The Jobs of the Future Are a Thing of the Past

Outsourcing and the sad little movement to stop it

 WHEATON, ILLINOIS—"In the beginning of a change, the Patriot is a scarce man—brave, hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds, however, the timid join him. For then it costs nothing to be a patriot." That's the epigram by which the leader of the Rescue American Jobs Foundation, created last June to fight the exporting of service jobs overseas and the importing of foreign workers to do service jobs here, signs off her e-mails, and by that standard, the people meeting at this suburban coffee shop are patriots indeed.

Nine people are present by the time the head of Rescue American Jobs' Illinois chapter, Charlene Clingman, brings up an idea inspired by the example of Mothers Against Drunk Driving many years ago: grassroots lobbying of state politicians. "We would research the problem and come up with a solution," she suggests. "So if anyone is interested in volunteering, we need volunteers."

You wonder who she's asking. Of the nine people present, six are representatives of the press. Char has just taken some of them on a driving tour of the grandiloquently named "Illinois Research & Development Corridor"—gleaming office parks whose construction was subsidized by the state but which now, years after the waning of the technology boom, are emptying out. Char used to work in one of those office parks as a communications technician for AT&T; she was laid off two and a half years ago. Since then she has applied for over 1,000 positions.

illustration: Katherine Streeter

"These people have sent all our jobs out of the country," she says, as the two other people actually attending the meeting as participants nod along. One is her husband, who still works at AT&T; another is one of her former co-workers.

You may have read about the outsourcing issue, the great X-factor in American politics today, in cover articles in Time, Wired, Business Week. The numbers can be hard to fix. According to Time, outsourcing to India "accounts for less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million jobs lost in the U.S. over the past three years." Wired, drawing on research from Gartner analysts, says one in 10 U.S. tech jobs will have left by the end of this year.

It is here, in rooms like this one, that the movement against outsourcing is revealed in full metaphoric flower. The media observe the efforts obsessively for signs the timid might soon be joining in torrents. But when the victims get together, they don't know what to say.

The outsourcing of white-collar jobs overseas began in earnest during the personnel shortage caused by the run-up to Y2K. In a sense, it grew directly from a parallel phenomenon, generally ignored. Call it "in-sourcing." Averting the catastrophe of a nation of computers suddenly partying one New Year's morning like it was 1899 gave Congress a reasonable excuse to raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas, which are issued to allow companies to sponsor specialized foreign workers in cases of a demonstrable labor shortage.

On the other side of the world, the Y2K panic catalyzed India, which was dismantling the protectionist components of its own quasi-socialist economy, to bid for all kinds of service work to be done there—thanks to its relatively large, educated, English-speaking middle class and a providential 10.5-hour time shift that lets Indian researchers crunch numbers on behalf of sleeping American financial analysts on the East Coast.

Importing labor, exporting jobs: These are the two sides of the coin. According to the regnant economic theories, the sides are inseparable: capital scouring the world to find labor at the cheapest price, supply meeting demand, each dollar being spent at its greatest point of efficiency. A fat lot of comfort that is if you're on the receiving end of the regnant economic theories. Capital does the scouring a lot more aggressively these days than it used to—even to the point of systematically abusing the law.

Some of the worst abuses are the "body shops," made possible by another kind of temporary work visa: the L-1. This permit is tailored even more narrowly; it was designed to allow companies to fill short-term vacancies with transfers only from their overseas branches. And since it was intended to be of such limited application, Congress didn't bother setting ceilings on their issuance. This proved a loophole big enough to fly a 747 through: Indian consulting companies set up U.S. branches, imported Indian computer programmers en masse, and rented them as cheap replacement parts to cost-conscious third-party companies in the U.S.

Such "intracompany transfers" made for one of the most dramatic stories of this fragile little movement. Siemens Information Communications Networks in Lake Mary, Florida, replaced its entire IT department with employees of the Indian consulting company Tata, who worked at about a third of the Americans' salary. For a severance bonus, the displaced workers received the privilege of training their replacements. The Dickensian maneuver turned one of them into a political animal. Mike Emmons, a 42-year-old father of two, awoke one morning with the sun and sent out thousands of e-mails to Siemens employees explaining the whole dirty deal—at 5:30 a.m., while possibly suspicious Siemens network administrators slept. Like a scene out of some post-industrial Erin Brockovich, some 1,000 workers settled down to their toil one January day in 2003, opened their inboxes, and, one by one, broke into a spontaneous cascade of applause in appreciation of the brave truth-teller no longer in their midst.

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