What Henry Blodget Didn’t Get About Foxconn

On Friday, China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that claims to be “dedicated to promoting workers’ fair redistribution of wealth under globalization,” announced that a “large-scale strike” had shut down a Foxconn factory that manufactures the iPhone 5. The group didn’t cite its sources for the story, but that didn’t stop several major news organizations (the credulous Reuters report was syndicated across multiple platforms) from parroting the press release, often verbatim. It was also picked up by several notable bloggers and commentators, including Henry Blodget, co-founder, CEO, and editor of The Business Insider. Below, a screen grab of Blodget’s Friday afternoon editorial.

On first glance, the photo is the perfect complement to the headline: young Asian women in red sashes marching through a factory zone. If they can’t stop iPhone 5 production, nobody can!

But now, let’s take a closer look at that photo (you can click to the original, here). I’ve blown it up and grabbed a representative sample, below.

Two things to note in this photo. First off, the characters on the red sashes very clearly spell out 奇美電子- Chimei Electronics, a company better known as Chimei Innolux, one of the world’s largest flat panel manufacturers. Now, as it happens, Foxconn is a major shareholder in Chimei Innolux, and it partners with Chi Mei to manufacture touch-screens. But Chi Mei is not Foxconn, and thus the above photo does not show Foxconn employees.

Second, those who read the China Labor Watch press release will note that it describes a work stoppage. Now compare that to the photo: these girls are smiling, walking in lock-step, and wearing red sashes. Nobody is wearing a Foxconn uniform (for a sense of what those look like, see Rob Schimitz’s film taken in the Foxconn Longhua facility a few months ago), or any other kind of worker uniform. Rather, they’re in their civilian clothes, and they appear to be engaging in a kind of parade. Is it a parade in support of Chimei Electronics? Maybe, but admittedly I have no idea.

But here’s the thing: Henry Blodget, or whomever he employs as a photo editor, did have an idea. And that idea, as tweeted by my friend Abe Sauer (who pointed out the photo and headline to me in the first place), goes a little something like this: “group of Asian people all walking in unison = protest action.” It’s not an uncommon way of thinking about China, and Asia, especially among commentators and correspondents with little to no experience interacting with Chinese workers. Nonetheless, common or not, you’d hope that organizations and individuals who aspire to some kind of role in commentating about China and its labor situation would have the good sense if not the dignity to avoid gross stereotypes (based on skin color, no less) and generalizations in their pontificating.

[UPDATE: I was just asked who took the photo in question. Answer: I don’t know. Blodget/BI didn’t run a photo credit.]

[UPDATE 2: Then there’s the matter of the image that China Labor Watch posted with its press release announcing the strike – and which has been widely reproduced (for example, at PC World and Engadget). That image is below, credited – on China Labor Watch’s website – to “Ye Fedao/worker for Foxconn Zhengzhou.”

Does this image strike anyone as depicting a strike or work stoppage? In it, workers appear to be lined up and awaiting something. Note the girl in the foreground idly checking her phone. What is she and the others waiting for so patiently? A bus to the factory? A bus to the dorms? Whatever it is, there’s little evidence in this photo to suggest that she and others are waiting for a strike. But that didn’t stop China Labor Watch and others from running the grainy image. They, like Blodget, appear to be under the impression that when groups of Asian laborers gather, they must be protesting. The truth is far more normal than that – unless, of course, you insist on viewing China’s factory workers as a perpetually persecuted class just waiting for a chance to rise up. But this has never been true, and is even less true now, as amply documented in several recent stories, of which Marketplace’s series, End of the Great Migration, is one of the best.

In any event, over at Forbes, Tim Worstall has done a nice job breaking down the media flubs on what’s increasingly looking like a non-strike, non-story. Way to go, China Labor Watch. For a more nuanced, and humanizing view of Chinese factory workers, see Leslie Chang’s fine essay on the subject that ran last week on CNN.]

[UPDATE 3: Stan Abrams at China Hearsay just posted an excellent run-down and wrap-up of the confused coverage of the non-strike. Well worth reading, here. China Labor Watch, it seems, has much to answer for in this debacle.]

[UPDATE 4 – 12 hours after first post:  Henry Blodget has now replaced the Chimei photo with … the China Labor Watch photo that ran with the press release. That is not progress.]

 

The Land of a Million Scrapped Televisions

Below, a photo I recently took in a warehouse roughly 80 km from an inland Chinese city with a population around 8 million people. If it’s not clear in the image, those are televisions. Tens of thousands of scrapped, no-longer-wanted televisions.

So let me ask a question of you, dear reader: based upon the information just given, from which country do you think those scrap televisions originated?

If you are an environmentally aware European or American, your likely answer is … the United States or Europe! After all, two decades of extensive (if often shallow) reporting by journalists and activists have created a very compelling and believable story whereby the developed world “dumps” its so-called e-waste on developing countries like China. It’s a compelling narrative, and one that appeals to the developed world’s outsized need to feel guilty about its presumed effects upon the developing world.

The only problem is: that narrative is no longer the only one available to explain why a warehouse on the outskirts of a major Chinese metropolis is teeming with tens of thousands of televisions (the frame of this photo excludes perhaps another 40% of the inventory present).

That other narrative, which journalists and activists in the developed world have failed to tell (for reasons of their own) is this one: China has grown rich enough to start throwing away its own e-waste. According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, China is now throwing off 160 million appliances (computers, televisions/monitors, washing machines, air conditioners, and refrigerators) per year that must be recycled, and that number is growing by 20% annually.

In other words: the scrap televisions in this warehouse were all used, and then thrown away, in China. There isn’t an imported – an allegedly dumped – scrap television in the entire lot.

But here’s the important thing: what you see in this warehouse is just a fraction of what’s been generated over the last couple of months in one metropolis in a country that has several dozen of greater size and wealth. You can multiply what you see here by 10,000 and you wouldn’t come close to approximating the number of Chinese-generated waste televisions and other appliances currently being generated, warehoused, and recycled, across China at this very moment. Imported scrap televisions don’t come close to equaling these kinds of volumes.

In Junkyard Planet,  my upcoming book with Bloomsbury Press, I’ll explain the process by which these particular televisions are recycled. The technology is Chinese-developed, environmentally secure, and it actually recovers more re-usable metals, plastics, and glass that comparable systems in the so-called developed world. But more than that, it re-writes the very tired, very incorrect narrative that the best means to recycle old televisions, computers and other appliances is to keep them in the developed world at so-called environmentally secure recyclers (“environmentally secure” being a term that developed countries implement and expect developings ones – with less experience and resources – to follow).  That’s simply not the case, anymore. China, the world’s second largest consumer of consumer electronics, is very quickly figuring out how to be one of its best recyclers of them. The thousands of televisions in this warehouse are just the start.

 

Why are new Samsung and HP computer parts being dumped in Guiyu? Follow the bar codes …

Several months ago I had the opportunity to travel to the notorious southern Chinese e-waste recycling hub of Guiyu. It was an interesting visit during which it became apparent that many assumptions currently held about e-waste processing in China are no longer current. Of these, perhaps the most important is the blanket assumption that foreign e-waste is the primary cause and driver of Guiyu’s – and China’s – continued role as a global e-waste hub. By and large, that’s no longer the case.

Reporting that I did in Guiyu, and elsewhere, indicates that fully half of the e-waste currently being processed in China is generated in China. American and European e-wastes, meanwhile, are a declining percentage of the overall level of waste being processed in the area, while Southeast Asian e-waste – specifically from Thailand and Malaysia – becoming the fastest growing contributor. Continue reading

The Labor Activist Who Just Can’t Do It Without His iPhone. [Updated, with a response to critics.]

OR “Is Mike Daisey Actually a Guerilla Marketer in the Employ of Apple?”

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Late last week activists delivered 250,000 signatures demanding that Apple improve working conditions for workers employed by its Chinese manufacturers. One of those petitions, organized by change.org, specifically cited the American radio program, This American Life, and a segment that it aired on January 6, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory. Mike Daisey, if you’ve never heard the program, is an American storyteller who, in the course of the segment, recounts his travels to Shenzhen and the gates of Apple’s major contractor, Foxconn. The picture he paints is not pretty (nor is it, I believe, accurate much less journalism – but that’s for another time) and as a result Daisey has become – in very short order – the de facto spokesman for iPhone users wanting to feel better about their next iPhone purchase.

A few weeks after Daisey’s piece ran, the New York Times ran articles of its own (needless to say, far more rigorous than Daisey’s ‘story’). But Mike Daisey is the one who got the ball rolling on the bourgeois outrage, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without Mike Daisey, there probably wouldn’t be 250,000 signatures sitting next to someone’s desk at Apple.

Anyway, yesterday I had the opportunity to join Daisey (and two other guests) on To the Point with Warren Olney, a terrific LA news talk show on which I sometimes have the honor to appear, to discuss Apple’s labor practices. It was, I think, an interesting conversation (downloadable here), worth hearing in its entirety. But for now I’d like to point my readers to a curious exchange between the host,  Warren Olney, and Mr. Daisey. In it, you’ll note that Mr. Olney would like to know if Mr. Daisey – inspiration for hundreds of thousands of Apple petition signers, still uses Apple products. For those listening at home, cue up to 33:15 in the podcast:

Warren Olney: So Mike Daisey, back to you, our author and performer doing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and also has been to China, have you given up your Apple products? As I recall, the last time we spoke you hadn’t.

Mike Daisey: That’s totally irrelevant to anything we’re actually talking about.

Warren Olney: Why? Isn’t the point here to reach the consumer?

Mike Daisey: If I throw away – because if I throw – if I throw away my devices, I will not be able to interact with the world. I wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation with you. It’s about reforming how the industry fundamentally works.

I am in no position to speak to Mr. Daisey’s particular circumstances, but – and I asked this during the show – couldn’t he have exchanged his iPhone for a land line, instead?

[UPDATE 2/15: I’ve received a few emails from folks writing to say, “Well, yes, but Mike Daisey is very upfront about the fact that he’s a fanboy.” Yes, he is. And that’s why I’d be much more impressed with his moral seriousness if he backed up his moral outrage at worker suicides, workplace accidents, and long hours, with some self-sacrifice. But what, in fact, has Daisey sacrificed in his pursuit of justice for Foxconn’s workers?

It’s really no different for the 250,000 folks who signed petitions that ask Apple, in polite language, to change its practices without threatening to stop using Apple products. It’s a really convenient cake-and-eat-it-too sort of solution to a very bourgeois conundrum: how do I feel good about purchasing expensive products that I know are made in factories? Sign a petition that asks the manufacturer to improve those factories! Then go buy another iPhone feeling like I’ve done my part.]

[Disclosure: I own two iPods, and I feel no guilt about how they were manufactured. I’ve visited factories like the ones in which they were assembled, and I consider the conditions in those facilities to be far superior to the base-line average for Chinese factories, and a good place for young Chinese with minimal educations to start work. And, apparently, so do the thousands who continue to line up for the opportunity to manufacture Apple products in China.]

 

How the Shanghainese Spend Their Traditional Holidays: Downloading

Here’s a phenomenon that I’ve yet to see generate much comment: during Chinese holiday weekends (like this weekend, in which they are supposed to be celebrating the mid-Autumn Festival), the internet grinds to a near standstill in Shanghai. I suppose there are several explanations for this occasionally observed (by me and this other guy I know) phenomenon, but I’m going to go with the simplest one: the Shanghainese like to spend their traditional holidays playing graphics intensive games and downloading really large files (to hell with eating mooncakes). This is made more difficult by the simple, unfortunate fact that Shanghai has the slowest internet in China.

[Below, Packaged Mooncakes with New Laptop, by Pieter Claesz]

I suppose it’s the case that people in other countries, too, like to celebrate the holidays by cruising the internet. But, at least where I’m from (Minnesota, USA), the demands on networks actually decrease during holidays, and increase during the work week. Why that isn’t the case in Shanghai is a topic for those much more familiar with these matters than me. For now, I’d just like to mention that – since it’s a holiday weekend – I’m desperate to download some very large files, and very frustrated that it’s just not going to happen.

Happy Mooncake Festival, peeps, and sorry to have been out of sight for so long.

Old Monitors of Revolution.

Back in Shanghai for the first time in 28 days and my only observation is that this cold weather – the cold weather everyone is complaining about – doesn’t feel any different to me than the air-conditioning that I kept shutting off in Singapore.

In any event, below, a photo that I posted to Twitter a couple of weeks ago. It was taken inside of a Malaysian factory where – among other profitable activities – imported computer monitors from the developed world are repaired and refurbished for consumers in the developing world who can’t afford flat panels.

I know, I know: in an age defined and owned the Dark Cult of the Endless Apple Upgrade, the use of anything short of an HDTV flat-screen must seem hopelessly antiquated (that’s what Apple would like you to think, anyway). But the truth is that the growing population of internet users in the developing world can’t afford iPhones, iPads, or flat panels. But they want to get connected, and so they get connected using used PCs with half decade-old processors and old-style monitors that may cost in the range of US$100 for a set. And where, you might ask, are such consumers?

You could do worse than look to Egypt, one of the world’s major destinations for imported, used electronics. But it’s funny: over the last month, when people in developed countries spoke of “Egypt’s Internet Revolution,” I honestly think they envisioned young Egyptian college students, racing rally to rally, guided by their iPhones. Reality, however, is that the internet revolution took place on out-of-date (for the developed world) PCs and old-style CRT monitors, many of which were imported from the developed world – because that’s what young Egyptians can afford. The old regime knew it, too, and made efforts to crack down on the import of use computer equipment and refurbishment facilities. More on this subject in the coming months. For now, a word of caution to the high-tech provincials and technorati out there covering, cheering on, and misunderstanding, the other Arab internet revolutions: the rest of the world isn’t nearly as wealthy as you are.

Recycle Rare Earths at Home, with a Screwdriver.

Let’s call this a lesson in avoiding absolutes.

Below, two versions of a component in every hard disk drive. The circled components – the valuable, important components – are magnets of the (capital R, capital E) Rare Earth variety. That is to say, they are magnets manufactured, in part, by adding a dash of the mysterious elements that my colleagues in the media have rendered quasi-mystical, and the Chinese have rendered more valuable via (reportedly, export bans). I show them, in part, to clear up the mystery. So here, dear readers, circled in red, are examples of the rare earth actuator magnets present in pretty much every hard drive on the planet (stay in your seats, please).

I bring them up, also, because, based upon some of the things that have been written about rare earths over the last few months, one might have the impression that the recycling and recovery of rare earths – in part to deal with Chinese export restrictions – is something that requires high-tech. But, of course, based upon the above photo, you can pretty much judge for yourself: the only technology necessary to recover the rare earth magnets in a hard drive (how many hundreds of millions?) is a screw-driver. And that’s precisely how it’s done in one part of Malaysia, where this photo was taken: workers disassemble hard drives, pull out the magnets, and return them to the manufacturers. And the workers do this for roughly US$300/month – a more than sufficient living wage in that region (but not, I’ll admit, for someone who eats organic in San Francisco). Continue reading