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Outsourcing Continues To Turn the Screw

— September 26, 2016

The industrial paradigm is built on the attempt to get something for (almost) nothing. Of course, it’s not the first system to take a stab at accomplishing this feat, it’s merely one more step along the path of refining the process. Around the time that we decided to work full time at this “growing our food” job, we realized that a stable, storable surplus of food meant that not everybody needed to concentrate on obtaining food as a primary activity. Instead, we started outsourcing that task to farmers while other folks branched out into other specialized tasks, like making pottery to store that food and beer in, or being a soldier to defend that food (or take someone else’s), or being a priest or king. One of the results of a stratified society was the institution of slavery, in which captive people were compelled to produce more than they consumed, so that other people could consume more than they produced. Having other people serve and feed you is a pretty sweet gig. Since growing instead of gathering food meant more of the ecosystem’s productive capacity was harnessed towards supporting humans, the resulting abundance of humans meant that over time, there were more entry-level job openings for the position of “slave” than for any other career option. And since the royal/executive class demands a lot of resources and infrastructure for their maintenance, then as now, the expensive and important few must be balanced by the cheap and expendable many if the current system is to continue.

For a long time, the energy provided by the sun in the form of plants (like grain and wood) and muscle (because working people and animals ate the plants) formed the basis of the human economy. Eventually, we also realized that a lot of this solar energy was also stored beneath our feet in the form of coal, and later, petroleum, and that we could harness this stored energy to power machines, and thereby live even larger than the budget provided by the sun would allow. Industry became the next way we tried to get something for nothing, by outsourcing work to machine “slaves” who produce more goods than they consume, so that more of us could consume more than we produced. The system that lived most directly from the labor of human slaves, and the system that lived most directly from the labor of machines, came into conflict during the American Civil War. Ostensibly, the industrialized North prevailed and the institution of legal slavery was disbanded. Instead, the huge underclass of people whose labor produces more than they consume became technically “free,” in that they could sometimes choose to work for one abusive taskmaster or another, or they could choose to not work at all if they decided they didn’t need money for shelter and food to live. If they were very lucky, they were able to earn enough over their basic needs (or go deeply into debt) to afford training for jobs that paid more, assuming the jobs were there when they were trained and ready for them. Often, though, it meant backbreaking labor in suboptimal conditions with little hope for future advancement. The promise, however, that they were not slaves, and could live like a king if they just worked hard and devoted every moment and every fiber of their being to the effort, is what made this system seem like progress compared to how people lived since the adoption of large-scale agriculture, even if that promise is unlikely to ever come to fruition for more than a relative few of their number.

John Steinbeck may not have really said that “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” but the sentiment is spot on.

Which brings us to the stories of our modern slave-like underclass. Because our system rewards the few by transferring the most resources to them, we still need a great many people to do what grunt-work is not yet able to be performed by robots. Somewhere in the middle lies a class of people who have built up just enough more than the rest, who want to live somewhat more like kings; for example, being able to buy inexpensive books (once hand-scribed, now printed by robots) delivered quickly, for free. Or to buy Star Star Trek level tech, handheld gadgets on which they can literally see pictures of the surface of other planets at will, for less than the cost of a month’s labor. These items aren’t going to make and transport themselves, though: they’re produced by outsourcing labor to other countries, where wages and rights are low and few, and domestically by people like Rafael Sanchez, a man who demands little because he is in the United States without legal documentation, and who lives in an unheated garage in the New Jersey winter. His sacrifices enable him to be able to work for the kind of low wages paid by industries that take advantage of people like him in order to fill demand for ever-cheaper items. In a way, outsourcing jobs to people like Sanchez starts a downward spiral, because the low wages he accepts in order to have any job at all exert a downward pressure on the wages paid to other people competing with him for ever-scarcer jobs. Meanwhile, people competing to accept lower wages for harder work can no longer afford the gadgets and services provided by these companies, forcing employers to offer even lower wages to cut the price of their products.

Apologists for the status quo claim that people today should be thankful for king-like conveniences such as indoor plumbing, refrigerators, TVs, and other luxuries that people didn’t have a hundred years ago. However convenient these items are, they come at the price of the very cost-cutting and outsourcing that impoverishes the people making and buying them. One does not need a TV to live, but they are inexpensive and distract you from the misery of being unable to afford what you really do need, such as medical care, or safe and stable housing.

According To FOX News If You Have A Refrigerator You’re Rich! As posted by bigtexansfan

Meanwhile, abuse of these invisible workers is common. Women in New Jersey’s factories say that tolerating or accepting inappropriate sexual advances is necessary in order to keep their jobs, but reporting the behavior means that they are unlikely to be asked to come back to work again. Workers are killed because safety equipment is expensive, and customers prefer low prices. Because it is not always clear who is responsible for properly training workers – the factory employer? the outsourcing firm? – workers are often untrained and suffer preventable injuries. Even “permatemps,” temporary workers who have worked the same jobs for many years, are rarely permanently hired because benefits cost money. If workers leave because if the harassment, safety problems, lack of pay and benefits or any other issue, there are always people willing to take their place, so employers are not incentivized to retain a stable workforce.  New Labor, an organization that advocates for these temp workers, considered opening an outsourcing firm of their own that would provide better wages and insure safer working conditions for temp workers, was unable to do so because they couldn’t compete on price with the outsourcing and temp agencies that undercut them.

In the end, the tech wonders and cheap gadgets of the modern age may provide the feeling of progress, like we are getting something for nothing. But we’re not. Automation and outsourcing have merely hidden the costs, placing them on the hidden underclass of workers that staff factories, warehouses, and fulfillment centers. Costs like broken bodies, broken dignity, broken families, and the lack of a stable future are nothing new. Slaves and near-slaves have paid these costs for generations, whether or not they are legally “free.” Outsourcing is just the newest hack to the old problem of keeping the resources flowing upwards.


The Invisible Workforce
I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave
30 Million in Poverty Aren’t as Poor as You Think, Says Heritage Foundation
Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes

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