 shifts in a row. The first time I did day shift and then night shift. The foreman found it impossible to wake me for the third shift in a row: my next day shift. I was more successful doing night shift, then day shift, then night shift. Why did I do this? Because I wanted to make overtime at time and a half. My base wage in 1969 was $3.00 and hour and time and a half was $4.50, pretty good money in 1969 for an 18-year-old.
Duhigg also gives a fascinating account of labor flexibility and supply-chain flexibility in China. He points out that one reason, besides being able to pay low wages, that Apple does so much production in China is that the firms can turn on a dime and change what they produce so much more quickly than in the United States.
Where Duhigg is incorrect or, at least, misleading, is on two further claims. Here's the first:
And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.
Those statements are factually correct. But I think Duhigg is saying that the main reason we don't have the kinds of tough working conditions that exist in China is that the U.S. government legislated against such changes. The reality is that safety is a normal good: as we get wealthier, we demand more of it. So it's the increase in real wages that drove the demand for safety. Government came late to the game.
As Kip Viscusi wrote in "Job Safety" in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Other evidence that the safety market works comes from the decrease in the riskiness of jobs throughout the century. One would predict that, as workers become wealthier, they will be less desperate to earn money and will therefore demand more safety. The historical data show that this is what employees have done and that employers have responded by providing more safety. As per capita disposable income per year rose from $1,085 (in 1970 prices) in 1933 to $3,376 in 1970, death rates on the job dropped from 37 per 100,000 workers to 18 per 100,000.
Why did he choose 1970? Trivia question: when did OSHA begin?
Also, Duhigg adds:
And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.
What Duhigg misses is what he understood earlier. Chinese people working in those conditions are actually experiencing a better combination of pay and working conditions than they had in their alternative jobs: that's why they're choosing them. So Apple is actually "exporting" better working conditions for Chinese laborers.