Ethical Apple: The iPhone Monologues

I’ve been a fan of US storyteller Mike Daisey ever since I saw his 21 Dog Years show in a special UK performance at TUC towers in 2005. His current venture (a year old now but on a re-run in US theatres) is particularly interesting for me though, after the time I’ve spent of late looking into ethics issues in smartphone manufacture. Wanting to know more about the origins of his iPad, he took it with him in 2010 to the gates of Shenzhen’s Foxconn consumer electronics mega-plant.

The resulting show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”, deals with his Apple fandom (well, no-one’s perfect…) and its wider world implications. I’ve not seen the show sadly (he doesn’t appear this side of the pond too often), but I’ve been fascinated to listen to half of it, via a recent episode of the US radio show This American Life.

It’s well worth checking out, as Daisey is always a compelling presenter, and host Ira Glass mixes up bits of his monologue with interview snippets with Mike and others, including SACOM’s Debby Chan Sze Wan, to investigate Mike’s claims more fully.

This is a really personally brave venture from Daisey, and he tells a really compelling story. I met him briefly around the TUC event, and was struck by his openness and honesty in pretty much everything, and that’s a trait that comes through here in how he reacts to what Chinese electronics workers and trades unionists tell him on his trip, and how he reconciles this with his own technology(/Apple) obsession. Here’s hoping he brings it on tour to the UK, so we can catch the rest of it (I’m guessing most of the show’s laughs probably come in the part not included here!).

And in other news (from Good Electronics), there’s a glimmer of light that Mike’s work and the tireless activism of SACOM and many others could be starting to pay off. Apple have announced they’ve joined the Fair Labor Association (something sort of akin to a US ‘lite’ version of our own Ethical Trading Initiative),the first electronics firm to do so.

This could be fantastic news as it’s a concrete first step, enrolling Apple in a monitoring and certification programme that ties them to achieving standards in inspections within two years. However, campaigners will need to keep up the pressure for a second step, as there’s a perception that unless it’s done with real commitment, the FLA can often be used by bad firms as something of a shield against calls for real reform.

The scheme doesn’t engage meaningfully with independent trade unions for a more sustainable way of getting issues addressed in a work place. Unless this happens, as Mike Daisey found out in Shenzhen, it’s none too hard for companies with prior warning to pass a one-off inspection every few years and yet still have massive rights infringements despite any number of shiny awards.

If Apple are only after a badge that they can wave around noisily, to hope all those nasty campaigners, unions and investigative journalists go away and let business go on 95% as usual, then this is how they’d do it.

Of course if they’re after addressing the issues in a genuine way, and taking a leading role in the electronics industry (as I reckon would make real sense for them, given that they need to spend the inflated price premium that they use to keep up their brand image on something, and it would be a key selling point for them as a brand based as much around aspiration as around the tech itself), this would also be the first step in how they’d do it.

The jury’s out so far, but I’m excited to see at least a move has been made. D’oh! I’d hate to have to eat my iHat and stop hating on Apple, but this is probably the most interesting step made so far in the smartphone sector.

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