Conditions at the Shenzhen factory of the hi-tech manufacturer Foxconn are not exactly ideal, according to journalist Rob Schmitz.

Rob Scmitz at JMSC in Shanghai

A digital voice repeats “OK” every time one of the hundreds of workers completes a single assembly job. “That sound was really creepy,” Schmitz recalled during a presentation at Hong Kong University’s Shanghai Centre on June 9.

Also, “There’s a nice swimming pool in the dormitory area,” Schmitz said, but given the pressure of work, “obviously no one uses that.”

Still, what Schmitz found at the factory, which assembles products for Apple, among others, was nothing like what the American comedian and social commentator Mike Daisey pretended to have found there.

Last January, an American public radio show “This American Life” aired an excerpt from Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, Daisey described the ostensibly miserable and dangerous working conditions he found at Foxconn. The show prompted widespread criticism of Foxconn and Apple.

But to Schmitz, the Shanghai-based bureau chief for Marketplace, a U.S business radio station, some of what he Daisey had reported didn’t ring true. So Schmitz decided to check the facts for himself.

He travelled to Shenzhen, where Foxconn and Apple both offered him a rare tour of the factory.

Schmitz talked to Foxconn employees, and also reached Daisey’s translator, whom Daisey had identified as “Cathy.” Schmitz found that the name “Cathy” was fake. More important, he found that many of Daisey’s ”facts” were exaggerated, or complete fabrications.

“The truth is complicated.” Schmitz told the audience at the Shanghai Centre.

Schmitz published his own report, which exposed Daisey’s lies. In a follow-up broadcast, Daisey was questioned about the lies. “He paused 10 seconds,” said Schmitz. “Then he replied ‘I don’t understand’. That was the most interesting response that he had.” Daisey eventually admitted that parts of his story were fabrications.

Schmitz described what he saw at the Foxconn factory and he followed a young Foxconn worker from Jiangxi Province back to his hometown. The young man had told Schmitz he earns money to support his family, but in Jiangxi, his family members could only say that the man was “lazy,” Schmitz said. It surprised Schmitz to receive such a totally different story, “But my editor loves that,” he said with a smile.

The lecture was part of the JMSC Shanghai Public Lecture Series, which is held on a monthly basis except for a summer break. Information on the series is available at jmscsh@hku.hk.

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