Sweating Out the Words
Why the disparity? Foreign keyboarders' efficiency is apparently due to more boredom, surveillance and discomfort than women ever endured in this country's typing pools. As anyone familiar with office work knows, the content of a typing job ranges from bearably interesting to excruciatingly monotonous. Most keyboarders greatly prefer words to numbers, because words give you something to think about while you're typing. But in offshore informatics shops where employees don't know English, words mean nothing. And that's how managers like it. The job "gets done faster that way," explains Margaret Morris, a marketer for the Albuquerque-based informatics contractor Access Innovations. "When you understand text," she says, "you tend to imagine words that aren't there. You tend to read ahead, which slows you down and adds errors. Offshore workers go faster and probably make fewer mistakes. That's because they don't understand what they're keyboarding."
Foreign workers' efficiency is no doubt also based on high-tech surveillance. Worker output in informatics shops is relentlessly tracked, since computers can tally every character typed. This calculation docks workers for slowness and typos, and pushes them to faster and more punctilious work. Extra velocity and accuracy earn small bonuses, just as swift sewing in garment factories ups the piece rate. Indeed, Access Innovations owner Marjorie Hlava has cheerfully compared offshore informatics shops to "traditional US sweatshops."
I learned how right she was recently when I went to Ciudad Juárez to attempt to talk with New Yorker ballot counters. The literary contest's project director at Willard & Shullman had assured me the votes were being tabulated in El Paso, but it was easy to find the truth. A phone call to the post office produced names of the people in El Paso who tend Willard & Shullman's PO box. Another call and I was talking with Eric Daugherty, part owner of Global Electronic Capture, the maquila in Mexico that handled the New Yorker job.
Global Electronic Capture is young--less than three years old--and has only thirty-five data processors. The company competes with several megashops in Ciudad Juárez, notably NPC, Datamark and EDM International, which employ thousands of keyboarders around the clock, six or seven days a week. Global Electronic's website extols cheap Mexican labor and promises to lower customers' data-processing costs at least 50 percent. Daugherty brags about his workers: He says they're tiptop because Global lures the best from EDM and gives them a raise--after EDM has taught the young women keyboarding, with training costs paid by the Mexican government. Global would not let me inside its facility, and despite staking out the premises for two days, I was unable to find out whether the actual vote-counters would know a Richard Ford from a Henry Ford.
I did walk a few blocks to EDM, where Global poaches its labor. There, I talked with several workers waiting for their shift to start so they could process Airborne Express bills. All were women, ranging in age from 17 to 27. Many were married with children or were single mothers. All complained of feeling tense because of the fast work pace (they're expected to reach 50 words a minute as soon as possible and can't talk to each other when the supervisor is around). They spoke of aches in their backs, wrists and eyes--"It feels like you're going blind," one commented--and said their computers had no glare screens, keyboards lacked wrist supports and backrests on their chairs were loose and shaky. "And this company has the best conditions of all the data-processing maquiladoras in Juárez," two women added.
M aximum pay for the lucky data processor who knows some English will run about $1.60 an hour, or less than $74 for a forty-six-hour week. Monolingual workers are more common; they make about $63. That's $2 less than the cost each week in Mexico for groceries for a family of four. "It's impossible to make do on our wages," the EDM workers admitted. "So we do without. We don't buy clothes for ourselves. We can't buy the kids school supplies."
"Not even books?" I asked.
"Sometimes not," they said.
"And how about you?" I asked. "Do you enjoy novels, or nonfiction or poetry?"
They looked at me like I was nuts. I remembered that a book costs a day's pay in Mexico (and compared with the holdings of US public libraries, Juárez's are unimaginably skeletal).
Later I called The New Yorker to ask what it thought about its literary contest being handled by workers who can't afford to read. Speaking for editor David Remnick, Perri Dorset said the magazine was unaware that its marketing company used labor in Mexico. If Willard & Shullman continues the practice, Dorset said, The New Yorker will look for a firm that doesn't use Third World keyboarders.
The question is, will they be able to find one?