Mike Daisey performing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
An electronics factory worker in China that makes Apple products.
I was curious to get the dope on how insiders would react to Mike Daisey’s new monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opened at Berkeley Rep in January to great advance fanfare. The story details not only Jobs’s rise, fall, and resurrection, but also his—and his industry’s—notorious dark side. But I had a much harder time than I expected.
Even after I promised anonymity, finding guests for my theater party was like trying to marshal Tea Partiers for a Nancy Pelosi fundraiser. I was warned that Apple would initiate a witch hunt to unearth my source (the company guards its secrets more closely than the Kremlin). But three brave souls finally agreed to come: one current employee, one former employee, and one who had worked both at Apple and at NeXT, the computer company that Jobs ran between his two stints at Apple. (Recently, Jobs took a leave from Apple to deal with his health.)
Daisey, a lifelong fan of Apple products, doesn’t pull any punches detailing the tech giant’s ruthless business tactics—but to really dish the dirt, he describes a trip he made to the Chinese factories where iPads, iPods, and MacBooks are made. Conditions there were brutal, Daisey claims, with kids as young as 12 working 16-hour days and being threatened with imprisonment if they tried to form a union. The contractor, FoxConn, has attempted to stop employee suicides by installing nets to catch people jumping from the roof.
“People’s hands have bled for your iPhones,” Daisey intoned early on, sounding a lot like a gospel preacher. “Children put them together!” The PC Berkeley audience responded in kind, with Uh huh!s and shouts of “Yes!” I was hoping my guests’ anonymity would allow them to slip me some dish, but I was so wrong. “We’re the absolute leader in social responsibility,” the current Apple employee said, noting that Apple not only eliminates lead and other heavy metals from its products but also works to improve factory conditions. The former employee added that changing Chinese culture is a tall order. “The only way would be to take every piece of manufacturing out of that plant—and put it where?” (“Burma,” someone answered facetiously.) The touchiest it got was that the person who had worked at both Apple and NeXT felt that Daisey was right to single out Jobs. “He’s one person who would be able to do something about this,” she said.
Things did get juicy, though, when the former Apple employee told a story about someone who had screwed up at work. “Jobs told him to call his assistant and get on his calendar for the next day so he could fire him,” he said. The employee made the appointment and showed up on time—but Jobs just looked at him and asked what he was there for. Apparently, he had cooled off, and the worker kept his job. The person who told me this story wasn’t worried about being identified—this kind of thing happens often at Apple, he said.