Sweating Out the Words

Sweating Out the Words

CLARIFICATION: A sidebar to Debbie Nathan’s February 21 “Sweating Out the Words,” about The New Yorker‘s literary contest and the publishing and informatics industries (converting information to digital form), mentioned a company, netLibrary, and suggested that workers involved in hours’ worth of work in its sites in China, India and the Philippines were “ruining their wrists and eyes in the process.” netLibrary tells us that it requires letters of attestation and proof of working conditions from vendors it works with, requiring standards applicable in the United States. Neither Nathan nor The Nation visited netLibrary’s vendor sites. Further, The Nation has no specific knowledge of poor conditions or injury to any of netLibrary’s workers.


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.

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?

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