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Commentary On Technology

Sweat Shops ala High Tech

By Joan Fatur
copyright December 1999

The great American corporate sweat shops are alive and well in spite of the swing from industrialization to technology. A great cry has gone out against Nike and others who have been exploiting hungry employees in third world countries. But exploitation isn't limited to clothing manufacturers who typically hire uneducated and unskilled laborers. Among the cruelest of exploitations include those against children and old people who work for subsistence. Educated workers who have much to offer, find that they, too, frequently fall into that vast sea of working poor. All too often we get caught up in the shocking statistics that media throw at us....and forget the real messages behind the most shocking of stories.

What we see in stories about Nike and others is a core disregard for humanity and exploitation...not just exploitation of an individual people.

In America right now we have sweat shops that easily rival those across the ocean.

Call centers in the United States – both those that serve up marketing studies and those that dish out technical assistance – are proving to be nothing more than glorified sweat shops. Call centers in the United States – both those that serve up marketing studies and those that dish out technical assistance – are admittedly more glamorous than factories but not by much. They are proving to be nothing more than glorified sweat shops.

The pay is, admittedly more than the meager $.80 an hour paid in third world countries and frequently is substantially above the $5.12 minimum wage set by our federal government. Workers spend a third of their days working in environments more bearable than the old factories we read about in history books or across the oceans. Their work spaces are admittedly considerably cleaner and often even air-conditioned. But the impact on human life is equally abusive and dehumanizing. With stringent controls issued by the government to protect the well-being of aging workers, women and children, corporations have turned to other methods for controlling employees and the bottom line.

We have turned from the factories that manufacture bits of clothing and jewelry to factories that exploit the intelligence of workers. Today we use technology and the people who know how to use it as abusively as we once used the unskilled Irish and blacks. No longer required to work in factories or in cotton fields and rice paddies, these people suffer great human injustices no less revolting and no less inhumane. The environment and the outward appearances of affluence have changed but the theories behind them remain unchanged.

Marissa at 16 worked in one of those call centers putting in five or six hours after a full day at school. She made minimum wage and it seemed pretty good to her since she lived in a lower middle class family, and didn't have spending money easily available to her. But what she went through demoralized her. Her job was to survey people by phone. She had quotas to meet and if those quotas weren't met she was called on the carpet. When she cut her finger she found that there was not even a medical kit available so she wrapped her finger in an old tissue that she carried in her purse and went right on making calls. When she needed to use the restroom she was required to ask permission. One day she was refused that permission. For several hours she sat at the phone making calls and finally, several hours later at the end of her shift, she left in excruciating pain. She arrived home in tears with piss dripping down her legs.

Bob worked in another call center; his job to secure appointments. He had a gift for gaining cooperation and a positive response from those he called. He was told that there was great promise for him. But with all the positive feedback Bob couldn't control the follow through of the appointees. Actual turn out at the appointed times was dismal and Bob's pay was cut...and he was promised that the he could make up the cut in pay IF appointments were kept – something he couldn't control.

Janna worked in another Call Center. Her job to provide technical support for customers of one of our country's largest computer providers. Her job was statistic-driven, her performance judged by how many calls she took an hour, her evaluations based accordingly. Directives frequently changed as to how her job was to be performed but the underlying direction of those changes ran toward....take more calls, keep conversations shorter, replace defective parts only as a last resort. She lived in constant fear for her job. Her calls were monitored and if she said the wrong thing it was clear that she would be written up or, worse, fired.

Janna was paid a wage equivalent to that which she earned in the 60s – a rate at the bottom 5% of current government and professional organizations reported to be the industry standards. The formula set forth for reviews and possible pay raises was unbelievably complex but hinged on: how well her team measured up to expectations over all, how many defective parts she replaced and how many calls per hour she took versus how much time she actually spent on the phone with time needed to put client on hold to research a problem held against her stats. No matter how hard she worked, there could be no significant room for growth or fair reward.

All three of these workers spent their shifts tied to a phone and a computer via headset. All three of them worked in offices at desks where they experienced no apparent discomfort. In rooms that accommodated anywhere from 50 to 300 others all similarly tied to desks. They rarely left that 3x3 space allotted to them, although their employers insisted that lunches had to be taken – after all that is the law. But all experienced severe loss of self esteem and self-confidence. All three of them worked for wages that were set at levels below norm and their income was based on criteria that was constantly becoming more demanding and less within their personal control. Despite promises to the contrary all worked where possibility of advancement beyond their current status was slim to none.

What's happening here is that human beings are being manipulated as if they were machines. Bean counters, ever trying to improve the corporate bottom line, are demanding more and more productivity. The evaluation of productivity is based on scientific measurements -- the same criteria and statistics that were once applied to machinery is now being applied to humans.

In fairness to Nike and to their American counterparts, these sweat shops of our current generation do appear to serve some need. The companies typically choose to locate in areas that are known to have lower than average work opportunities and extremely low pay scales...they frequently locate with the cities and states where they can make deals with local governments – deals that include "bennies" like tax cuts to the corporation for their contribution to expanding the job availability with the governments picking up the tab for educating the workers to perform their tasks. And the companies do target the more needy in the work force – teens, women, older employees up against the silver ceiling, and young people who have their eyes set on entering what they're led to believe is a thriving industry. The workers do benefit somewhat -- they typically do get paid a small percentage over the typical pay ranges for the area but still substantially below the posted national industry standards.

Turnover in these sweat shops is abominably high....in many cases 200% in less than a year. Why isn't the turnover higher? One reason is that the pay scale doesn't allow a person to save enough to risk looking for more appropriate employment. Many others stay, for one reason or another, they are stuck in an area for health, family or educational reasons. A high percentage of workers stay at their jobs longer than might be reasonable because they work for companies that are well versed in holding the proverbial carrot in front of their noses -- making promises to rectify glaring issues and that things will improve "just wait".

Sometimes the injustices are blatantly denied. In Janna's company employees carry around name tags that aspire to key values of "respect, caring, honesty" and a vision that points to "humanizing" the industry.

The job is easy...just answer the phone. But is it? Janna says that directives are constantly coming down – "multi-tasking" is the word of the day. And the rate at which the workers are expected to multi-task far exceeds the capability of the machines to keep up. Janna and her co-workers work with computers and with information that comes from five different programs. They are set on phones that automatically pick up a new call the minute the last one is released and another program that up a new form demanding additional reports on the call which she has just finished documenting while trying to dig through four programs to piece together appropriate problem resolution and trying to carry on an intelligent conversation with irate customers.

"I have great difficulty with this" admits Janna. "In this company expected to handle 2-3 calls an hour with no time to gather our thoughts in between, and we're expected to forward our findings, feedback recommendations for improvement in the middle of all this. We are encouraged to take time out for personal development but if we do, it's counted against our statistics. We're told in on breath that we'll be recognized for positive feedback, and reports, then in the next, that we should not expect may to see action taken on our recommendations. We're offered the ‘opportunity' to develop written documents that would otherwise command compensation 2-4 times what we're paid so that someone else can take the credit for the work. We are discouraged from spending time with callers who need a bit more assistance and encouraged to put off those who have difficulty with parts that obviously aren't working properly. No matter how efficient or how much I ‘exceed' the standards set forth for my work I will probably never see more than cost of living increases in my pay -- if that much. Six month reviews are mysteriously delayed for six months and longer so I have no way to appeal my case. And through this all I have people sitting there listening in on calls to be sure that I don't make say the wrong thing or spend too much time working with the customer."

Janna reports that the latest push at this call center is for techs to take multiple calls with one individual resolving issues of as many as five or six people on a conference call. Compensation? Not a tad different than for those who handle one client at a time at least not until the numbers justify a pay increase. "Greed knows no limits here", she says.

Why does Janna stay there? Because, I set a goal...I wanted to learn what I could about this industry. And, frankly, now I'm here just trying to pay bills and save up enough money to get into a better situation. Sadly, it looks like I'm never going to get there...Every day I work here I get farther behind. Funny, before I joined this company I was able to raise two teenagers on my income. Now, they're grown, they're each making a decent living although they do turn to me for help with college and other needs. I am happy just to keep creditors from calling me looking for late payments. I can manage for a while, as long as I keep skipping meals and am willing to sleep on the floor. But I'm hoping that soon I'll be able to leave. It's not a matter of if but rather of when I can afford to move." It's just the tip of the iceberg. Corporations continue to exploit...the only changes that have taken place in the last two hundred years is who they're exploiting and how they're justifying the exploitation. While no human being can justify paying an individual less than $1 an hour in any country – third world or not – we have to ask: what is the difference? If a company moves into an area where work is at a premium and pay is below standards and chooses to exploit a hungry work force, paying less than industry standards, are they any better?

If a company expects people to function like machines, is that company complying with the spirit of justice? Have we corrected the injustices of the industrial revolution? Or have we simply found another way to finesse our way into the 21st century carrying forward the evils of past generations?


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