Letters

High tech workers getting screwed? It's called g-l-o-b-a-l-i-z-a-t-i-o-n. Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Santa's Sweatshop."


Salon Staff
December 7, 2004 1:30AM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Despite the pathetic tone of this article, I still have trouble sympathizing overmuch. I worked in the software industry for years -- I've since left -- but if software employees are overworked now, it is at least partly because they did so little before. During the golden days, it wasn't unusual to see developers working 20-hour weeks for 80 hours' pay. Now the situation is reversed. As Ursula LeGuin would say, thus is equilibrium maintained.

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The tone of the article makes the situation out to be a sort of sweatshop. Well, if it is, nobody's chained to the keyboard. All of E.A.'s employees could quit tomorrow and find less demanding development work. Or they could go work for Wal-Mart and learn what a really shitty job is like. I agree that it is in a company's enlightened self-interest to have employees producing quality code. I think it's in the employees' self-interest to get some sleep and some sex. But it's not my place, or the government's, to coerce them toward a government definition.

Mieszkowski's policy recommendations, such as they are, are vague crap. There is no industry where regulation and "organization" are so toothless as the software industry. E.A. could outsource all of its gaming work to India or Romania in half a year, no doubt, should hiring conditions here become less attractive. This is called "globalization," and you can protest it all you want, but the only way to slow it is to blow up the undersea fiber optic cables connecting software engineers all around the world.

Holding up European Union employment policy as an example does not support the argument. The European Commission has released numerous documents recently, in particular the "Kok Report," documenting how Europe is failing in its attempts to compete with the United States in terms of economic growth and job creation. Few companies are outsourcing work to Europe, and few foreigners would go if they did. Why? Imagine seeing over half your paycheck evaporate to pay for citizen-specific social programs you can't take advantage of, like pension funds and university education. Britain's economy is one of the most competitive in the EU thanks to its more flexible labor market. (This is partly why American companies invest more in Britain than in Canada). If you want rigorous, right-thinking labor standards, go to Italy, and stand in the unemployment line.

The fact is, much of the I.T.-sector work that people once thought could only be performed by nerds and geniuses is drudge work that can be performed by people with substandard English, thousands of miles away. It was a con. Churning out an endless succession of similar-looking games is less and less skilled labor and more and more factory work. People who thought the I.T. industry was going to remain a sort of Shangri-la for computer-savvy slackers are still coming to grips with the fact that the I.T. industry is not all glamour, innovation, and two-hour snowboarding lunches. Unlike a Wal-Mart employee with no high school diploma or health insurance, an overworked engineer does not necessarily deserve our pity, much less increased regulation. They can always leave, go back to school, have an adventure or two, and unplug from the goddamned matrix instead of whining about how it's not as fun as it used to be.

-- Pete Sweeney

Electronic Arts started its life in 1983 by calling itself a company for "Electronic Artists of a New Generation." The first crop of games from Electronic Arts included Archon, MULE, and Pinball Construction Set, all created by such early industry stalwarts as Dan Bunten, Freefall Associates, and Bill Budge. The company was led by the charismatic and forward-thinking Trip Hawkins. They were supposed to change the way things were done in an industry dominated by thinking like that of Atari's Ray Kassar: that game programmers were like "towel designers" who did not deserve credit for their games.

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It's sad then, that E.A. has become what they set out to change. The E.A. sweatshops are no different from the low-pay and long-hour video-game jobs of the late 1970s, the ones that spawned disgruntled game programmers to form companies like Activision and E.A. itself. Who can stand up now and do the same? Can it be done again? It might be the only way out.

-- Steve Fulton

I'm supposed to feel sorry for someone who works a 70-hour week -- and gets paid $77,000 a year? Forgive me, but $77,000 buys one and a half full-time associate professors, an experienced nurse, or two cops here in Canada, and they all work harder. But I suppose she who pays the piper (Cali sissies) calls the tune (long labor lament).

Can we get back to the articles that drew me to Salon? Ones about real issues? I, for example, subscribed after I read "Day of the Dead," about people who really work 70-hour weeks -- and pay with their lives.

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-- Adam Norman

The rampant exploitation of uncompensated overtime is not limited to the game industry or Silicon Valley. It's also big in the I.T. services industry. Several large companies in the Washington D.C. area are known for expecting uncompensated overtime. They often use it as a way to ensure they make a profit on "low-bid" contracts with their clients.

-- Dave F.

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The E.A. experience with unpaid overtime is, unfortunately, common for software companies -- and developers are not alone.

Software companies routinely push all employees to absurd limits. In the go-go years, stock incentives and the sense of building the next great company drove managers and worker bees alike. A common question that had to be asked by interviewers at one company I worked for was: "The culture here is work hard, play hard. 'Work hard' means go till it's done, which is frequently at the end of some very long days and weekends, whatever it takes. Can you live with that?" We were living in an option-fueled frenzy and many, many folks signed on for the potential. Those days are long past, and what might arguably have been an informed choice has become abuse.

But while crazy hours continue, the tech bubble meltdown and Financial Accounting Standards Board rules for expensing options have dampened option fever and the team spirit that grew up around the idea of becoming wealthy ... now folks are driven out of fear. And the problem extends beyond technology. Recent federal policy reduces overtime pay for millions of American workers.

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The current administration appears willing to strip away 100 years of labor progress under the rubric of competitive pressures from abroad ... pressures the government supports with favorable trade policies that lower employers' costs.

-- Charlie Clements

Your headline is amusing. Are those elves revolting -- or rebelling?

I can't imagine people that hard-working to be so disgusting.

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-- Louise Kerr

I found your article on the working condition of gamers very interesting. I've had firsthand experience with a significant other working in the gaming industry, back when overtime was confined to the final push. The company involved was very thoughtful despite this requirement, and it was refreshing to see an employer at least realizing that its employees were, in fact, going above and beyond what should be expected. It is very disquieting to see that this is not a trend but an exception.

My point in writing, however, is to point out that it's not merely the gaming industry or entertainment industries that juice their employees for all they are worth. Admittedly, these industries are dramatic examples, but I believe that as a general rule, all salaried employees face similar conditions. Your article touches on this point and I am grateful to see that this is an issue that "others have noticed" -- it's not just me. The fact is that the United States is woefully behind the times. As a whole, we do not appreciate the skilled (or unskilled) human beings that perform the work. Rather a worker is a necessary evil on the path to the ever growing quest for larger profit margins.

I find it amusing that the above statement sounds like the communist clarion call to unite, but there is some truth to that. Laborers as individuals will always be at a disadvantage on our own. It is unfortunate that the only "solution" to that quandary is to form unions which that support only their members. Workers' rights should not be limited to specific industries. Workers' rights are something that ought to concern all workers and should be seen as such by our governing agencies. It is such an overwhelming prospect to think of changing how we view workers in this country, that I can see how very little has been done till now. I can only hope that more and more of us working stiffs will find our way toward improving our lot...

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-- Irene

[Read "Missing the Hybrid Moment," by Scott Kirsner.]

Write this 100 times on your blackboard: Hydrogen is not an energy source!

This simple fact is obvious to anyone with the least background in science ... so why does the myth persist that we can solve our energy problems with hydrogen?

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At best, hydrogen is an inefficient medium for storing energy. Step 1 is creating the hydrogen, which loses energy in the process. Step 2 is getting work from turning the hydrogen back to water.

The efficiencies of these processes multiply, as in 1/2 times 1/2 is 1/4. What a great recipe for accelerating the disaster of global warming!

Hydrogen advocacy is a litmus test for dishonesty. Listen to and/or elect such people at the peril of humanity and the world.

-- Bart Locanthi

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Thanks for writing articles about the environment, transportation and jobs.

I grew up on Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Scientific American. I could have never guessed it would take so long for high-mileage vehicles to become mainstream. The next steps are biodiesel and air-cooled combustion engines, either alloy or ceramic. Biodiesel ends our dependence on foreign oil and leverages our existing distribution infrastructure. New engines increase mileage by reducing weight and increasing the operating temperature.

Greed and pork have held our country back. We Americans should be the leaders on this stuff. Creating jobs. Exporting our products and expertise. Generating wealth. Just like old times. Alas, the hydrogen economy initiative is just more pork for Republican campaign donors.

-- Jason Aaron Osgood

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I enjoyed Scott Kirsner's article on hybrid vehicles and share his concern and frustration about North American auto manufacturers' seeming lack of interest in pursuing hybrid technologies. One additional point that Mr. Kirsner might have mentioned is that both hybrid vehicles and future hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles depend on electric motors to a greater or lesser extent for their propulsion. So it is a mistake to imply (as the U.S. executives quoted do) that the development of hybrid models is a distraction from the true prize of hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Much of the knowledge and experience that Toyota and Honda gain from developing hybrid vehicles will likely be directly applicable to any future fuel-cell models they may produce.

-- David Flores

Although GM's gamble on the popularity of hydrogen-powered vehicles is probably premature, there are plenty of sound reasons not to build hybrid cars. Purely as an engineering exercise hybrid cars don't make sense for much of driving public, whose driving habits are characterized by long stretches of highway driving at near constant speed with short periods of stop-and-go traffic at entrances and exits. At typical highway speeds the minuscule gasoline engines of hybrids actually perform poorly when compared to normal-size gasoline engines and are pathetic in comparison to diesels. Without frequent stops and periods of low-speed driving to regenerate energy and rely on pure electric power, hybrids are reduced to essentially low-powered gasoline burners and, given the extra battery weight they lug around, are not preferable to other small-engine cars that have been available for decades, such as the Geo Metro, Ford Festiva, Honda CRX, etc.

Most significantly, for medium and larger vehicles diesels provide better highway cruising fuel efficiency than hybrid power plants. Which is why DaimlerChrysler is introducing diesel-based versions of its vehicles, such as the Jeep Liberty, which have the same fuel efficiency as smaller-engine cars without sacrificing the performance that sells many cars off the showroom floor.

For those living in more congested urban areas like Los Angeles or New York a hybrid power plant makes perfect sense. But in fast-growing, sparsely populated cities like Phoenix, Houston or Denver a mileage-conscious consumer is probably better served with a diesel vehicle. Of course there are other trade-offs, such as the nitrogen compound and soot production of diesels, but European car manufacturers seem to have solved most of these over the past decade. In the near term a diesel-electric hybrid, which is essentially the compromise railroads have arrived at, is probably the optimal technology for personal transportation that doesn't require massive reconfiguration of society or a major shift in technology. However, I am not aware of any major manufacturers making such a vehicle.

-- Sseziwa Mukasa


Salon Staff

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