Blood, sweat and containerisation

The last episode of blood, sweat and luxuries aired on BBC3 last night. In this series, a bunch of UK consumers have been made to work on products that end up on British shelves. They stay with other workers for the duration. I've only caught two of them, but it was powerful stuff, if occasionally cringeworthy watching some of the Brits deal with it. A 'part time male model' in particular seemed to wear his outrage in front of the camera as an accessory, and mostly flounced off the jobs after an hour or so.

Last night's saw them working in a relatively small Phillipino components factory in Manila - called EMS - making small changes to a hard-drive wire for mp3 players in a cleanroom, looking out through a tiny slit in their blemish-free gowns. The factory is in Laguna, the 'Silicon Valley of the Philippines.' (Google found that in a copy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer from 2000. How did it do that??)

To begin with, they clown about; when the supervisor points out the workers are trained not to look up from their work regardless of what they hear, a couple of them take to banging on the windows - and indeed, no worker moves from their task. "Every unit takes 3 seconds, a single glance takes 3 seconds," points out the supervisor, "so you will fail to meet your output."

This is a relatively good factory: eight hour days. Many surely would not have let TV cameras in at all. As they stay with a few of the (mostly) women who work there, a bigger picture emerges: layers of 'choice', marked out by how fast you are at your job. That's why no-one looks up. Often there isn't work at the factory; only the fastest get a day's pay. There are other factories, then there's the city dump, where many families just about feed themselves by picking through the waste. And, as the boss of EMS points out, there's always prostitution.

98% of the people working there are sending money back home to the 'provinces'. A couple of the brits go home with one of them to meet her two year old son - who doesn't recognise her. Her choice was: stay and starve, or; go and work in the city, send money home to keep your family alive, but your son won't know who you are as he grows up.

A BBC4 programme - 'the box that changed Britain' - brings to life another side of this story. (Great Wired article on this subject here.) Containerisation has profoundly transformed trade and production. The container bought "value, choice and luxury beyond our wildest dreams," says narrator Roger McGough. A look around most rooms in the UK confirms that - the range of goods in eyeshot at any one time is staggering. Jane Jacobs talks a great deal about the symbiotic processes that lie at the root of city development. Successful cities are ecosystems of firms, often hiving off new exports 'accidentally' discovered along the way. For the past 40 years, containers have opened the door to a just-in-time world - production is still diverse, but it's happening in many different countries. Transport is now 1% of overall costs; I think it was 30% before containerisation for overseas goods, though I haven't traced that figure yet, and it'd be useful to see how it breaks down. Production networks fight over the whole planet for their edge. As the boss of EMS notes, he's fully aware of his lowly position in that vast system. I'm reminded of Manuel Castells... damn, can't find the quote. Paraphrase: we live in world where production nodes can be switched on or off as financial logic dictates. EMS holds its place as long as nothing better comes along.

The operations research literature is full of articles modelling container optimization - a job made much easier because container ports mirror their model doppelgangers so much more precisely than the messiness of the old human dockworker system ever could. Indeed, at automated container terminals, the job of transferring model optimisations to port throughput could be as easy as an upload.

The result of all this: often it's cheaper to ship across the Atlantic than it is between cities.
I've written before about the condescension poured on anyone with the temerity to have moral qualms about the global economy. Krugman's line is still best: 'the lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through.' This is bullshit, I realise. Here's some thoughts on why.

Imagine a spectrum between the Heartland Institute and the Socialist Workers Party. The former is a nice example of a lesson I (re)learned recently in relation to climate change. A friend who visited the US a while back gave me a badge. It was being given out by protestors at college military recruiting rallies during the height of Bush II's Iraq adventure. It read "I'm so sick of right-wing fuckheads." I've re-learned that, yes, I am still so sick of rightwing fuckheads. There's a clear line between rightwing fuckheads and people who genuinely aren't sure about the science on climate change - and who can blame them with the way the media's gone recently? But then there's the Heartland Institute, Fox News etc. Many of these people must lie and do it knowingly. They're not stupid enough to be unaware of their basic factual errors, though I might just grant that some of them are so ideologically committed that they do believe what they're saying. I'm equally sick of left-wing fuckheads - the SWP epitomise this brand of destructive antinomian nonsense, so much that I often wonder if they're run by British secret services. No-one can match their unique brand of stuffing up genuine, democratic left-wing action. They also perfectly capture the essence of the phrase 'ideologolical blinkers' and, on that front, are on a par with the worst sort of right-wing fuckhead. They are not at home to the reality-based community. (And, as Stephen Colbert has pointed out, reality has a well-known liberal bias.)

Rightwing fuckheads take certain economist's ideas and loudhailer them through the body politic: people are not made better off by denying them choice. That woman had a choice between the factory and staying at home, and she did what was best for her and her family. Indeed, capitalism saved them from starvation. Here, we have a model that shows any attempt you make to improve that situation will make everyone worse off.

It's bullshit cake with a light sugar sprinkling of reality. If we actually lived in a Hayekian (or Jacobian) world of small firms competing in an innovative froth, where a worker had autonomy to break away and form new products, and failure is the fuel for growth as it is in the actual Silicon Valley, perhaps - but we don't. In the Philippino case above, huge tech firms dominate: Jane Jacobs would have kittens. Here's some stats that get to the heart of it quite neatly.

  • 88.4% of hard-drive manufactures are American companies, 0% South-east Asian
  • Where does final assembly take place? 4.6% in the US; 64.2% in South-east Asia (15.5% Japan)
  • Where does % value of wages paid go? US - 39.5%, South-east asia - 12.9%

These figures are from 1995, but they give the picture. I wonder how things look now? The workers in the BBC3 film have no power against the networks they face. Whether straight unionisation is the answer or some other structure, some separation of power needs to be in place for any of this to be a fair choice. What's a 'fair choice?' Well, "tell me your pin number or I shoot you in the head" is a choice, but it's not a fair one. We can work from there. Perhaps even Hayek would agree, since the central political good from the market is supposed to be a guarantee that no power-centres gain overall control. (I doubt it though: he was quite happy with authoritarianism in the workplace.) Workers are denied a basic right to assembly, to fight their corner.

The container documentary shows the UK dockworkers hanging on for dear life, but eventually of course they had to succumb - with a little push from Thatcher. Now one or two hang on at Canary Wharf as security guards, but their kids can't afford to live there. That's partly why I wonder what sort of structure could best serve worker's interests: containerisation was going to win. What could have been done differently? Perhaps nothing. The opposing pressure of people able to fight for their own workplace rights can likely do nothing against that kind of change. But it's a minimum countervailing force that, applied in the right way, can improve people's lives. Prices may go up. It's a cliche, but the stuff we buy is too cheap - clearly.

Fuckheadery can be heard at both ends: RW-FHs say unions are evil sand in the well-oiled and Godly cogs of commerce and must be fought. LW-FHs say every worker faces a common struggle and must 'democratically centralise' under one vanguard. Uh huh. Both, interestingly, are actually kin to authoritarianism - the various 'enterprise' institutes are nothing of the sort; they support huge companies that have little or nothing in commmon with the main drivers of development - small to medium firms. LW-FHs wouldn't know democracy if it bit them on the bum. I think maybe just a little separation of powers, with all the right groups empowered, will do just fine, thank you. Boring and middle of the road, I know, but there you are.

People will carry on buying. Predictably as any consumer, I will likely get a new computer at some point (if there's a job after this PhD.) I wonder how many hours of various people's lives it will have taken to assemble, unable to look up for a 3 second glance while they make keyboards one key at a time? Moving the line between this sort of work being a decent living and being - as a keyboard assembler says - like 'serving prison sentences' won't happen magically. How could it?

Classically, all labour in economics is considered a disutility: a cost you bear to gain something else, weighed also against the utility of leisure. I'm not familiar enough with the literature to know how far that's changed, but I've seen little evidence of it. It's such a travesty - made real in the tools that 'human resources' uses to grade pay, where more 'autonomy' is an indicator that you deserve more money. This is insane: to say that the work I do for this PhD, for instance, is a disutility on a par with someone who essentially has to learn to be a robot - it's insane. Those people give up their humanity in those places.

That's where Krugman is wrong; this hardly means I haven't thought my position through. If anything I've made exactly the opposite mistake: watching the house burn while saying "I must go to the library and read a book about fire." (Again, lost the quote for that one...) There's a lot of space between the two poles of fuckheadery in which to think and act. The main reason I'm being a little zealous about the fuckhead label is simply a reminder to myself: don't spend too many cognitive clicks on worrying about market-institute nonsense. Humans are naturally built to develop distributed structures, and they could likely underpin any direction on the political compass one cares to point. We are not relieved of a duty to make choices. We can manage our problems, but people have to be able to fight their corner fairly. All very boring and straightforward really.