The one-man show upsetting Apple

By Paul Harris

Mike Daisey, an Apple fan, is on a mission to highlight the plight of Apple workers in China. Photo / Supplied
Mike Daisey, an Apple fan, is on a mission to highlight the plight of Apple workers in China. Photo / Supplied

These days Mike Daisey is run off his feet. "I don't even have time to listen to my voicemail now. That's a phenomenon I have not experienced before," he said with an amazed laugh.

He shouldn't be so surprised. In the past fortnight, Daisey has gone from being a gifted but obscure solo act in the United States theatre to the public face of a backlash against one of the iconic corporations of the 21st century.

Daisey's latest work, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has triggered a spasm of soul-searching about the sometimes appalling labour conditions in China under which many of America's most cherished products are made. Specifically, the shiny, sleek iPhones, iPods and iPads produced by Apple.

The Agony and the Ecstasy was devised after exhaustive research talking to exploited and abused workers in China for almost 18 months. Daisey played to small but appreciative crowds across the US, winning critical praise but stirring little trouble, not even with the target of his ire: Apple itself.

But everything changed last month when a discussion and partial performance of Daisey's monologue appeared on the National Public Radio show This American Life. It rapidly became the most downloaded episode of the show's history and an online petition calling for Apple to reform its practices began. Within 48 hours it attracted 140,000 names. Then the New York Times ran an exhaustive investigation of Apple's supplier network in China that revealed industrial accidents, brutal working conditions and child labour. Suddenly, Apple's Chinese supplier network was huge news.

Daisey is a man in intense demand. He has appearances lined up on CNN and other TV shows. On his blog he has been updating the story regularly and fending off criticism from Apple's defenders, including comedian Stephen Fry and Forbes columnist Tim Worstall.

Daisey is delighted but exhausted, having been up until 5am the previous night composing a response to a public attack from Worstall. "I am tired but I am encouraged to see traction. The only way you can fight for a thing like this is when you know the truth is on your side," he said. "It's the first time maybe in a generation that the American theatre has affected change."

The play's premise is simple enough. It blends Daisey's own backstory as a nerdy geek who loved - and continues to love - Apple products with the story of how Jobs ran the company with a mix of tyranny and genius before he died last year. But then it heads into dark territory as Daisey recounts how he became obsessed with photographs that emerged from inside the giant Foxconn factory in which many Apple products are made.

His fascination with how his beloved gadgets were built ends up with a subversive trip to southern China and interviews with ordinary workers who describe the physically and mentally crippling conditions in which many toil. On the trip Daisey was stunned that he, as a playwright, was the one digging up the truth. "I wanted journalists to tell the story. I am a monologuist and it's not the same thing. But I had to act as a journalist," he said.

Daisey is scathing about many of the journalists who cover Apple. He recites the story of one tech journalist who agreed to appear on a panel with him only to be contacted by Apple and warned off doing so.

"Apple has built an incredible institution of secrecy and people understand that when Apple threaten them they mean it. Everyone knows that," Daisey said.

As a performer, though, Daisey is immune. Yet he confesses he still has a complex emotional relationship with the company. He still uses an iPhone and does not tell people to boycott the company, just spread the word about Chinese labour practices.

Apple, for its part, says many of the stories emerging from China are not true and that it already is acting to monitor its suppliers' behaviour and bring in greater transparency. Other defenders of the firm point out that many other electrical goods firms are equally as culpable as Apple, if not more so. For Daisey, that is not good enough. "It is like watching a friend lose his way. It is hard to imagine the Apple of a generation ago making this ham-fisted error."

- Observer

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