The condition of the working class in Second Life

Paging Marx and Engels: Please pick up the virtual white courtesy telephone

Published September 18, 2007 11:28PM (EDT)

Members of an Italian union are planning a labor demonstration to protest pay cuts for Italian IBM staffers. The protest will take place on IBM's virtual campus in the virtual world Second Life. (Thanks to Boing Boing for the link to Wagner James Au's New World Notes.)

This is what we call a fake labor action resulting from real world exploitation.

"The union is expecting hundreds of avatars of Italian IBM workers, as well as IBM staff from around the world, and other trades unionists, to converge flash-mob style later this month, to demonstrate and spread the word about the dispute..." writes John Wood of Tigmoo, a blog network for UK labor unions

Meanwhile, Claus Nehmzow of PA Consulting, which has an office in Second Life, reports at a conference that the company has been hiring "receptionists" for its virtual workplace. The virtual workers hail from all over the world, but only get paid a little more than a dollar a day. Which, last time I checked, qualifies pretty close to extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank. (Thanks to HTWW reader Fer Savadu for alerting me to a New Scientist blog posting by online technology reporter Tom Simonite.)

That is what we call real labor exploitation in a fake world.

"In somewhere like Thailand or Brazil, it may be a compelling reason to spend time in-world," says Nehmzow.

Real? Fake? Come on, it's all good. Or bad. I don't know whether I think paying less than the minimum wage in one country for virtual labor by a worker sitting in front of a computer in another country really qualifies as "sweatshop" work. And I don't know whether the spectacle of avatars creating a picket line around a virtual IBM office is clever or ridiculous. But somewhere there is a budding labor economist who is going to make his or her career with a dissertation on this topic, and I can't wait to read it.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Unemployment