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Reporters' Roundtable: Apple's China problem

iPhones, iPads, and most other small electronics are assembled in vast factories in China. Reports on working conditions at these plants are not favorable. We talk with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg and monologuist Mike Daisey.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

NOTE: Please read our update on this episode: The Mike Daisey retraction. Also see the editor's note below.

Apple is the most valuable U.S. company there is, and the most powerful and influential consumer electronics company by far. It is obscenely profitable.

This amazing success is built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of factory workers, almost all of them in China, who assemble iPhones, and other products from other vendors, in giant, science-fiction-scale plants that never stop.

These plants take their toll. On workers in China. And on jobs here in the United states.

Two recent pieces of outstanding journalism highlight the issues. First, there's a series developing in The New York Times, co-authored by Charles Duhigg, that kicked off in the Sunday edition: "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work." A follow-on piece, "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad," ran Wednesday.

Second, a "This American Life" episode, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," has reignited interest in monologuist Mike Daisey's report of his trip to visit the birthplace of his iPhone, the Foxconn plant in China.

Today we have both Charles Duhigg and Mike Daisey on the Roundtable, and we're going to talk about Apple's muscle, how it works with Chinese manufacturing companies, if there's any chance that manufacturing could return to the U.S. And if it would be a good thing if it did.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has responded to the emerging reports on working conditions at Apple's device manufacturers. I discussed this response with Duhigg in a separate interview, which is at the end of this Roundtable (at the 24-minute mark, if you want to go straight there).

Editor's note, March 19, 2012: "This American Life" announced late last week that it's retracting a story it did recently about working conditions at Foxconn that included an interview with Mike Daisey as well as an excerpt from his monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." It said it was doing so because of "numerous fabrications" it found. CNET's Josh Lowensohn has the details in this story. Daisey's own statement is on his Web site. A recent investigative report by The New York Times looked at working conditions in Apple's supply chain in China.


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Discussion points:
Why are iPhones and iPads (and Android phones and HP laptops...etc.) manufactured in China?

Products are global. Why are we talking about where they are manufactured?

What's more important: Where things are made, or how workers are treated?

Let's talk about the factories that make these devices.

Have working conditions improved since stories about them started to appear, more than a year ago?

What are Apple's policies? Can you compare to other companies?

Can Apple innovate in this areas?

How would the plants be different if they were in the U.S.? More automated?

Don't we have supply chain expertise here? If Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and BMW can bring manufacturing to the U.S., why can't Apple?

Do consumers care? What would they pay for "exploitation-free" gadgets?

Discussion with Charles Duhigg about the new Tim Cook memo on working conditions.

More from our guests:
Charles Duhigg has a new book coming out in a month called "The Power of Habit." It's available for preorder on Amazon.

Mike Daisey is re-opening "The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs," with updates based on the New York Times series. It will be at the Public Theater in New York for five more weeks, starting January 31.