The Junkman is Your Green Future

Most of the talks I give touch on some aspect of my family background. But for plenty of reasons, I’ve skirted opportunities to go deeper (except in Junkyard Planet). But back in June, when I was invited to participate in TEDxBeijing, I decided to dig a little deeper. In part I did so because I’ve had people comment after my talks that I seem genuinely passionate about China’s scrap workers – yet I realized that I hadn’t left many clues about where that passion comes from. So that’s where this talk comes from, in appreciation for my brothers and sisters in all things scrap. I hope you enjoy it.

[For those of you surfing behind China’s Great Firewall, the video is also available on Youku.]

American Dockworkers Are Savaging Your Recycling Bin.

Last year, roughly one-third of the recycling generated in the United States was exported to more than 160 countries and territories. That’s 42.8 million tons – enough weight to fill over 2 million standard-sized shipping containers – worth $23.7 billion. China was the top destination for those exports (Canada was number two), while South Korea, Japan, and India were in the top ten. So when, back in July, a labor dispute and slowdown hit US West Coast ports, one of its first and most significant victims was the multi-billion dollar trans-Pacific trade in recycling, much of which ships from those ports.


In recent weeks, the toll – both economic and environmental – has started to come due. In San Francisco the city’s recycling contractor is running out of space to store recyclable paper and cardboard that typically ships to Asia, and the excess is piling up in mountains of cardboard. In neighboring San Mateo County, a different contractor, who also depends on shipping scrap paper to Asia, did run out of space – and the city had to lease it a 28,000 square foot warehouse to hold it. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the California Refuse Recycling Council, a trade group, warned Governor Jerry Brown that its members might soon be forced to redirect all that California recycling to “disposal.” In other words: unless recyclers can start shipping to Asia again, a lot of scrap paper and cardboard might be landfill-bound. Continue reading

When Child Labor Isn’t Child Labor, and ‘Underage Labor’ is Just Something You Say.

What motivates an activist to exaggerate and even lie about the conditions in which Chinese laborers live and work? Like many, I first pondered this question after hearing Mike Daisey’s infamous This American Life episode. And, like many, I never thought that others would dare follow in his dishonest footsteps.

Then I came across China Labor Watch (or CLW) a New York-based labor right organization that’s been conducting investigations into the manufacturing practices of consumer products manufacturers who operate in China (Apple and Samsung are its favorite targets). Last October I wrote a lengthy piece investigating how CLW sourced one of its investigations into Apple, and found the organization’s methods seriously lacking.

I then mostly forgot about the organization until earlier this week, and its most recent report on an Apple supplier. Among the many allegations are that Apple suppliers use what it characterizes as “underage labor.” As I outline in a short piece for Bloomberg View, this is not only misleading it’s factually inaccurate.

Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped countless news organizations (from the Washington Post to Computerworld) from repeating China Labor Watch’s claims without questioning their veracity. Yet as I argue at Bloomberg, the organization’s methods don’t deserve this privilege.


While I’m at it – also at Bloomberg, I have an essay discussing how Detroit’s bankruptcy is faring in China’s public opinion hothouse. The answers may not be what you expect.


And finally, as mentioned last week – starting on Tuesday I’m going post a daily picture of what recycling really looks like, from around the world, in the run-up to the November 12th release of my first book, Junkyard Planet (pre-order links are in the sidebar to your right!). These posts should be somewhat similar to a series of blogs I did when guest-blogging for James Fallows a couple of years ago (links to the complete series, here; an individual example, here).

More next week!

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 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?”


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, 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.]


Reprise: Wasted 7/7, from the Motor Breakers to the Sample Room

Last week, in my capacity as a guest-blogger on Jim Fallows’ site at the Atlantic, I wrote a series of seven short blog posts, each accompanied by two photos (except for the last) showing a scene from Asia’s scrap recycling trade. My purpose was two-fold: first, I wanted to give Jim’s readers a peak inside of the often monumental scale of the industry as it’s practiced in Asia; and second, I wanted to challenge the oft-held assumption that people who labor in this industry, especially in the developing world, are exploited. That’s less and less the case, especially in China. For example, the metal sorter in the photo can earn in excess of US$500/month, and have her choice of jobs up and down China’s East Coast – a blessed fate that eludes most recent Chinese college graduates.

In any case, I didn’t do a very good job of linking to the Wasted 7/7 posts from Shanghai Scrap. So, in case you didn’t see them (or want an explanation of what the metal sorter in the photo, above, is actually doing), below are the chapters of 7/7 Wasted, in the order that they were intended to be read. Ideally, they take you on a narrated journey through how and where Asia recycles the developed world’s surplus throwaways, to what it all means. The posts are short, and – I’m told! – visually arresting:

  1. The Motor Breakers of China
  2. The Plastics Shredders of China
  3. The Metal Shredders of Toyota
  4. The Metal Sorters of Shanghai
  5. The Metal Sorters North of Mumbai
  6. The Shipbreakers of China
  7. The Chinese Sample Room

As I note above, they really do have an order to them, an intended narrative, that leads to a concluding argument about just who’s being exploited by the globalized waste recyclables trade. And that conclusion is, in part, one of the arguments that I’ll make in Junkyard Planet, my forthcoming book about the global recycling trade, to be published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.

The aging face of what we think of when we think of Chinese labor.

Below, a photo of a metal sorter in Jiangsu Province, China. To those who don’t recognize what she’s doing, it may look like she’s sorting garbage. To those who do, they know that she’s a semi-skilled laborer who can distinguish different types of metal by sight and feel. That job description doesn’t generate much respect in China, or outside of it. Eight years ago, when I first started encountering workers like her, she was paid like it: between RMB 600 and RMB 800 per month (US$73 to US$97 by the 2002 fixed exchange rate). She was also younger: most of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of women engaged in this type of metal sorting were under the age of 30, unmarried, uneducated, and relatively local to the factories where they worked.

Over the last several weeks I have been having a new, intense encounter with these metal sorters, and much has changed. The factories where they worked, once filled with the happy gossip of younger women, are now quiet, the sole territory of women in their late thirties and older, many of whom have remained single. Young women, the sorts who, ten years ago, would have flocked to these factories, are now migrating to the cities in hope of better jobs, and better lives. And so, in the absence of new laborers to bolster their ranks, China’s semi-skilled metal sorters have become highly sought. Wages, once so low that they could only be justified as decent in comparison to a farmer’s i ncome, have risen to levels that – ten years ago – none of these women could expect. In this factory, wages have risen by 20%, annually, for the last couple of years, and now average in excess of RMB 3000/month (US$441/month) – exceeding what most Chinese college graduates can reasonably expect to earn after graduation.

It won’t last, though. The employers of China’s metal sorters, panicked at high wages, are investing in efficiency and automation designed to eliminate RMB 3000/month metal sorters. In a few years, there’ll be fewer Chinese metal sorting jobs, and – presumably – lower wages in the field. At least, that’s how it looks right now. Then again, eight years ago nobody was predicting the current bottleneck – everyone just assumed that there’d be plenty of cheap labor flowing from the countryside, into scrap yards, for years to come. I won’t hazard a guess as to where all of this is going. But it sure doesn’t feel stable – it sure isn’t the China that metal industry leaders told me I’d be watching in 2010. It feels much more unstable.