Labor Abstract

Some thoughts on outsourcing.

Initially, I found The Dark Side of the Outsourcing Revolution to be a breath of fresh air. The article seeks to see the growing debate over outsourcing (call centers, programming services, etc.) not in black and white, but in shades of gray, and in particular, the author, Naeem Mohaiemen, seeks to show that racism, as well as economics, is driving the debate over outsourcing. Given a long interest in the urgent problems of American racism, I was immediately sympathetic. But his points often rely on lefty conventional wisdom, and on a second reading I found myself frustrated with many of his arguments.

For instance, he argues: “Would outsourcing be a political hot potato if the jobs were going to Norway, Israel or Portugal? In fact, no one complains about job loss to Ireland, even though it is the global leader in outsourcing.” This makes rough emotional sense—that sort of racism is real in the U.S.—but the statement loses much of its force when you realize that there is far less wage disparity between those countries and the U.S. than between, say, Bangladesh and the U.S. It's the fallacy of exclusion. In addition, the statistics provided on Ireland ($8.3 billion last year in outsourcing revenue from the U.S.) and India ($7.7 billion) do not address the fact that a dollar in India buys you, presumably, much more labor than can be bought in Ireland. Assuming that is true, if you compared the number of person-hours bought for those sums, you'd find that India displaces far more American workers in this field than Ireland. And the real issue for workers, after all, is not dollars, but jobs.

Later, he writes: “Finally, the unions need to make the connection between outlandish CEO salaries and lost jobs. Outsourcing is not the only reason for all worker woes. To take one recent example, if Boeing were to ever open a factory in India, many would scream about 'lost jobs.' But aren't far more jobs going to be lost to cover the damage from the Pentagon contract kickback scandal, which has already led to the resignation of Boeing's CEO?” That's a straw man—Boeing is not opening a factory in India, in the first place, which makes contrasting the jobs lost to cover the damage of the kickback scandal a moot point, and the unions have made the connection between outlandish CEO salaries and lost jobs for years, over and over. It's not necessarily their fault that no one is listening. A few organizations are totally focused on outsourcing, but the larger unions are broadly focused on a number of issues related to labor, as reading any one of their publications (i.e. the UAW's Solidarity) will show you, and have long-standing policies regarding shipping jobs out-of-country, particularly after NAFTA.

Criticizing the unions for trying to keep jobs in America, and implying that they should focus on domestic affairs before turning to outsourcing—this doesn't make sense to me. Why should protected workers give up jobs to unprotected workers without a fight? Yes, in the short term, with global outsourcing, a fairly small number of people in poorer countries will have more opportunities. But who wins over time? A very small number of players, those who run the show.

There's an essential fallacy of globalization as an “equalizer,” which people on the left often play into because they don't want to seem as if they're against poor people in poor countries making a decent living. But if we think long term, how can there be an equalized global work force as the result of globalization? It's far more likely that an enormous number of unprotected workers will find themselves working for a fairly small number of bosses, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and those who bitch will lose their jobs to those who don't. Companies must be taught, painfully if necessary, that you can't rob Peter, pay Paul, and incorporate in the Cayman Islands.

Mohaiemen quotes George Monbiot, in the Guardian, as writing, “Britain's empire is striking back. Former colonies have found a silver lining in the bitter legacy of conquest: English, the language of former masters, is a competitive advantage in the global economy.” This seems to me the sheerest sort of badly-thought-through ideology. Monbiot appears perfectly progressive in his opinions, but when you think it through, who's getting screwed? The workers—this time, they have college educations and better jobs, but it's a repeat of the 1970's, when manufacturing jobs started leaving long-industrialized countries for countries with cheaper labor. Globalization as it's practiced is not the cure for the ills of colonialism and imperialism, nor is it “fair play.” “Fair play” is the last thing anyone building an outsourcing center in Bangalore is thinking about; that ideology is tacked on to the real motives. Globalized outsourcing is a way to exploit more people, for less money, taking advantage of the remnants of colonialism.

There are racist overtones to the anti-outsourcing fight, and those must be eliminated with all priority. The fact that jobs are going to Ireland should be addressed and publicized in greater proportion—people obviously have an easier target with scary India, populated by brown folk and exotic spices, than scrappy Ireland, populated by leprechauns and U2, and are taking the easy way out. But organized labor, for whatever its flaws, is not the culprit in this debate, and Americans are not wrong to want their jobs protected. If this was a way to create a more perfect world, with a happier global work force, then I'd agree that America will have to take its lumps and swing with the pendulum until a balance is reached. But there's absolutely no evidence that the pendulum will ever swing back. The way it's going, just about everyone, eventually, loses.

Mohaiemen closes by arguing that if we could only see the “human face” behind the outsourcing (he recommends a documentary), we'd understand the situation much more clearly, and with more empathy. But this, too, breaks apart when one goes back to the false promise of globalization. He wants us to see the workers in poorer countries as equal to American workers, and to understand that they are trying to live the same sort of lives we are. From here, he'll receive no argument: these workers are equal, and they deserve a fair shake. But ultimately, with his line of argument, he's asking us to look from a vantage where the globalized economy is our only eventual choice, our destiny, and to see equality on its unequal terms. Impoverishing the American work force will only fractionally improve the quality of middle-class life in India or Bangladesh, while enriching a minority of purse-string holders. I refuse to believe that no third way can be found, and I refuse to believe that there is anything wrong with American unions trying to keep middle-class jobs in America. The Lexus and the Olive Tree may be the way things are going—there may be no way to stop it. But there's no reason for Americans to go down without kicking and screaming; fair play has to start at home.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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