Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spanish-speaking workers in the US and the technological training products which target them

As the debate over undocumented Latino immigrant workers in the US has unfolded over the last month here in the US, I've been trying to think about the ways in which concepts of "information labor" are wrapped up in this issue. Marc Cooper, a journalist and "Senior Fellow for Border Justice at the USC Annenberg School’s Institute for Justice and Journalism," had two weeks ago written a nice summary at TruthDig of how immigration reform bubbled up to the top of the news agenda in the last few weeks -- along with some revealing statistical and historical context to the debate.

The root cause of the immigration surge, of course, has nothing to do with a broken U.S. border but everything to do with a ruined Mexican economy. The wage differential between the U.S. and Mexico is about 11 to 1. Some studies suggest that in the agricultural sector there’s a 20-to-1 differential. The passage of the 1994 NAFTA agreement further depressed Mexican rural wages and further accelerated the immigration wave. No one knows the exact figure, but something like 15 million Mexicans have emigrated to the U.S. in the last 20 years. An equal number are expected over the next two decades.

An estimated record 12 million undocumented —or illegal aliens if you prefer—now reside in the United States, more than double the number of a decade ago. Undocumented Mexican workers, once found primarily in the fields of the Southwest, now occupy the front lines of the service labor market in almost every state of the union.

So the time/space geography of undocumented Mexican labor in particular seems to have diversified from seasonal work in rural agricultural regions to year-round service work in urban and suburban regions -- particularly in the hotel and restaurant industry, if the sources I'm reading are any indication. Certainly those industries have taken "informatizing" measures over the last two decades in order to consolidate their business processes, from just-in-time ordering of food and supplies to fragmenting the time and space of handling take-out orders (such as the McDonald's experiments with having remote English-speaking drive-through workers speak to customers in restaurants with largely Spanish-speaking on-site labor). So certainly information tools and telecommunications links are now intimately tied up in the corporate environment which employs so many Spanish-speaking Americans and would-be Americans.

But there are other ways in which this labor force is being targeted by vendors of information products -- especially for high-tech English language training. I found a 2004 story from the Dallas Morning News which was reprinted on the site of the restaurant-industry-sponsored Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance that talks about some of these new training efforts:

Dallas-based Brinker International Inc. is launching one of the largest initiatives combining technology and English lessons.

In February, the nation's second-largest casual dining company plans to launch an at-home program called Sed de Saber (roughly "thirst for knowledge" in Spanish).

Workers will use durable interactive touch-pads, similar to the popular LeapFrog toy.

They'll study a Mexican novella to learn restaurant terms and concepts in English, said Jose Gomez, director of diversity for Brinker. More than a third of Brinker's roughly 95,000 restaurant employees are Hispanic.

Interestingly (or ironically) Brinker International is the parent company of the very profitable Mexican-themed chain restaurants "Chili's" and "On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina".

The "Sed de Saber" system, which does in fact use licensed LeapPad technology (designed for infants to highschoolers), is produced by Newport Beach, CA-based Retention Education, LLC. Manuals for both employees and their "program managers" can be found on their web site. Although the system is promoted as an "English language learning program" which is "designed to help your Hispanic employees learn English language skills that can improve the quality of their lives," many of the topics listed in the manual concentrate on food service job tasks like "understanding schedules," "being a prep cook," "taking orders," "handling money," and "being a shift manager." Still, other more general topics are included like "shopping for groceries," "talking to the pharmacist," and "finding community resources."

At the beginning of the program manager guide is a warning of sorts that there are legal standards for how this four- to six-month training must be offered. If it is a mandatory training program, employees must be paid for their participation time; if it is voluntary, employees must not be penalized for choosing not to participate, and must not use the system during work hours. Retention Education even suggests that employers might want to offer Sed de Saber for employees to purchase themselves, perhaps "through a payroll deduction." The retail version of Sed de Saber costs $300 (plus shipping and handling), so a weekly payroll deduction over the suggested six-month training period would be at least $12.50/week if the employee paid all costs. I wonder how Brinker and other restaurant owners, large and small, are handling these legal nuances. (The MF&HA piece indicated that Brinker's use of the program was as an "at home" training, suggesting that it is voluntary/unpaid.)

I wonder what Latino/a, Hispanic and Chicano/a advocacy groups think about such training programs. My brief web search hasn't revealed anything, but I'm going to keep following this thread. Of course, the corporate rhetoric around such training programs, no matter what their merits or risks, never talks about using them to facilitate the hiring of undocumented labor. These are training programs for "Americans" to learn English. Amidst the current charges that undocumented Mexican immigrants in particular are some sort of "drain" on the economic resources of the US (charges which I think are ridiculous if one counts not only the economic value these workers add to the economy, but also the sales taxes, SSI taxes, and property taxes they pay), perhaps it could be useful to highlight these persons as not only eager to learn English -- and to pay in terms of their time and possibly their money for the opportunity -- but also as a huge consumer market targeted by the leaders of high-tech education ventures.


Shannon said...

Interesting post.

I'm actually an Adult ESL teacher working in the hopitality industry in Las Vegas. Sed de Seber approached my non-profit organization last year, and we received about 8 units that are now collecting dust. They weren't particularly impressive, and they intimidated some more techno-phobic students...as well as of course marginalizing those who weren't Spanish speakers.

order said...

If you still have these 8 units collecting dust, please send them to us so that we can use them with our parents, high school students, and workers who are looking to get better jobs and lives. We have hundreds of people using Sed de Seber and they work to get adults to a point where they can go on to more formal English classes in our adult education and community colleges.

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