Sweating Out the Words
Ah, the new New Yorker. Racy covers! Inside color! And now, a "You Be the Judge" literary contest whose votes were counted in a Third World sweatshop.
You may have seen the contest blurbed in the magazine. A few months ago, a coterie of judges considered three genres: fiction, nonfiction and verse. In each category they short-listed five books published in 1999. Patricia Henley's leftist, feminist novel about repression in Guatemala, Hummingbird House, was one. Edward Said's autobiography, Out of Place, was another. Final voting was then opened to the public, via the Internet, an 800 number or a "no postage necessary" card you could tear out and drop in the mail (with results to be announced February 14).
The card, addressed to a PO box in El Paso, was a dead giveaway to anyone who knows the southern US border. If you've ever bought a coffee-maker and sent the warranty application to El Paso; if you've mailed a cosmetics rebate coupon to Del Rio--if you've ever sent anything pre-addressed to a city abutting Mexico--be assured it did not end up in the United States. Instead, someone collected it at the post office and drove it across the international line to a maquiladora. There, a Mexican, most likely a young woman, stood by a table or hunched at a computer, handling your paperwork and earning as little as 80 cents an hour for her time.
The New Yorker ballots went to Ciudad Juárez, the chaotic Fortune 500- and narcotraffic-ridden city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. The votes got there because The New Yorker hired the Greenwich, Connecticut-based marketing firm Willard & Shullman to run the literary contest. Willard & Shullman does a lot of consumer research for publications with well-heeled readers. Recently the company asked 17,000 subscribers to PC Magazine to pick their favorite hardware and software. Willard & Shullman also runs Gourmet's periodic poll to choose the top ten hotels in the world. Surveys such as these generate torrents of words and numbers that need processing. Lately, a favorite site for the work is Mexico.
But Mexico is not the only developing country where low-paid employees are handling First World information. And Willard & Shullman is hardly the sole business exporting its data. In locales as far-flung as the Caribbean, mainland China, India, Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines, thousands of impoverished workers--the vast majority of them female--sit every day at computer keyboards, fingers flying as they digitize US and European market research surveys, insurance claims, airline tickets, package delivery invoices, credit card applications--even books.
A generation ago such work was done within the country that generated the paperwork. Women in the United States did most of the keyboarding then, and many still do, for $7-$10 an hour. But in the late eighties, their jobs began emigrating as employers discovered satellites and other telecommunications technology. Before these innovations, a company interested in cheap Third World labor would have had to ship hard copy abroad at great expense in transport and turnaround time. Now, paper is optically scanned and the images zapped to computer screens thousands of miles away, where the relevant information is keyed in by foreign workers and the digitized material speedily returned to the home office.
This high-tech data work is called "informatics," and it has already gained more than a foothold in several low-wage nations. In 1996 in Barbados data processors were producing more than 55 billion keystrokes per year. By 1997 some 3,000 people--one person in fifty of the country's labor force--were working in informatics. The largest employer, Caribbean Data Services, was originally set up by American Airlines to process used tickets but has since added insurance forms to its repertoire. Barbados used to be a darling of First World informatics companies: Its workers are some of the best-educated in the Caribbean, they are native English speakers, and the Barbadian government offers generous tax breaks and free employee training to firms that move to the island. But lately, because of NAFTA and policy shifts, competitor nations beckon with even cheaper labor, and Barbados isn't so enticing.
A comparison of wages says it all: Barbados, $2-$2.88 per hour for a keyboarder; Grenada, $1.26-$2.10; Mexico, about the same as Grenada; China, far less. Worldwide, informatics pay scales in developing countries range from half to less than a tenth of US rates. Few people who earn this pittance speak or read English. Yet they work faster than US keyboarders do. "Keystrokes per hour" is their product. In the United States, average hourly output is 8,000- 12,000 strokes, which works out to between twenty-seven and forty words a minute. In the Third World, the average is thirty-three to sixty-seven words.