‘This American Life’ Revives Debate over Apple Manufacturer Foxconn’s Labor Practices

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In the beginning of the latest episode of This American Life, Ira Glass asks Siri on his iPhone 4S “Where were you manufactured?”

Its reply is telling: “I’m not allowed to say.” Not “I don’t know,” but “I’m not allowed to say,” as if Siri were a nervous government employee in a North Korean embassy.

Thus Chicago Public Radio’s twee radio institution revives a simmering debate in predictably twee fashion: through the eyes of a one-man show.

(MORE: Your Next Job: Made in India or China)

The episode follows Mike Daisey — a hardcore techie and the man behind The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — to China in 2010 to meet the people who makes the Apple products he’s obsessed with.

He visits Shenzhen, a city he describes as looking like “Bladerunner threw up on itself” with polluted air that feels like a “booted foot pressing down on your chest.” His destination is Foxconn, the manufacturing behemoth that makes products for Apple, Dell and many others.

He and his translator take a blunt approach to finding out the true story behind Foxconn’s notoriously suspect working conditions: simply venturing up to the factory gate and asking workers about their lives.

Afterwards he poses as a businessman, which allows him to wander from factory to factory accompanied by eager executives. During his time there he talks to 13- and 14-year-old workers who claim they lied about their ages to get hired, hears about a man who dies after working a 34-hour shift and finds a blacklist from China’s labor board that reads “The following is a list of troublemakers. If any of them are found in your employ, dismiss them immediately.”

It was obviously impossible for This American Life to fact-check a lot of Daisey’s claims, although a few experts do go on the show to say that none of them sound too outlandish. Regardless if everything is 100% correct, what the episode does do is raise the issue of labor practices in a thriving industry that people often give a free pass to.

MIT’s Technology Review has a report from Oekom (a sustainable investment research firm) that singles out the electronics industry as the worst violator of labor rights in the world — worse than textiles, chemicals and even mining. The same insatiable hunger for new and better products that make the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) such a hit also puts tremendous pressure on manufacturers to always be producing more for less.

The issue is, would people be willing to pay more for “fair-trade” electronics? Paying an extra $2 for a cup of coffee is one thing; paying an extra $50 or $100 for an iPad that’s already costing you $499 is another.

As a lover of cool gadgets and, yes, all things Apple, it’s definitely difficult to consider what goes into making my electronics. This issue is not going to dissapear on its own, however; eventually we’re going to have to consider the real price of the products we love.

MORE: How Foxconn’s Million-Machine ‘Robot Kingdom’ Will Change the Face of Manufacturing