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Off-Broadway Play 'The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' Hits a Nerve

  • Carolyn Weaver

Since the posting of this story, it has come to light that Mike Daisey fabricated many critical aspects of his show, including lying about actually talking to some of the people he references. Daisey told the public radio program “This American Life” that his show should be seen as theater, not journalism. Read the Marketplace story about the new developments.

Few playwrights can claim social impact for their work, much less that it helped move one of the richest companies on Earth to investigate conditions at factories in China. Writer-actor Mike Daisey, whose one-man Off-Broadway show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about working conditions at Apple’s Chinese manufacturers, is an exception.

Daisey, a self-described computer geek, says he has long loved all things Apple, the computer company co-founded by the late Steve Jobs.

“I never knew I needed a laptop so thin I could slice a sandwich with it,” Daisey says at one point in the show. “But then I saw it, and I wanted it! And now, some of you out there in the darkness, watching me, are thinking, ‘Mike, use a knife.’ But I say, in a better designed world, I would only need one tool -- the tool that Steve has given me!”

Although the two-hour monologue is often funny, it is motivated by moral indignation. Daisey says he had always assumed that Apple computers and mobile phones were made in pristine factories, perhaps by robots. But in 2010, he heard news reports of harsh working conditions and suicides at Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier in China. So he went to Shenzhen, China and posed as a businessman to tour electronics factories. And he interviewed Foxconn workers.

“What I found had been widely reported by human rights groups for almost a decade,” he said in an interview. “Child labor, rampant; incredible hours, people working 14, 15, 16 hours a day. People working so long that they drop from exhaustion, or die on the line. A worker at Foxconn died after working a 34-hour shift while I was there.”

Foxconn factories in southern China produce many of the world's electronic goods - not only Apple products, but also Dell, Samsung, Sony and other brands. Its plants are huge. One has more than 400,000 workers, including many who live in crowded dormitories. Two explosions at Apple suppliers last year, including one at a Foxconn factory, killed four workers and injured 74 others. Both explosions reportedly were caused by aluminum dust in unventilated rooms.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment. But in a written statement, Foxconn said it is committed to ensuring the highest health and safety standards. It said employees are not overworked, and that 95 percent of its employees work sitting down. The company said it recently raised wages and that it was cutting overtime.

Finance expert Baizhu Chen of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business says Foxconn pays well for China, and that teenagers falsify their ages to be hired.

“And when they started opening the factory in Chengdu, people line up, because they offer a higher wage than other competitors. In fact, Foxconn bid up the wages of the other manufacturers.”

Chen notes that although China has very strict labor laws, they often are not enforced. Playwright Mike Daisey says that Apple, although a perfectionist about its products, chose to ignore how they were made, because it cared more for higher profits.

“Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?” Daisey asks near the end of his show. “In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just-so, with the glass fitting perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know? Or are they just doing what we’re all doing? Do they just see what they want to see?”

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” has won rave reviews, and helped spur protests. “We’re asking Apple for an ethical iPhone," said one demonstrator at a recent protest at an Apple store in New York. Daisey says such raised awareness by American users of Apple products was his goal.

“When we empathize - when we actually believe that the people in those circumstances are real people - then we begin to actually think about what their labor circumstances are. We actually begin to care,” he said.

Following a January 2012 New York Times series detailing problems at Apple’s China suppliers, Apple joined the Fair Labor Association - a manufacturers’ group that establishes workplace standards and monitors conditions at factories. The FLA has begun an investigation of Apple suppliers in China. Critics say the FLA is not tough or independent because Apple is paying for the investigation. But others, like analyst Baizhu Chen, call it a good first step.

“Apple should ask its suppliers to follow the laws and the rules, and make sure they are constantly monitoring the investigation to make sure they follow Chinese laws and Chinese rules,” he said.

Mike Daisey agrees and says that Apple could set a new standard overnight in China that all the electronics industry would follow.

“People have an enormous respect for Apple, even now,” he said. “And as this issue attaches itself to the brand, it will not take long before it is inseparable from it. They could turn it around today.”

Daisey said he would be happy if reforms instituted by Apple rendered his play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” obsolete. In the meantime, he recently made the monologue free for anyone to perform. He said he has received requests from 500 groups in 11 countries, but none yet from China.

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