Monday, December 29, 2003

Sailing Away

Bob Herbert’s editorial in this morning’s NYTimes notes that while the U.S. economy is taking off, it’s also sailing overseas:

The economy is going great guns, we’re told, but nearly nine million Americans are officially unemployed, and the real tally of the jobless is much higher. Even as the Bush administration and the media celebrate the blossoming of statistics that supposedly show how well we’re doing, the lines at food banks and soup kitchens are lengthening. They’re swollen in many cases by the children of men and women who are working but not making enough to house and feed their families.

I.B.M. has crafted plans to send thousands of upscale jobs from the U.S. to lower-paid workers in China, India and elsewhere. Anyone who doesn’t believe this is the wave of the future should listen to comments made last spring by an I.B.M. executive named Harry Newman:

“I think probably the biggest impact to employee relations and to the H.R. field is this concept of globalization. It is rapidly accelerating, and it means shifting a lot of jobs, opening a lot of locations in places we had never dreamt of before, going where there’s low-cost labor, low-cost competition, shifting jobs offshore.”

An executive at Microsoft, the ultimate American success story, told his department heads last year to “Think India,” and to “pick something to move offshore today.”

The corporations are also trying to cover their tracks about their current off-shore operations, and thanks to satellite technology, they’re trying to convince American consumers that when they call a support desk they’re talking to someone here in the U.S. This was made apparent to me a while back when I called Microsoft tech support and had a long conversation with a very helpful guy named Kevin. He was very helpful with my problem, and we solved it quickly. Kevin had a very distinct Indian accent – like Fisher Stevens in Short Curcuit – and he was a little puzzled by some of the American slang that I threw into the conversation. When I made a reference to the Florida Marlins in the World Series, he said he was not really much of a football fan. My guess was that Kevin was in India, that his real name was something else, and he chose that rather Celtic moniker just to make me think I was talking to somebody here. After all, I doubt “Kevin” is a common name in New Dehli.

If this is globalization – sending jobs overseas to increase profits at home at the sacrifice of our own employees – I think it is wrong. What would make it right is if the companies going off-shore were forced to pay their workers over there the same as they would pay over here – or at least more than just minimum wage – and raise the standard of living there, too. But I doubt that will happen. After all, what’s the point of making things right if you can’t make a profit at it?