Last night on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart and Co. took on Foxconn, the giant Taiwan-based company that is often cited as the world's largest contract manufacturer of electronics, and especially Apple products -- it turns out tens of millions of iPhones and iPads annually.
The huge Foxconn complex in Shenzen, China, however, has become especially notorious for harsh working conditions, which have frequently been blamed for a rash of employee suicides.
Last night, after Stewart called the plant "an abomination," he had a little debate with Siri, the iPhone's chatty personal assistant, about the costs/benefits of cheaper Apple products at the expense of inhumane working conditions.
Stewart is not the first humorist to address the dichotomy between the company's sleek, cutting-edge products and the squalid environment the people who make them labor in. A year ago, KQED's Cy Musiker talked to monogolist Mike Daisey, whose Berkeley Rep show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs recounted his trip to Foxconn, where he gained access to workers by posing as a prospective company client.
"Rarely are two worlds more divorced that are so integrated," Daisey said. "Our choices of devices are a little bit like a religion...I was a very devout follower of Apple and of technology...the consequence of the trip for me is that I lost my faith. I don't enjoy technology...in the same way (because) I know intimately what went into their creation. We are obsessed with design, and then we do everything in our power to have no idea how these things are actually made. It's an incredible, pathetic disgrace... There's an utter silence over the entire field."
Perhaps not an utter silence, anymore. Last week, Apple announced it would become a Participating Company in the Fair Labor Association (pdf), a watchdog group that "places the onus on companies to voluntarily achieve the FLA’s labor standards in the factories manufacturing their products."
Apple’s biggest supplier, Taiwan’s Foxconn, has been a subject of scrutiny after at least 12 workers have committed suicide at its plants in China. Three died last year and more than 70 were hurt in blasts at two iPad facilities, one of which was also owned by Foxconn. In response to pressure from Apple and the media, Foxconn more than doubled wages in 2010 for some workers in China and employed counselors.
Problems, however, still remain. A protest last week "involved threats from some workers to commit suicide," according to the New York Times.
You can also listen to Mike Daisey perform an adapted excerpt from his "Steve Jobs" show at This American Life's web site.