Mike Daisey is theatrical storyteller who recently traveled to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, which Andrew Keen of TechCrunch describes as the:

…430,000 person factory that manufactures around 50% of all the personal communications devices used in America.

iPhone 4 videophoto © 2010 Robert Scoble | more info (via: Wylio)

After reading Devin Coldewey’s post on TechCruch, “Our Great Sin,” I watched all of the video clips included in the recent posts, “Exposed: Apple’s Terrible Sin in China” and “Why Journalists Aren’t Reporting the Real Story about Apple and Foxconn.” As Mike acknowledges in the videos, however, it’s not fair to single Apple out on the topic of manufacturing ethics. He states NO consumer electronics used in the United States today, which are manufactured in China, are created under humane and ethical working conditions. This is a statement which should get our attention, and definitely gets mine. If you watch any of the following five clips, watch this first one.

Mike Daisey argues we need to raise awareness of these issues today so nonprofit advocacy groups can begin petitioning companies (like Apple) to make changes in their contracted factories. This reminds me of Upton Sinclair and his 1906 clarion call for reforms in the meatpacking industry in “The Jungle.” Daisey is calling for a similar movement today in the technology arena.

As I showed the third video embedded above to my 13 year old son tonight, I explained part of my take: Corporations today have far too much power. I think the work of groups like The Sunlight Foundation and individuals like Larry Lessig is critical to move the agenda of reducing corporate influence in our society forward. See my post from February 2008, “The Corporation documentary: A big eye opener” for more on this.

I’m not ready to lead the charge at this point to insist our tech companies take action to humanize working conditions in China, but I certainly stand ready to join others who are. When those advocacy groups and opportunities present themselves (and I’m sure they will) please let me know, and I’ll be sure to pass along the info. We SHOULD use the communication tools at our fingertips (as well as our other resources and skills) to make the world a more humane and gentle place. I found it very interesting Daisey, Keene, and Coldewey used the word “sin” in their interviews and posts. That’s a word which has fallen out of mainstream fashion, but remains not only appropriate but also needed for dialog about ethics and morality in our “modern” age.

In his opinion piece tonight, Coldwewey is very pessimistic about change. He writes:

So will we change our culture? It’s more likely that the current situation will only get worse, the way it’s been getting worse for decades. Globalization reduces our grip on the way things are run, with predictable results — but the alternative is, of course, higher prices. You do the math.

I beg to differ. Would readers of Sinclair in 1907 have said the same thing? “We can’t change the world, it’s too big. It will cost too much money. The companies won’t change.” Would they have been right? Yes and no. Changes were made, but “eternal vigilance” is not only the “price of liberty,” it’s also the price of a just society. We have moral obligations to work for a more just society at the micro and macro levels. William Wilberforce didn’t resign himself to accept slavery as “the way it’s always been, the way it has to be.” Neither should we when it comes to the inhumane treatment of workers in tech factories in China. Giving up isn’t an option.

One important thing we SHOULD do is support the causes of free expression and press freedom in China. If we look at the influential factors which led to industrial age changes in working conditions, child protection laws, etc. in the United States and other Western nations, the vital roles of free expression and press freedom are clear. What organizations are promoting these ideals today in China? I’m not sure, but one straightforward action step would be to identify those groups and support their work financially. If you have suggestions, please share them.

Daisey’s documentary monologue he created after his visit to Shenzhen is “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” It’s showing at the Berkeley Rep Theater through February 27th, but hopefully it will be digitally distributed as a film in the near future. Somehow I doubt it will be available as a rental on iTunes.

A three minute tailer by Daisey about his documentary monologue is available on YouTube.

For more about Larry Lessig’s campaign to reduce the influence of money on US politics (and therefore the power / influence of corporations on our society) see this 7.5 minute video from October 2007.

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2 Responses to Do You Know? The Ethics of Technology Sweatshops

  1. Stemchef says:

    I want to thank you for this post. I admit that I had not thought much about how my laptop was made. Even when I did think about off-shore manufacturing, it was in a vague way. I had fuzzy notions that I would be willing to pay more for products, but I never asked myself how much more or what I could do to make better working conditions a reality. I still do not appreciate the entire picture, but I can do my own research. Likewise, I can also help raise awareness. As an educator in science and technology, I cannot ignore the ethics of the fields. Broaching this topic with my students may be a small step, but a necessary one.

  2. Jacob Gonyea says:

    I found this post very interesting, especially the comment concerning globablization. I feel the issue of globalization is a hot topic in the economical climate of the world today. More so on the micro level with individuals in less developed countries becoming more affected by goverments wanting to make more money on the macro level.

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