Employees as Commodities

In an otherwise “standard normal” article about American workers being replaced by guestworkers and forced to train their replacements, one quote struck me:

“Any individual employee in the macro sense is no better than any other employee,” Habib said in his office.

Habib’s quote is important, not because he is being unusually obtuse in seeing workers as a commodity rather than as unique human beings with unique skills and talents, but because he is uttering the “new normalcy”. Managers truly believe that their workers are just as much a commodity as the computers on their desks, and can be swapped out and replaced as easily as keyboards.

I was dumfounded last year as I talked with my borker (contract broker), when he told me that contract agencies are getting pressured to offer commodity pricing on contract programmers:

They want us to charge them the same rate for all our contractors, the same rate for a novice Visual Basic programmer as for someone with ten years of SAP or Java. They don’t see why there should be so much of a difference as there is.

I’ve been around a while. I can remember when managers were competent, when most of them at the Fortune 500 level received training in management theory and practice, and were hired and promoted on the basis of their ability to manage people rather than their ability to run Microsoft Project or one of its bastard progeny and get the projected numbers to come out right. I actually was a project manager for years, but I got out and went back to programming when they no longer cared that every project I managed came out on time, under budget, and of higher quality than they expected, but instead they only wanted to see actuals (faked final numbers) align with projections (faked predicted numbers). I remember getting dinged on an annual appraisal when my intrapreneurship got a profit higher than I had been asked for. That’s when I saw the handwriting on the wall and knew that competence was no longer an asset for a manager of a company in this country.

Sometime several decades ago things went out of whack. Those who ran companies decided that people were widgets. They decided that only they themselves at the top were humans and to be allowed freedom and dignity, while the rest of us were “resources” to be exploited. It looks like it is all about to come crashing down. Unfortunately, too many of us allowed ourselves to be commodities to be exploited and we will be the ones to suffer most as the edifice topples into rubble.

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