"Welcome to class warfare": A roundtable discussion of global labor issues in which readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "White-collar Sweatshop."

By Salon Staff

Published July 8, 2003 8:42PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

First, right off the bat you need to know I take a great deal of offense when you call what I do for a living running a sweatshop.

Your article is not an objective telling of a story, [but] I do not deny that there is a story here. While tacit mention is given to other countries, it still reads like an attack on Indians. I am obviously not a disinterested party either and have been following the debate as closely as possible through online editions of major newspapers.

I run a small company with 20 employees, and we get projects from all over the world, so it's not just the U.S. (Actually it's mostly Canada and Europe. U.S. companies tend to only work with the biggies, Infosys, Satyam, Wipro, TCS.) Do you know the cost difference in smaller work? It's not the two times difference you quote; it is much, much more. I provide Web and mobile development skills for $8 to $20 an hour. The contractors, whom you seem so fond of, charge clients $50-$100 an hour. Now when someone says these are America's highest-paying jobs, you tell me if they should be.

Most of my employees travel 2-3 hours a day in trains that are supposed to carry 50 people in a compartment and [end up] carrying 250. They get to work at 10 in the morning and regularly stay at work past 9 p.m. They don't look at this as a sweatshop. They see this as their opportunity to get ahead in the world and make a decent living. These men and women are the sons and daughters of truck drivers and factory laborers and tailors, people who spent their life never making more than four or five thousand rupees a month. But they educated their children so that they can have a better life. And it paid off for some of them. Today their kids make 10, 15, 20, 25 thousand rupees. That's a lot in India.

Yes, it's not desirable that American tech workers lose their jobs, but why does the U.S. have the right to these jobs? That's the fundamental question, and it is this implicit sentiment that is apparent in all the people who are fighting against "outsourcing." I think it's a very rare company that does not have operations in this country. If it's OK for them to operate here and make money here (as I doubt they do it out of charity), it's OK for us to go after their software work. I am not an economist and don't really know anything about how economies work, but it's supposed to be a global village, isn't it? Or is that only when we are talking about buying stuff from Microsoft and Oracle and Adobe and not when we are trying to sell?

As for the protectionist hysteria in N.J. and Washington, India has been there and done that... trust me, it doesn't work.

-- Amit Doshi

The author ends her story on a rather placid note, implying that the numbers of jobs being sent overseas are "inflated." I rather doubt that, because I myself lost a high-paying job precisely because my workload was sent to a new "satellite" office in India, and this happened in late '99, before the tech boom went bust. You can just imagine what's happening now.

Three others in my Technical Publications group quit because they could see what was coming (I was naive). The documentation of our product was outsourced to India, but I met this staff of Indians, and there were six of them to do the work of four people, who also handled other, side projects as the need arose!

This isn't about cutting costs; it's about pure greed, untrammeled in its avarice. Corporate America is not only firing its own customers, it's eating its own seed corn.

-- Rob Anderson

I read your article about American workers' fears of losing their jobs to globalization with interest.

As a data analyst at a large Bay Area corporation, I work side by side with programmers from India every day.

The real question is not, should we be giving high-tech work to non-U.S. citizens, but rather, why are they so good at it?

They must be putting something in the water in Bangalore, because every single Indian national I've had the pleasure to work with is a crackerjack programmer with a good work ethic and a healthy curiosity about life on this side of the globe.

High-tech workers are unique in the American workforce in their ability to improve their skills, further their education, and increase their value easily. The whole field literally changes every five years (or less).

I think blaming the guy in the next cube for your problems smacks of plain old entitlement. It's not becoming for a sector that was once and may again be the envy of the rest of the economy.

-- Justin Neisuler

Truth be told, I applaud the idea of outsourcing any number of highly paid positions to India, China and Antarctica... so long as for every IT or customer-support position that goes, at least one upper-management position goes as well. Considering the flood of room-temperature-IQ MBAs chirping about the joys of globalization, I'd like to think that they'd be glad to sacrifice their jobs so Indian managers can participate in incessant meetings to prepare for meetings, backstabbing, butt-kissing, three-hour lunches and then a nap, screaming at the employees about not leaving two adjoining parking spaces available for their SUVs, and all of the other benefits indulged by their American counterparts. Hell, maybe by paying one-eighth of what an American-trained MBA makes, the outsourced companies can save a bit of money on cocaine rehab treatments and sexual harassment legal costs.

Admittedly, I can see one major problem: Those Indian managers will have to learn that leadership in the IT business means "blaming everyone else when things go wrong" and that failure is to be rewarded and not punished. However, if we can teach the rest of the world about other American values, we can teach those two values that made American business what it is today.

-- Paul Riddell

The "race to the bottom" provoked by globalization is well under way, fueled by corporate shortsightedness and a focus on only one party to the "social contract" by which business used to be governed: stockholders. Alan Tonelson is right on the money when he says that "American industry has been firing its best customers, which are its own workers." Don't they get it? If I don't have a job, I stop buying all but totally essential products. That means no new car, no new clothes, no new appliances, no fly/drive vacations.

H-1B visas get the most press, but the L-1 intra-company transfer visas are more fuel for the fire. No, don't blame the folks coming here to get work, or those who may do the work overseas. In their place, finding an opportunity to make more than subsistence wages, I'd do the same.

We must blame American multinational corporations for focusing on short-term, bottom line, "we gotta make our quarterly target for the Wall Street analysts" goals. We must blame American politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, who allow American-based corporations to relocate to offshore P.O. boxes to avoid paying their fair share.

We once were basically an industrial economy. Then, in the recent past, the United States lost significant numbers of industrial and manufacturing jobs. So, we restructured ourselves for the information economy. Now we're losing technical and professional jobs across the board (even medical staff such as the people who read MRI and CT scans are being offshored), information workers are being replaced by outsourcing and offshoring, and the numbers of the long-term unemployed (the ones that don't show up in the statistics because they no longer qualify for unemployment benefits and/or they're no longer looking for work) are growing.

As the offshoring trend continues, our information workers will find themselves moving down the pay scale to keep body and soul together, and all we'll have left in the end is a service economy. But who will we be servicing? Who'll be in a position to buy the services we'll provide? The middle class will be a distant memory ... and will Bill Gates drive up to the burger-joint window so I can ask him: "Do you want fries with that?"

Welcome to class warfare.

-- Maureen Sheridan

There is a voice missing in Katharine Mieszkowski's piece -- that of the people elsewhere in the world who now have the opportunity for well-paid work. Far from being sweatshops, the companies providing offshore programming in places like India generally offer salaries that are generous by the standards of the countries they are based in. Not only does this provide incomes to people who need them more than white-collar Americans do, but it also raises the skill levels in those countries, enabling them, to some extent at least, to develop their potential away from subsistence farming and basic low-wage industrial work. This trend may be hard on individual Americans, but on balance it is good for international development.

-- David Brake

Thank you for such a good, balanced article.

I am currently "training" a group of Indian guys to take over the jobs of my entire group. We all make $60-$95K and these fellows get maybe $15 an hour.

They come over to America for their training and do not even have the wherewithal to contribute to the local economy. Ten guys in one apartment, no car -- in Phoenix, where you can't go anywhere without a car.

Even worse, there are no women in the hundreds of Indian engineers I have seen. The Chinese seem to relegate the women to the testing ghetto. Russians -- no women there, either.

I and fellow women have had to endure blatant sexism. For example, our corporate director of co-sourcing (a lovely euphemism, yes?) told me the Indian engineers and managers do not even speak to her face if a man is there. The same has been my experience, and I am just a very senior technical person. I can tell an engineer to perform a task N times, and it will not get done until a man tells him so!

We are rapidly becoming the coffee-fetchers our foremothers in technology were!

I am not a xenophobe -- I am myself an immigrant, a legal one. I have lived on several continents. I see most of our jobs at least at my company flying off shore.

What's most shameful of all is that the quality of innovation is not there. If I don't exactly tell these guys how to do something, they don't do it. Whereas I could take a summer intern with one year of college from any decent comp sci department in North America. So it is costing $$ to babysit, literally, these fellows on so-called L-1 and training visas.

Some questions to ask: Why not develop talent on the Native American reservations?

Why not hire the unemployed for the lower wages?

Oh, I forgot. Those are people trained to think, not high-tech coolies who will do what the CEO says!

-- Name withheld

Thank you for shining a spotlight on the outsourcing of technology jobs. As a software developer, I have been watching this trend in horror for the past few years and have been astounded at the failure of the mainstream media to inform the American people about what is happening. I am an eyewitness to the ravages of outsourcing both at my current employer and my previous one.

I take issue with Bivens claiming that this trend is "really, really tiny in the latest data." My former employer had a stated mission of outsourcing all programming jobs. They are currently well on their way to accomplishing their goal at the expense of hundreds of jobs at this one corporation alone. My current employer has similar ambitions. Many of my co-workers who have been laid off under these circumstances are finding it difficult if not impossible to find a similar job in the technology sector. This problem is not "tiny" and whether or not it is acknowledged, its repercussions are already echoing throughout the economy.

-- Lori Falco

Thank you for this article. It is a good introduction to the American Worker Replacement Program (outsourcing plus various work visas). My only quibble is that you didn't mention the L-1 visa.

While unemployment among tech workers is at a record high, the federal government continues to allow companies to avoid hiring Americans through the H-1B and L-1 visa programs. WashTech, nomoreh1b, toraw, the Programmer's Guild, and other organizations have been fighting these visa programs for years.

H-1B at least has a cap. The L-1 visa, which is supposed to allow for the transfer of specialized personnel between branches of the same company in different countries, is limitless. This visa is the business model of various bodyshop companies like Wipro or Tata Consulting.

I urge anybody who's interested in fighting the outsourcing/visa trend to take one or more of the following actions:

  • Join one of the groups mentioned above.
  • The H-1B visa cap is set to go from 195,000 a year to 65,000 a year in October. Contact your senators and representative and ask them to make sure to vote against any extension of the higher cap.
  • Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is introducing legislation to reform the L-1 program. Ask your representative to support her bill when it comes out. She especially needs a Republican cosponsor.
  • -- Mike Gollub

    While it may be the case that the outsourcing of programming jobs to other countries is done at the cost of U.S. jobs, the H-1B restrictions state that foreigners working in the U.S. on H-1Bs must do so at a salary that is commensurate with similar jobs in the same geographic area. In other words, H-1B labor is not a cheap alternative (in fact, when you factor in the cost of processing the H-1B and hiring an immigration lawyer, it often costs the firm more money).

    It seems that H-1B workers are very much scapegoated due to the downturn in the economy. The only valid point would be that those with H-1Bs who are still employed are possibly doing jobs [for which workers] used to be scarce and can now be filled by American citizens, but it is not the case that firms are happily replacing their local workers with foreign ones working within the U.S.

    -- Anthony Breckner

    Yes, outsourcing is a big problem for IT workers and it is only going to get bigger. The reason so many of these workers are easy to replace has to do with the way IT departments and workers are isolated in their own departments with their own goals and agendas, which can be far different from those on the business side of the companies they work for. IT workers need to become a vital part of the businesses they work for and should be faster and more flexible in helping businesses meet their needs. This is how to survive.

    Why? Because the business still needs solutions (apart from those everyday tasks that IT used to handle) that cannot be done by outsourcing, because those in another country are not familiar with the business they are serving and have little or no time to learn. How can someone in India understand that 10 departments must be served in 10 very different ways (that the departments don't even understand) and often in 24-48 hours during a crisis? Someone with tech skills, on the ground in a corporation or company, working in the business side of things, will become very valuable as more IT jobs leave the country and the very detailed and complex projects that need to be completed very quickly no longer have resources.

    -- Adam Abbott

    Make no mistake about it, outsourcing to white-collar sweatshops in Third World countries has only just begun. Once multinational profit vultures get hold of a new money-making scheme, they always exploit it until the last drop of blood has been sucked from the carcass.

    White-collar workers in the U.S. are, and should be, very, very afraid. And while it is easy to point a finger and laugh at a lot of these survival-of-the-fittest, I-don't-need-government-help libertarian types who are now screaming for assistance from the feds in Washington, the urge to ridicule should be avoided.

    Because your secure, high-paying job could be next.

    -- Tom J. Wright

    Whatever apologists for outsourcing may say, it's not harmless, and the long-term effects on the American economy are likely to be noticeable, if not severe. It's true that large IT firms can reduce their overhead by hiring cheap overseas labor; a company for whom I used to contract was paying $10 an hour to Bulgarian programmers, which is chump change compared to what American software engineers make. On the flip side, the company in question wound up having to rewrite a lot of the code because it didn't meet the standards they required, so perhaps the savings will be ephemeral in the long run.

    At any rate, if the overall amount of money that American consumers have to spend decreases, who is going to buy the high-tech output of these companies? Industrialized nations are still the No. 1 market for electronic goods and services, and if that market vanishes, the entire industry will be crippled. What will resuscitate the American economy is domestic investment; sending our jobs overseas will just ensure the continuation of this current recession or drop us into a full-blown depression.

    -- Tom Maddox

    The illustration accompanying Katharine Mieszkowski's article on "White-collar Sweatshops" appears to caricature, in a borderline offensive way, the Indian workers who are doing outsourced tech work. (You got the Shiva arms and the lotus position -- what, there was no room in your illustration for a cow?) This seems very un-Salon, given that the article itself discussed the distinction between demonizing the foreign workers and criticizing the greedy companies that send jobs overseas.

    The companies deserve the blame and should be taxed the difference between what those companies pay a foreign worker and what they would have to pay an equivalent American worker. Only when the practice of sending jobs overseas no longer pays will they change their practices. Of course, the Bushies won't do anything about companies that incorporate offshore to dodge taxes, so I won't hold my breath.

    -- Tracey McCartney

    For decades now America has been the provider of a cheap, educated workforce. Now, out of the developing world, come countries with young, educated populations who are hungry for the lifestyle that we have sold them through countless hours of advertising. And we can't count on our buying power to save us when the 3 billion people in Asia and the hundreds of millions in Latin America begin cashing paychecks to buy designer wares.

    There are two things we must do to keep jobs here in the States. One is to provide to the workers in these countries the protections from exploitation that we have, and continue to fight for, here at home. The other is to improve upon our educational system. At the college level and above public and private U.S. schools are as good as, if not better than, those of any other country. But from K to 12 our system of public education is deplorable. Outdated textbooks, crumbling classrooms, and torturously low pay are just the beginning. Until we fix this most important aspect of American society, we will continue to watch jobs depart our shores, never to return. So, in other words, we are doomed.

    -- Wahrena Pfeister

    The argument of American workers railing against the exporting of white-collar jobs can be boiled down to this: I'm an American. It is my God-given right to be paid two to five times more than "faceless" foreigners performing the same job. This is the only way I can sustain my overprivileged American way of life.

    The reaction of American workers is understandable. However, they are on very shaky moral ground here. Sorry, but I have to side with the corporations on this one.

    -- Name withheld

    I have been responsible for hiring high-tech talent for a multinational consulting firm. Believe me, most managers I worked with would prefer not to have to deal with the headaches of recruiting a person with a visa. Still, they do it because we seem to be unable to develop equivalent (let's not even discuss superior) talent here.

    While I appreciate the difficulties of being laid off, let's accept the fact that jobs are being sent off shore because:

    1) American talent demands that it be paid top dollar for mediocre performance. I've seen executives in tears because their company expected them to raise a family of four on $140,000 with a mere $25,000 year-end bonus. Said executives worked less than a 40-hour week, had no supervisory responsibilities, no proprietary responsibilities, and no sales quotas. Oh, and that division's performance was down somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent.

    2) In many cases, American talent is not properly educated. Many of the technical and executive people I've worked with may have advanced training, but they do not have the education to adequately implement that training. I have interviewed many engineers who "earn" in the $80,000 salary bracket who have less than 10 years' experience and can claim no patent or even simple innovation as wholly their own. Once our universities recognize the difference between education and vocational training, our country will return to being able to support itself in a responsible and luxurious manner.

    -- Scott Cooper

    "But after reading yet another article about the cost savings of outsourcing and offshoring, who can blame unemployed or underemployed tech workers for believing that their jobs have been farmed out to some faceless worker in China who will work for half the money?"

    It always amazes me how people think that having a job or a specific job for which they have trained is an American right. Aren't the tech workers who are upset that "their" jobs are being "given away" or "stolen" in the same situation as factory workers when a company determines that it is no longer cost effective to maintain the factory, or coal miners when the mine closes? There is no guarantee in life that you will be able to maintain the same job throughout your working career or that you will be able to settle and live in one place. Why should the government be regulating businesses so that they are unable to make cost-effective choices about whom to employ?

    -- Jen Martin

    As a blue-collar worker for the past 20 years, let me welcome Mr. Napier aboard the good ship capitalism. We have been expecting you. It's not unusual for a blue-collar worker to have a trade and several years of college, or a second trade, just to keep a full-time job. In my last interview for a job as an electrician I was expected to be able to weld and work with an SQL database. There is capital and there is labor: Those with the gold make the rules. It doesn't matter what color your collar is.

    -- Dave Jones

    Whether it is happening as frequently as some, including myself, think or not, outsourcing is not something that has just begun to occur. Companies I have worked for were starting to outsource as early as the 1980s.

    Like Mr. Napier, my husband, a computer networking hardware designer, has been unemployed for two years this month. We were both "laid off" in 2001, he from Compaq and I from Motorola. I was a technical writer and I'm now an administrative assistant making one-third of what I made before.

    My husband can't even get a retail job in a store like Fry's or CompUSA!

    I'm in complete agreement with those who say that the U.S. companies who do this will hurt themselves, because I know we sure aren't buying anything. With our savings gone and having already borrowed all we can from his parents, we are in danger of losing our home.

    Of course, these companies can always sell abroad, but the U.S. has been and still is a huge market, and if people here can't purchase goods and are having their homes repossessed, at least some companies are going to feel the effects.

    Right now they think they're pretty smart sending jobs abroad, but when the economy gets as bad as it can get here, they may begin to change their tune.

    -- Fran Spragens

    Salon Staff

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