Employees as Commodities

2008-Sep-22

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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Resource Management

2006-Dec-30

I’m finally employed again (at least for a few months) after two years of unemployment. For the last six years all of my jobs have been short term as the corporations find they can pay 30% less if they bring someone here from offshore, or save 70% if they move the whole job offshore.

The money they save does not go into lower prices for you or higher wages for employees or even higher stock prices or dividends for stockholders. It goes into higher salaries and golden parachutes for the top executives. Because only the top executives are human beings whose lives and futures matter.

It can be difficult to sit in a meeting listening to my boss discuss which “resource” they will bring in after I’m gone. But that’s life for a contractor. We are not employees we are not human beings, we are “resources”, we are entries on a spreadsheet. If you fire a human being you feel some moral responsibility if as a result of your choices they go bankrupt, lose their house, have to take their kids out of college because they can no longer afford tuition, or even die ten years earlier because they couldn’t go to a doctor in time because they lost their health insurance. It would be unconscionable to do that to a fellow human being…

But we are not human beings. We are “resources”. And resources can be “managed” without the slightest thought that there are human consequences.

But it’s not just us contractors…the day I came to the company on my previous contract with them, I got there the same day that hundreds of permanent employees had to decide whether they would take a layoff or take a job with the Indian contract agency which could, if it felt like it lay them off without a moment’s notice. Because permenent employees are not human beings either, they too are merely “resources”.

I sit here in “H1B row”, a boiler room where ancient, battered desks are piled together as tightly as they can be, no privacy, so space, not even the tissue-thin partitions that they have upstairs in the cube farm where the “permanent” (snicker) employees sit and ponder how it came to be that they no longer have any career path and will be stuck in their jobs until they too are replaced by guest workers.

And I guess the H1B guestworkers are somehow even less than less than human. They guy next to me from India was told if he lasted two weeks he could expect to stay out his contract, so after two weeks he signed a lease on an apartment. The next day at three o’clock in the afternoon they dumped him.

But no matter. What happens to us has no moral consequences. Not as if we were humans to be treated with concern and dignity. We are commodities, to be traded across borders like so much meat on the hoof.

And whether you realize it yet or not, your turn is coming. The elite at the top, the top one tenth of one percent, are the only humans, the only ones whose lives matter. The rest of us are merely “collateral damage” along the path to corporate profits.

Enjoy your holidays while they last.


Power Down

2006-Dec-12

My power was down for over a week. They keep on telling us that it was the worst storm in decades. Bullshit. There were worse storms a few years ago, but no mass power outage.

I lived in Chicago for twenty years. We had worse storms all the time, but we didn’t have power outages. Before that I lived in Pennsylvania for twenty years. We had worse storms every few weeks during the winter, but never a power outage in all that time.

So what is different here? Greed. For decades, corporations have been buying each other up, laying off all the dedicated, experienced workers, replacing them (if at all) with younger, lower-skiiled but cheaper workers, often from offshore. Milking the corporations dry, and milking the customers dry.

Typically, a third of a company’s budget goes to employee wages. If you can save 30% on wages, profits go way up. That money could go into lower prices…but it doesn’t. It could go to the stockholders…but it doesn’t. It could go into employee wages, or into keeping more employed instead of laying them off…but it never does. It goes into the salaries of the top level executives. Or bonuses. Or their pensions. Or their golden parachutes. But not to the employees, the customers, or the stockholders.

It’s not over, and it’s not just the electric company.