Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Academic labor is information labor too

A recent column in The Nation describes the plight of Columbia University graduate students as they try to organize in the face of not only resistance from a newly-conservative National Labor Relations Board (which in 2004 overturned a 2000 ruling granting graduate students at private universities the right to organize), but an administration recommending anti-organizing tactics which may in fact be illegal:

The memo, dated February 16, 2005, is signed by none other than Alan Brinkley, a well-known liberal historian who is now serving as Columbia's provost. Brinkley has gone out of his way to assure outside observers, including New York State Senator David Paterson, that "students are free to join or advocate a union, and even to strike, without retribution." Yet his February 16 memo, addressed to seventeen deans, professors and university leaders, lists retaliatory actions that might be taken against students "to discourage" them from striking. Several of these measures would likely rise to the level of illegality if graduate student employees were covered under the National Labor Relations Act.

Such measures include telling graduate student teachers and researchers who contemplate striking that they could "lose their eligibility for summer stipends" (i.e., future work opportunities) and also "lose their eligibility for special awards, such as the Whitings" (a prestigious scholarship and award program). Yet another proposal cited in the memo would require students who participated in the strike "to teach an extra semester or a year" as a condition for receiving their scholarly degree.

The article nicely ties such questions over the employment status of graduate students to the wider issues of the "corporatization" of the university (both public and private) and the questions (from both the right and the left) about the state of "free speech" in the US university today:

Ironically, although conservatives continue to see liberalism as the bogeyman, the rise of a corporate labor model in higher education may pose a far greater risk to academic freedom and free speech. Historically, let's not forget, the leaders of the academic freedom movement recognized that the only way to prevent corporate trustees and other outside interest groups from violating the free speech rights of their professors was to establish a system of faculty self-governance, peer review and long-term job security. Otherwise, any professor who voiced unconventional or unpopular views was extremely vulnerable to getting fired.

Viewed through this lens, the unionization campaigns at Columbia, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Penn and other institutions may be the last, best hope for stopping administrators from imposing a corporate labor model on universities that erodes faculty power--and with it academic freedom.

At my own university, which as a public, state university has allowed graduate students the right to organize since the late 1960s, the graduate student workers face both a seemingly impotent administration and a hostile, "neoliberal" state legislature in an environment of budget cutbacks to the university across the board. At issue are cuts in wages (which are already below what the "market" of peer institutions pay), and an increase in health care benefit costs (benefits crucial to young families where both parents are often in school). Here's the way our Teaching Assistant's Association describes their current situation:

In a move to gain political points with the public, Republican members of the committee refused to allow the contracts onto the floor for a vote, claiming that public employees were "responsible" for the State's financial woes-despite the fact that money had already been budgeted to pay for the contracts. After months of lobbying and public protest by TAA members and other unionists across the state, the logjam was finally broken. There was a price, however: a threat to "make public employees pay" for health insurance in the next round. [...]

Members felt that the state was violating a tacit agreement that had held for almost 20 years: state workers (including TAs and PAs) would take lower pay increases in exchange for good benefits (like $0 health insurance premiums). The UW-Madison's TA/PA wage package was already near the bottom of the Big 10; grad employees at peer institutions were making on average over $1,000 a year more. UW administrators understood the growing gap and its implications for grad student recruitment and retention and made strong statements in support of the union's position, but to little avail. A split in the management team, however, did not mean progress at the table.

Here at Madison, a Spring 2004 strike by the TAA won some media attention and perhaps built some solidarity among members, but has not helped their contract plight and inevitably provided ammunition for their neoliberal critics in the legislature.

All this should be a reminder to students of "information labor" that the academic labors of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination (aka. research, writing, teaching) are important areas of study and activism as well. For an admittedly uneven but certainly sincere primer on some of these issues, see Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Office hours: Activism and change in the academy (New York: Routledge, 2004). Or take a minute to actually talk to a graduate student worker about the conditions of his or her information labor in academia in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Rebranding "telecommuting" as "homeshoring" and "homesourcing"

When trying to trace dialectical changes in both the technological environments for labor and the social relations of labor, changes in terminology can point to productive moments for analysis. For example, the skyrocketing use of the terms "offshoring" and "outsourcing" in the 1990s points to not only the technological ability of transnational firms to globalize their operations and markets in new ways, but also to the recognition by media actors, political actors, and the public at large that these issues deserve scrutiny (or, at the very least, sell papers and get votes).

Recently I've noticed a new complementary set of buzzwords out in mediaspace: "homeshoring" and "homesourcing." Might be useful fragmentary evidence for a nice study on the recent history of technological and social change in the world of work.

For example, a 2004 CNET News article cites an IDC report about "homeshoring" and "homesourcing" using the example of firms choosing to employ remote call-center workers not via overseas telework, but through domestic home-based telework:

The practice [...] can avoid a potential pitfall of sending such work overseas, IDC suggested: foreign agents less familiar with U.S. customers. "There are currently upwards of 100,000 home-based phone representatives in the United States," IDC said. "Compared with traditional outsourcing and offshor(ing), companies utilizing home-based agents can access highly skilled representatives that are closely attuned to the U.S. market at very reasonable cost."

A key aspect of "homeshoring," as with "offshoring," is in this case not only spatial flexibility to search for low-wage workers, but temporal flexibility to find just-in-time workers who are easily dismissed after the need for their labor passes:

IDC said companies are turning to homeshoring in response to call center challenges such as the need for superior agent quality, frequent turnover and the seasonal nature of the business. [...] "Accessing high-quality agents is not limited to those within commuting distance, and agents can be contacted when needed instead of occupying call centers during periods of very little call activity," IDC said.

A 2004 Minneapolis/St. Paul Star-Tribune article similarly points to call-center labor as the canonical example of when "homeshoring" makes sense, but "offshoring" does not, because of cultural and language differences between customers and workers:

The best example is the often-offshored call-center function. Offshoring customer support might be cheaper, but it can be tremendously frustrating for customers. Challenges around language and culture frequently are compounded by a lack of understanding of the American buying experience. Since an expectation about good customer service was never established, no one measures the frequently negative impact this "cost-saving" measure is having on the relationship with the customer and eventually the bottom line.

The article author, CEO of a management-consulting company, argued that "homeshoring" schemes could target US areas of depressed wages -- much like Michael Porter's classic 1995 Harvard Business Review argument on the "competitive advantage of the inner city" -- and yet still remain within the cultural and linguistic boundaries of mainstream (affluent? white?) US consumers:

I can imagine other homeshoring scenarios in rural America and in those industrial cities hit hard by downturns in manufacturing. Mayors and community leaders could cooperate with cost-cutting businesses to hook up out-of-work Americans hungry for just the sort of jobs being shipped overseas. Innovative solutions could be found to solve related issues around benefits, such as forming cooperative ventures that allow homesourced workers to buy their own benefits at a discount. The possibilities are endless once the ingenuity of the U.S. entrepreneur is unleashed. Before business executives start dismissing this idea as impractical, they should consider a few very practical realities: People living in rural or economically depressed locations don't require the same high wages and benefits of people living in urban areas.

Even a Motley Fool essay has weighed in on "homeshoring" (which they correctly recognize as "telecommuting") as an obvious win-win scenario for both management and labor (not to mention consumers):

For the employee's part, telecommuting offers more job flexibility than he'd have in an office. It lowers the cost of buying workplace attire, as no one's around to see whether he's answering phones in his pajamas -- and even better, no one cares, as long as the work gets done. And let's not forget the extra hours that working from home adds to one's free time every day, hours that don't need to be spent commuting on subways and highways, to and from an office. Throw in the fringe benefit for society at large, in getting all those workers off the streets, getting their auto emissions out of the air, and keeping the gasoline they'd have been using from tipping the U.S. trade account deficit the wrong way, and this looks like a solution that just can't be beat.

The Fool is correct to identify "homeshoring" and "homesourcing" as simply strategic terms for "telecommuting" (or, more accurately in my mind, "telework") meant to bolster the public relations image of firms who engage in these labor relations. But none of these articles acknowledge that there are potential downsides for labor to being "homesourced." In fact, researchers who have explored the history of home-based labor throughout the twentieth century in the US have consistently noted that such labor relations often enable minute fragmentation, intense surveillance, and profound alienation (in several senses) of labor -- especially female labor. Some quick cites:

Sheila Allen and Carol Wolkowitz, Homeworking: Myths and Realities (London: Macmillan, 1987). Allen & Wolkowitz defined “homeworking” (or “outwork”) as “the supply of work to be performed in domestic premises, usually for piecework payment,” and usually by women. [1] They argued that while such work was historically subject to investigation and legislation in both the US and Western Europe, the issue disappeared after World War I until the 1970s. Today, female homeworkers are too often “casualized workers”: “those who, though in reality permanent members of the labour force, are treated as temporary workers to whom the employer owes no legal obligations.” [5] But, argued Allen & Wolkowitz, such homeworking remains “invisible” as most labor statistics focus on (male?) full-time, regular employees working outside the home. Consequently, the authors relied on other sources such as women’s own histories and biographies. They concluded that “homeworking must be examined as waged labour incorporated into capitalist relations of production”; even though it is “casualized” employment, even though it takes place in the domestic sphere, it is still wage work.

Eileen Boris and Cynthia R. Daniels, eds., Homework: historical and contemporary perspectives on paid labor at home (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989). Fourteen essays covering the history and current politics of home-based labor for women. The introduction notes the ambivalence about this situation: “That homework presents itself as a more flexible and attractive option for working mothers is itself a commentary on the structure of our political economy, which provides working mothers with so few options. Yet throughout these studies we hear the voices of women who gain a sense of self-worth and independence by earning wages at home. In exchange for low wages, many experience a greater sense of autonomy and control over both their work and family lives -- a freedom from direct supervision of bosses and an increased flexibility in the structure of the workday. From this perspective, then, homework represents not exploited labor but the attempts of women to find more humane alternatives to a labor market alien to the needs of working parents.” [6]

Eileen Boris, Home To Work: Motherhood And The Politics Of Industrial Homework In The United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Boris argues that “[t]he woman who earned wages at home not only illuminates the problems of the working mother but also has stood at the center of a century-long argument over state intervention in the labor contract.” (1) Any historical study of (women’s) homework, then, should focus not only on the construction of gender differences, but also on the gendering of state action. To this end, Boris tries to “uncover the ways that different groups have defined the relationship between a public realm of paid labor and a private domain of the home under industrial capitalism” (3) by focusing on four key periods in the history of homework: the response to the first law against tenement homeworking, New York’s 1884 law against cigarmaking; the period between World War I and the New Deal, in which ideas of patriotism and “states’ rights” entered the homework debate; the New Deal labor laws and their effects on homeworkers; and finally, the renewed interest in homework during the 1980s, from both new telework possibilities and Reagan-era deregulation of textile homeworkers.

Andrew Gillespie and Ronald Richardson, “Teleworking and the city: Myths of workplace transcendence and travel reduction,” in James O. Wheeler, Yuko Aoyama and Barney Warf, eds., Cities in the telecommunications age: The fracturing of geographies (New York: Routledge, 2000), 228-248. Argued that “‘places of work,’ in the sense both of individual workplaces and of the agglomeration of such workplaces into cities, are highly functional and effective forms of human organization, and as a result are likely to prove considerably more persistent and resilient than the technological futurists would have us believe.” Instead of simply substituting for transport, “the new communcations technologies seem, conversely, to be associated with mobility-intensive and spatially dispersed activity patterns.” [228-29] Very nice, short, concise article laying out a useful set of definitions of “telework” and showing how simple, linear, environmentally-benign outcomes (eg. virtual workplaces or smaller cities or less travel) are unlikely.

Ursula Huws, Werner B. Korte and Simon Robinson, Telework: Towards the elusive office (Chichester ; New York : Wiley, 1990). Study of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy (the “Empirica” study) of 4,000 managers, 2,500 citizens, and 14 companies. Found 72% of teleworkers were female. Argues against a technological determinist view of telework, saying managers only allow it when it allows them to retain staff or cut costs, and workers only consider it when they have no alternative.

I'm thinking about all this right now because I'm engaged in my own study of "homesourced" labor as I look at the recent history and geography of practices involved in the remote contracting of (mostly female, highly-skilled) home-based realtime closed-captioners in the US. My case meshes with some of the research above, but breaks some expectations of both exploitation and professionalism as well. More fragmentary evidence to come ...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New labor rules in India and the effect on information work globally

Recently the government of India passed changes to its labor laws that change the spatial-temporal, and by extension also the technological and social, division of labor between men and women. As the Calcutta Telegraph reports that "The government today made changes to the Factories Act 1948, allowing women to work night shifts" -- that is, hours between 10 pm to 6 am -- "provided adequate safeguards are available in factories". Note that information technology firms in some states in India had already secured such an exemption, but now exemption would not be required anywhere in the country and any firm could take advantage of it. Industry officials predicted that firms in the highly-competitive export garment industry, the IT hardware assembly industry, and the call center industry stood to benefit the most from such rules.

Further insight can be found from an article in The Indian Express, where the new rules are reported as "Meeting a longstanding demand for gender parity in the workforce" (but by whom?) and as a "win-win for India Inc." since "Garment units already employ 60% of women workforce" and "Women [are] preferred to men as workers, considered more patient, attentive, [and] loyal." No mention of whether women are also paid less (which in aggregate I have no doubt they are).

Labor and women's rights advocates were apparently split by the decision. Some applauded the fact that legal equality for women in access to employment was now being achieved; however, others feared that now night shift work would be made mandatory for many women: "women will be forced to work night shifts to be able to hold their jobs, particularly in low-level manufacturing operations." Further some pointed out that "You have to ensure that women are working in clusters and in adequate numbers as a safeguard against any kind of sexual assault".

I think this raises a thorny issue of the difference between equality, equity, and justice in the workplace. In a universal sense, subjecting female workers the same set of regulations over their labor as male workers brings "equality" to the two groups in the labor market. However, if the normative social world of women and men in a given context differs so dramatically that women are regularly exposed to assault in particular spaces and/or at particular times, according "equality" in these spaces and times without addressing issues of equitable safety and security protection would, I think, arguably amount to an injustice. And of course if wages accorded to women are substantially less than those accorded to men for the same work in a given social circumstance, due mainly to cultural norms legitimizing wage discrimination -- which I have to believe is the case in India, just as it is here -- then "freeing" women to work longer hours amounts to an inevitable downward pressure on the wages of all workers, male and female alike.

Of course, these aren't just questions for the Indian citizenry to ponder, as the article makes clear that it will be in export processing zones -- areas of global trade, foreign direct investment, and transnational "offshoring" well-used by firms which are ostensibly based in our country -- where these new rules will have the greatest impact. Interestingly, the new Indian labor law did not affect the services sector -- the sector of such activities as retail sales, food preparation, janitorial cleaning and security provision -- where firms are unable to substitute global labor.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

More on H-1B workers and geographic location

One interesting question that the H-1B visa program raises, especially with respect to "information labor," is what particular sites are requesting and receiving the greatest number of H-1B visa approvals and hired foreign workers? An article in the Cincinnati Business Courier reprinted on MSNBC recently focused on the rustbelt as a site of acute H-1B need (as opposed to, say, the high-tech-worker-laden coasts):

A Courier review of federal records indicated roughly 1,000 companies that operate in Cincinnati sought permission to hire more than 18,000 foreign employees in the last five years. Consulting firms, universities and medical organizations are the biggest users of the program.

The story quoted a Cincinnati hospital administrator who uses H-1B labor as saying "There just aren't enough Americans coming out to fill these jobs. They may be available to people on the East or West Coast, but they're less available to people in this part of the country. It's harder to get people to move here."

What's even more surprising -- and more geographically significant -- is that the "outsourcing" and temporary services industry in the US is also involved in requesting H-1B visa workers. For example:

In some cases, companies file under multiple names or use temporary employment agencies or consulting firms to file applications on their behalf. Cincinnati-based outsourcing company Convergys Corp. has filed 108 applications under 15 different names, seeking permission to hire 1,323 people in Ohio, Florida, Utah and Texas. It has filled computer analyst positions, as well as marketing staffers, statisticians, associates and consultants.

So a person brought to work in the US for a firm supposedly needing an unique individual with rare qualifications is actually subcontracted through an outsourcing intermediary and not considered a permanent employee? Sounds like there is much more "play" in the system for particular persons targeted for particular jobs (on paper) to actually be shuffled around by recruiting firms, not only from firm to firm but from state to state -- where not only job descriptions, but also local labor markets, may vary greatly. Was this part of the intent of the H-1B program?

Still need more information to piece together this puzzle. Here are some more H-1B-critical online resources to follow up (which may be approaching this issue from very different political-economic standpoints): The Organization for the Rights of American Workers (;;

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

So where do IT workers stand?

If on the whole, a vast portion of the workforce is "working more but earning less" (see last post) due to inflation rising faster than salaries, where do IT workers fit in this mix? We know that a polarization exists in the workforce; the top 5% of workers did not see their wages stagnate, but actually experienced gains. Are IT workers generally to be found at the top, or the bottom?

First of all is the thorny problem of defining just who is an IT worker, and thus how many IT workers there are. For the moment, consider a recent Information Week analysis which claimed
"IT employees and managers represent only about 2.5% of the total American workforce. That would equate to about 1,500 households for all IT professionals" or an estimated 3.38 million workers.

If we look to unemployment figures alone, according to Information Week, those estimated 3.38 million US IT workers appear to be doing better than other workers:

Unemployment among IT workers stood at an annualized rate of 3.7% for the four quarters ended March 31, according to an InformationWeek analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data issued late last week. A year earlier, IT unemployment hit a post-boom high of 5.5%. Last quarter's IT unemployment rate reached its lowest point since the final quarter of 2001, when it was 3.7%, too. [...]

The number of unemployed Americans looking for IT jobs last quarter fell to 131,000 from 149,000 from the previous quarter. [...]

In the mid- to late 1990s, propelled by year 2000 code remediation and investments in enterprise and Internet technologies, IT unemployment hovered between 2 and 3.4 percentage points lower than overall unemployment.

But remember, wage stagnation might easily be coupled with low unemployment numbers. We'll need more fragmentary evidence to proceed further.

What about looking at corporate profits in the IT sector? The Contra Costa Times reports that in the San Francisco Bay Area, a high-tech crucible, corporate profits recently hit a high point:

The 100 largest public companies in the nine-county Bay Area by revenues generated an average profit of $648 million in 2004, according to the Times annual survey of the region's corporations. That was 93 percent higher than the average profit for the region's 100 biggest public firms during 2003 [...]

Yet local representatives of capital still claim that the Bay Area is "unfriendly" to business: "The Bay Area is not business-friendly. As companies expand, they will probably hire people outside of the Bay Area, in other states or other parts of California," said a Bay Area financial manager quoted in the article.

What level of corporat profits would be required to equal a "friendly" climate, anyway?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Working more, earning less

From a New York Times article today, a troubling new statistic: "Even though the economy added 2.2 million jobs in 2004 and produced strong growth in corporate profits, wages for the average worker fell for the year, after adjusting for inflation - the first such drop in nearly a decade."

Interestingly, the experts quoted in the article -- "human resources" consultants, investment-banking professionals and academic economists -- express surprise at this "wage stagnation" trend, saying things like "the factors normally associated with higher pay have rebounded," that this trend "did not conform to traditional economic explanations," and that "Normally, real wages track productivity." The article described as "two unusual trends" the reality that "Wage growth has trailed far behind productivity growth over the last four years, and the share of national income going to employee compensation is low by historic standards."

Thus various "abnormal" conditions leading to the current loss of real wages are suggested by these experts: "soaring health insurance costs" or "a sudden spike in oil prices". Interestingly, the article argues that "Most economists" do not attribute the wage stagnation to "foreign competition from China, India and other developing nations". However it then quotes a representative of investment firm Morgan Stanley who attributes wage stagnation to "foreign competition; corporations that are moving jobs offshore; the uncertainty of businesses over demand; and management's ability to substitute computers and other devices to replace workers." (Are these all "abnormal" trends? I thought they were the expected consequences of the globalization and digitalization of the economy.)

One big problem with these explanations, besides the fact that the conditions they invoke are themselves now "normal," is that not all workers suffered flat wages in the last few years; instead, a polarization was at work:

The overall wage figures hide a split, with an elite group getting relatively large gains. In a study of census data, the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group, found that for the bottom 95 percent of workers, after-inflation wages were flat or down in 2004, but for the top 5 percent, wages rose by an average of 1 percent, with some gaining much more. The upper-income group enjoyed strong pay increases largely because of bonuses, stock options and other inducements and because of robust demand in certain fields, like law and investment banking."

Coupling this polarization with the "strong growth in corporate profits" cited in the article, it seems to me that it is incorrect to explain worker wage stagnation through appeal to external factors supposedly outside the control of capital such as health care costs and oil prices (especially since steady rises in both of those costs over the next decades, rather than being "sudden" and "unusual" trends, are instead among the most predictable aspects of our economy) or to the new rules of the game in the global digital economy (which we as a society must manage with the goal of social justice for our weakest members). Whether in uncertain or stable environments, corporate owners and managers, by definition, make strategic decisions about how to turnover their capital in the shortest time and with the greatest profit. Under the strategy these actors have chosen, all but the highest-demand laborers are increasingly threatened with replacement by technological automation, "offshore" competition, or, less sensationally but no less effective, a move by the firm to a neighboring city, county, or state.

Nowhere is the role of government -- at federal, state, or local levels -- discussed in the article, but I think it should be. If profits of corporations (and their owners) and salaries of "the top 5 percent" of workers (often including decision-makers in these same corporations) continue to rise while wages of the rest stagnate, perhaps this itself is the "unusual" economic trend which demands correction -- capping profits and salaries for the social good through labor organization, consumer action and, yes indeed, government regulation.

Source: Steven Greenhouse, "Falling fortunes of the wage earner," New York Times (12 Apr 2005).

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The H-1B visa program and the definition of "high tech work"

Here are some tidbits from an InfoWorld article lamenting new hurdles in attracting foreign high-tech workers to the US under the H-1B visa program that got me to thinking a bit about "outsourcing," "offshoring," and our assumptions about the responsibility of state and capital to grow a productive, socially just, and generationally sustainable indigenous labor force:

As of December [2004], filing fees for H-1B visas have gone up more than 1,000 percent, from $185 to $2,185 per applicant. But you might as well add on another $1,000 for what’s called “premium processing” of the visa application. Premium processing guarantees 15-day turnaround; otherwise, processing can take between four and six months [...] If you think your company can afford to wait six months for some hotshot software engineer, consider this. Last year, as they do each year, 65,000 H-1B visas became available on Oct. 1. When the 65,000 are gone, employers have to wait another 12 months for new visas to become available. All of last year’s visas were spoken for by Oct. 3.

The Washington Post recently had an update on the current H-1B situation:

Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said it would issue an additional 20,000 visas for highly skilled foreign workers because this year's cap had already been met. All 65,000 of the H-1B visas for this year were filled by U.S. businesses on Oct. 1, the first day of the government's fiscal year. In response to complaints from businesses, Congress in November passed legislation approving the additional visas, saying they should go to graduates of U.S. institutions with an advanced degree. But last month, the immigration agency said the visas could go to anyone with a bachelor's degree, confusing businesses and immigration lawyers. As of yesterday, agency officials said Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget were still reviewing the criteria for the 20,000 visas.

So clearly not just economic decisions about "innovation" and "competitiveness," but political decisions about "homeland security," are at stake here. The Infoworld article also mentioned increased hurdles for obtaining green cards for H-1B employees and argues that "Policies such as these will certainly encourage offshoring":

Why go through the expense — including not just the visa fees but also the legal fees needed to process the visas, the time it takes to get new employees trained and up and running, plus the uncertainty, delays, and lack of permanency of investments you may have made in hiring foreign workers — when you can just contract a company outside our borders and still get most of the benefits of having the best and the brightest working for you?

The Post article implied the same thing — offshoring would increase as H-1B visas became more scarce and more expensive. For some companies this could mean considerable relocation of production -- as the Post reported, for example, at Texas Instruments Inc. "Four percent of the Dallas company's U.S. workforce of 20,000 is on an H-1B visa." So the implicit argument here, from the POV of the business press, is that "offshoring" (outsourcing to firm locations outside the US) is a bad thing. But why do they make this claim? Because offshoring takes jobs away from US workers? Because offshoring removes incentives for training and educating US workers so they too can number among the "best and the brightest"? Neither seem to be considerations of capital in hiring H-1B visa workers (nor of the state in designing its H-1B visa program).

And how about that phrase, "offshoring"? The implication is that US-located firms either "offshore" operations or engage in H-1B visa hiring because they require the "best and the brightest" but can't find them domestically. No mention is made in the Infoworld piece of the differences in labor costs or labor relations between various categories of even highly-skilled high-tech workers. However, the Post alludes to these debates over wages:

Critics of the visa program say employers aren't looking hard enough in the United States and have used the program to import cheaper labor. They accuse these same employers of abusing the program's mandate to pay workers a "prevailing wage." "You can hire a computer programmer and pay $12.50 per hour and that passes muster as prevailing wage," said Ron Hira, a vice president for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, a professional society representing 220,000 engineers. Companies retort that the filing fees to sponsor H-1B visas -- applied toward training for U.S. workers -- have increased from hundreds of dollars to thousands, and that they also have to pay thousands in lawyers' fees and moving expenses.

The H-1B visa program is an interesting phenomenon itself. From the FAQ at the US Citizenship and Information Services web site, we find that such visas are only to be "used by an alien who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation or as a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability." Leaving aside the fashion model exemption (we must have difficulty finding the "best and the most beautiful" in the US) we find that a "specialty occupation" is one which "requires theoretical and practical application of a body of specialized knowledge along with at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. For example, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts are specialty occupations."

There's no information here about the rationale behind this program, save for a tidbit indicating that "Certain aliens working on Defense Department projects may remain in H-1B status for 10 years" rather than the customary 6 year limit. This suggests that national security arguments provided one rationale for this program (and provides a chewy contradiction when we consider now the anti-terrorism fears and measures which are apparently slowing down the H-1B bureaucracy). It is likely that "global competitiveness" arguments on behalf of capital provided another. Yet the interesting question of how one category of professional labor is constructed under separate rules from all other workers is still unresolved.

For a view of the various arguments against the intent and operation of the H-1B program, check out which provides some detailed information about the history of the H-1B program from what is apparently a pro-labor and anti-globalization perspective, as evidenced by their links to the progressive Economic Policy Institute and the new union Washington alliance of technology and communication workers (other problematic perspectives, which I haven't seen in evidence at this site, might include anti-immigration and anti-intellectual arguments).

Me personally, I'd like a world where laborers of all wage and skill levels could move as freely around the globe in search of fulfilling work, just as capital moves freely around the globe in search of rapid and massive and risk-free accumulation. I get suspicious when one segment of labor is carved off from another for special privileges, especially when I find myself in the privileged segment. I'd like some sense of why such decisions are being made and who's making them to be present in the publicly-accessible record, including any economic or social assumptions that might have historically been in place when these regulations were passed. Only then can concerned citizens continue to evaluate their political-economy and choose whether or not they want to press for changes.

In this case, looks like the NGO/activist community has put together a pretty rich and vibrant web site -- agree or argue, it's loaded with information and links. The government site is sparse and the trade press view is narrow. It's all fragmentary evidence for us.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Telework and terror

From the Associated Press (via the Washington Times) comes a news report of a Fairfax County VA official promoting teleworking (or as it is commonly but mistakenly called here in the US, "telecommuting") as a strategy to recover from a terrorist attack:

"I won't be surprised if in the future the federal government requires every federal contractor to file a continuity of operations plan," Mr. Connolly said. "God forbid, but if there is a dirty bomb downtown and you can't get into the U.S. Transportation Department, how will you perform your job?"

Similary, a Northern Virginia Transportation Commission official claimed that

"Teleworking significantly improves the survivability of the public and the ability of the transportation system to do what it needs to do."

Obviously local officials from the Washington suburbs now consider issues of "survivability" in their routine urban planning roles; the Pentagon was burning due to a terrorist attack only four short years ago, and the unsolved anthrax attacks helped shut down significant parts of the Washington postal service. But this is also a site where telework, defined by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (again, incorrectly, I'd argue) as "working at least one day per week from home," is both popular and feasible: "About 310,000 people in the region telecommute" and "There are another 420,000 people who would telework tomorrow if given the opportunity," according to local officials.

For example, Federal News Radio reports that the GSA is heavily into telework:

The Public Building Service of the General Services Administration has one of the most far-flung (and best rated) telework operations in government. Its Energy Expertise Center is headed by Mark Ewing, whose office is in the southwest part of Washington, D.C. But he's got staff in Boston, Karen Kern to be precise, and a number of people in Texas (like Rita Owens and her team mates), and Cheryl Pool in Vancouver. The unit monitors energy use in federal buildings, negotiates deals for electricity and natural gas and pays the bills. The Government Accountability Office recently gave it the best-in-show award for its operations. That's a big deal.

The government says money on office space it doesn't have to buy or lease. Employees save commuting time because it only involves going from the kitchen or living room into their government-issue office at home. People with kids (or elderly parents) must arrange for professional day care help. They sign on and off, and can be monitored. People are never "late" for work, and employees say that the use of sick leave is minimal. Sometimes an employee will take an hour of sick leave, rather than losing a day.

The best part is that the GSA/PBS program is now in its 11th year. Obviously somebody on high thinks it's working. Including the workers.

Not surprisingly, in a neoliberal environment of endemic budget crises coupled with constant efforts to lower taxes and "shrink government," quantifying the "tangible" (read: economic) benefits of telework is key to any Federal telework project, as this press release found on Business Wire illustrates:

The Telework Exchange(SM), a new public-private partnership focused on eliminating telework gridlock, today unveiled, an online community focused on demonstrating the tangible value of Federal telework initiatives, serving the emerging education and communications requirements of the Federal teleworker community, and measuring Federal agencies' progress on telework requirements. The Telework Exchange announced Intel Corporation, CDW-G, Citrix, and Juniper Networks as founding industry members. [...]

The Telework Exchange community features a series of Telework value calculators that tally the cost of Federal commuting. The calculators draw on Telework Consortium and Department of Energy translation ratios to quantify potential telework benefits. Specifically, the site features two calculators - potential cost savings and environmental impact. Federal employees can register on the site and log the number of roundtrip miles they commute to work or avoided commuting by teleworking, the number of days they work, the type of car they drive, and their agency affiliation. The calculators automatically compute the potential cost savings and environmental benefits associated with Federal telework. The calculators empower Federal employees to understand their personal cost of commuting - as a raw figure and a percentage of after-tax income - as well as to understand how many tons of pollutants they are pumping into the environment each day as they travel to and from work. Starting in May 2005, the Telework Exchange will leverage registration information to publish a third Telework Dividend calculator, which will quantify actual Federal telework savings. Importantly, the Telework Dividend calculator will provide the first metrics to track the relative performance of Federal agencies in meeting the mandated requirement to support Federal telework operating models.

Unfortunately, the simplistic and rather utopian understanding of telework as self-sufficient individual experts working from their suburban homes and modeming their work back and forth through a largely automated Internet to a centralized urban office site (the classic US telecommuting model) is itself inadequate for a variety of reasons:

- Teleworkers are not a homogenous group of stereotypical suburban electronic-cottagers. Many teleworkers live within the urban core, escaping not a long daily automobile commute (in the classic suburban telecommuting definition) but an office environment filled with distractions and demands ranging from business dress to water-cooler gossip. Other teleworkers actually do commute each day, but to non-office or non-employer sites (ranging from "Internet cafes" and airport terminals to client sites and regional "teleports"). And a significant number of teleworkers are using their very time stuck in the daily automobile commute as a productive workspace, through their cell phones, PDAs, voice recorders and laptops.

- Teleworkers, even when embedded in single-family suburban homes, use more information/communication technologies than just their Internet-connectted computers. Besides of course electricity, they require Internet infrastructure (largely still phone lines or cable lines, though urban wireless is gaining), voice communication (largely still land-line or cell phone networks, though Internet phoning or "voice over IP" is gaining), and even sometimes television (folks following markets, closed-captioners). More crucially, they still require transport; even if they themselves are not mobile, they often require that documents or even equipment be shipped back and forth to them.

- Teleworkers privileged enought to be able to choose this division of labor for themselves do so not only for spatial reasons (avoiding automobile trips to a work location) but for temporal reasons (structuring one's work day more flexibly). And a main reason workers seek temporal flexibility is to manage the various spaces of their daily lives: home provisioning (grocery and clothes shopping), and child management (ferrying to school and sports and lessons) being the two most common examples. Indeed, personal mobility during the working day is another one of the benefits offered by cell phone and PDA use. Such errands will still leave workers on the road for part of the day, subject to traffic gridlock and road closure.

- Not all teleworkers are stereotypical "information professionals" able to structure their working day and working tasks as they like, operating autonomously for extended periods of time. Many teleworkers are low-wage, (supposedly) low-skill, low-autonomy data-entry or data-processing workers who expect and require a daily list of tasks, deadlines, input material and output destinations, to be able to work remotely at all. And even the highest-paid and highest-autonomy teleworkers require that other individuals be "in place" through the working day (and night) while they themselves operate remotely: network systems administrators, office administrative assistants, telephone switchboard operators, employee travel agents and computer support professionals to name a few.

What this all comes down to, from the perspective of my research on "information labor," is that telework should be perceived relationally, as a set of technologies and privileges and practices which fragment work across the space and time of "personal life" but do not necessarily or completely disconnect work from the space and time of "office life". Unlike the "identity" model of telecommuting, where individual monads autonomously and automatically produce value at a safe distance from a traditional work site, relational teleworkers in all their diversity and complexity still depend on a well-functioning and well-planned urban fabric of technological and social infrastructure. A terror event of any scale which disrupts these will inevitably disrupt the utopian dreams of telecommuting as well.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Microsoft in the Middle East

Microsoft is well-known among researchers of information infrastructures and information labor for several things: (a) its global near-monopoly position as a provider of PC operating systems; (b) its participation in grant programs through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to donate free hardware, software, and training to deserving information and education agencies such as libraries and schools; and (c) its longstanding battles with its generally high-skill and high-wage labor force of designers, coders, testers, and other information workers over issues of temporary employment, subcontracting, and equitable relations of labor. So I was intrigued when all of these strands seemed to come together in an area I haven't really given much attention to: the country of Bahrain on the Arabian penninsula.

According to this story in the Gulf Daily News, "Two hundred Bahrainis graduated yesterday from a scheme designed to equip them for jobs in the information technology industry. Sixty-three have already found jobs" out of the "first group from the Career Connections initiative, held yesterday under his patronage at the Bahrain Training Institute (BTI) in Isa Town." The sponsors of this training program include "Microsoft in partnership with the ministry, Bahrain Institute of Technology (BIT) and Bahrain Development Bank (BDB). Its aim is to give unemployed Bahrainis basic computer skills, to open up job opportunities for them."

So here is an interesting non-US example of a rapidly-changing economy in a Gulf nation directing resources toward lessening its position in the global "digital divide" and bolstering the competitive position of its workers and its firms in the global information industry. But why call upon Microsoft? Turns out that Microsoft (not the Gates foundation) has a global program geared toward training future technology workers: "Career Connections is part of the Microsoft Unlimited Potential (UP) programme, which is a global initiative that focuses on improving lifelong learning for disadvantaged young people and adults. Microsoft Bahrain country manager Samir Benmakhlouf said they believe that by providing technical skills training they can partner with other community leaders to create social and economic opportunities that can change people's lives and transform communities." According to Benmakhlouf, "We are helping to bridge the global technology gap by providing the training tools people need to realise their potential. When you are a leader like Microsoft then you have a social responsibility towards governments and customers you deal with. Helping solve the unemployment problem is an issue that we see is very important."

This all raised some further questions for me: Why would high-tech companies like Microsoft be interested in investing in Bahrain in particular? Are there general state incentives, particular computer industry incentives, or particular Microsoft-strategy-related incentives at work here? How much of this program is a public relations strategy and how much is a strategy to build a network of subcontractable employees, sympathetic vendors, and open markets for the firm? So I started to gather some fragmentary evidence ...

From we find that Bahrain's government is aggressively pursuing foreign direct investment even if it involves more expatriate labor than indigenous labor:

Earlier this year, the Bahraini government rejected a Chamber of Deputies proposal to charge a 1 percent tax on remittances made by expatriates, who make up about 64 percent of Bahrain's workforce. Under the proposal, revenue collected from the tax would go toward an unemployment benefit fund for Bahraini workers. The government opposed the idea on the grounds that it would deter foreign investment and harm the country's commitment to free enterprise.

From we find that the US and Bahrain share a bilateral trade agreement, modeled on the WTO-based "Agreement on Government Procurement," allows the US government to purchase goods and services from Bahrain with US tax dollars with no restrictions, just as if the goods were produced here. This of course would be very important to a Microsoft-owned Bahrain subsidiary since Microsoft derives significant revenue from government contracts for operating systems, software, and services:

The AGP is a plurilateral agreement that currently applies to 38 Members of the WTO.[i]   The AGP was negotiated as part of the Uruguay Round, and implementing legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994.[ii] The AGP entered into force for the United States on January 1, 1996.[iii] Federal agencies, 37 U.S. States, and various port authorities currently are listed as entities covered by the disciplines of the AGP. The agreement requires that covered entities treat foreign goods, services and suppliers from the other 37 signatory countries “immediately and unconditionally”[iv] the same as domestic suppliers when purchasing goods and services with taxpayer dollars. The AGP “applies to any law, regulation, procedure or practice regarding any procurement by entities covered by this Agreement…” and “applies to procurement by any contractual means, including through such methods as purchase or as lease, rental or hire purchase, with or without an option to buy, including any combination of products and services.”[v]The only caveat to this broad scope is that the agreement’s rules do not apply if a procurement opportunity involves only a relatively small amount of money.  The AGP also prohibits non-performance-related conditions in product or service technical specifications and supplier qualifications. Thus, with limited exceptions, covered entities are not allowed to adopt or maintain procurement policies that award contracts by considering factors beyond price and the ability to perform the contract.

Trade flows both ways, however. Microsoft can also sell software to the Bahrain government under this agreement, and from we see why it might be in Microsoft's interests to do this:

Bahrain's Central Informatics Organisation and Microsoft have launched a project to improve the e-literacy of civil servants in the country. The announcement was made by acting President of the Central Informatics Organisation, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, and Country Manager for Microsoft in Bahrain, Samir Benmakhlouf.

They announced their initiative after signing a memorandum of understanding that boosts the Kingdom's e-government drive towards building an "intelligent Kingdom."

"By helping our government staff through individual training and developing information-technology skills we're better equipped in driving our e-government initiative successfully. With Microsoft as a strong partner, we look forward to achieving our goals and objectives for e-government in the Kingdom," said Shaikh Ahmed.

According to the agreement, government personnel will be entitled to subsidised prices on Microsoft Office packages while other hardware and software products will be also available at reduced prices.

Alongside this, road shows will be organised to introduce IT education and learning into the homes of government personnel to generate interest in the project. Microsoft will also provide e-learning tools that will individually assist each employee in the Bahraini government through online training on Microsoft software.

The Bahrain government is thus acting strategically as well in attempting to attract and keep Microsoft on its soil in order to bolster its own regional political-economic strength as the site of the MIddle-Eastern financial industry. From the Bahrain Embassy itself:

Bahrain could become a centre for the development of financial software, particularly that related to the Islamic banking sector, says an expert. It could export tailor-made software to other countries. Microsoft is planning to work with local software developers to create a software industry specifically catering to the financial industry.

The interests of the Bahrain government, the interests of Microsoft in terms of securing both future contract laborers and current state-mandated consumers, and the interests of neoliberal "free" trade advocates in the US government are all aligned here. What might on the surface seem like either a generous policy on Microsoft's part to overcome the global digital divide, or a single-minded policy on Microsoft's part to build a low-wage, high-skill overseas labor force, is actually much more complex and intertwined with the political-economic projects of both the US and the Bahrain governments.

Thanks for stopping by

Hi there. My name is Greg Downey, and I'm a US-based historian and geographer of technology, employed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2001 in two departments at once: Journalism & Mass Communication and Library & Information Studies.  After achieving Master's degrees in computer science and liberal studies at other schools, I earned a dual Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University in the subfields of history of technology and human geography. My area of research and teaching is the history and geography of information & communication technology, especially the often hidden labor behind such technology. (You can find out lots more about me at my web site.)

This weblog will be a tentative, fragmentary, and sometimes even contradictory space for me to explore a wide range of evolving and (to me at least) intriguing relations between labor and technology within global information internetworks. Academic teaching and research must by necessity remain tightly focused, carefully reasoned, and instrumentally productive; however, this weblog pretends to be none of these things. You may consider it as a public view of some of my own private labor as an academic, or as an open conversation in search of contributors and commentators. I'll be attempting to keep up with a global 24-hour news cycle of developments at my own leisurely pace of posting two or maybe three times a week, so don't expect "rapid response activism" or "cutting edge commentary" from this weblog. My goal is not to watchdog or replace the various strands of the news media, but to use some current internetworking tools -- Google News, various blog indexes such as Daypop and Technorati, and the like -- to pull together otherwise disconnected strands of argument and moments of action from my own particular research agenda and try to knit them into a consistent flow of essays on the constantly-changing connections between computers, capital, and lived world of work.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope my writings can be of use to you. Cheers,