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Apr 14 2006

Squeezing workers to the limit

So there you are in a fast food drive-through, waiting for the people in the car ahead of you to place their order. They do so and move on, and you slowly move up to the speaker. It takes about 10 seconds for this shifting of cars to take place. Haven’t you wondered what the person at the other end of the speaker is doing with that 10 seconds of downtime? Me, neither.

But the good folks at fast food corporate headquarters care. They worry that the employee may be goofing off, perhaps drinking some water, thinking about their children or friends, what to make for dinner later, perhaps even thinking about how they can climb out of this kind of dead-end job. Committed as the corporate suits are to maximizing employee productivity, they feel that those 10 seconds between cars could be put to better use than to allow idle thoughts. But how?

Enter the internet. What if you outsourced the order taking to someone at a central location, who then enters the order into a computer and sends it back via the internet to the store location where you are? The beauty of such a situation is that the person at the central location could be taking an order from another store somewhere else in the country in the 10 second interval that was previously wasted. Genius, no?

Sound bizarre? This is exactly what McDonalds is experimenting with in California. The New York Times on April 11, 2006 reports on the way the process works and one such call center worker, 17 year old Julissa Vargas:

Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town [Santa Maria], 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald’s outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

What is interesting about the way this story was reported was that it was focused almost entirely on the technology that made such a thing possible, the possible benefits to customers (saving a few seconds on an order) and the extra profits to be made by the company. “Saving seconds to make millions” as one call center executive put it.

There was no discussion of the possible long-term effects on the workers, or the fact that the seconds are taken from the workers’ lives while the millions are made by the corporation and its top executives and shareholders. This is typical of the way the media tend to underreport the perspective of the workers, especially low-paid ones.

Look at the working conditions under which the call center people work, all of which are reported as if they are nifty innovations in the business world, with no hint that there was anything negative about these practices:

Software tracks [Ms. Vargas'] productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations
. . .
The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. Mr. King’s [the chief executive of the call center operation] computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards. “You’ve got to measure everything,” he said. “When fractions of seconds count, the environment needs to be controlled.”

This is the brave new world of worker exploitation. But in many ways it is not new. It is merely an updated version of what Charlie Chaplin satirized in his 1936 film Modern Times, where workers are given highly repetitious tasks and closely monitored so that they can be made to work faster and faster.

The call center workers are paid barely above minimum wage ($6.75 an hour) and do not get health benefits. But not to worry, there are perks! They do not have to wear uniforms, and “Ms. Vargas, who recently finished high school, wore jeans and a baggy white sweatshirt as she took orders last week.” And another plus, she says, is that after work “I don’t smell like hamburgers.”

Nowhere in the article was any sense of whether it is a good thing to push workers to the limit like this, to squeeze every second out of their lives to increase corporate profit. Nowhere in the article is there any sign that the journalist asks people whether it is ethical or even healthy for employees to be under such tight scrutiny where literally every second of their work life is monitored, an example of how the media has internalized the notion that what is good for corporate interests must be good for everyone. Just because you work for a company, does this mean they own every moment of your workday? Clearly, what these call centers want are people who are facsimiles of machines. They are not treating workers as human beings who have needs other than to earn money.

In many ways, all of us are complicit in the creation of this kind of awful working situation, by demanding low prices for goods and unreasonably quick service and not looking closely at how those prices are driven down and speed arrived at. How far are we willing to go in squeezing every bit of productivity from workers at the low end of the employment scale just so that the rest of us can save a few cents and a few seconds on a hamburger and also help push up corporate profits? As Voltaire said many years ago, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.”

The upbeat article did not totally ignore what the workers thought about this but even here things were just peachy. “Ms. Vargas seems unfazed by her job, even though it involves being subjected to constant electronic scrutiny.” Yes, a 17-year old woman straight put of high school may not be worn out by this routine yet. In fact the novelty of the job may even be appealing. Working with computers may seem a step up from flipping hamburgers at the store. But I would like to hear what she says after a year of this kind of work.

This kind of story, with its cheery focus on the benefits accruing to everyone except the worker, and its callous disregard for what the long-term effects on the workers might be, infuriates me.

I have been fortunate to always work in jobs where I had a great deal of autonomy and where the luxury of just thinking and even day-dreaming are important parts of work, because that is how ideas get generated, plans are formulated, and programs are envisaged. But even if people’s jobs do not require much creativity, that is not a reason to deny them their moments of free thought.

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