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 ...

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