Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Samasource: ethical outsourcing or 21st century deskilling?

For the last couple of weeks, I've been away on a trip in New Zealand. It's a spectacular place, and I've been "tramping" (this is the New Zealand word for walking) along all kinds of magical trails. As such, I haven't had much time for blogging. However, on a drive between tramps, I did manage to take in a fascinating BBC radio documentary on Samasource, a new San Francisco non-profit that does ethical outsourcing. This story annoyed me to such an extent that I felt compelled to write a post about it when I returned.

Samasource is a non-profit organization that claims to "bring dignified, computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty." The work that Samasource farms out includes typing out business cards and receipts, checking scanned text for errors, and verifying business listings. Samasource then pays women and refugees a living wage to do this work.

What could possibly be wrong with this?

The difficulty is that Samasource's foundational premise is an old and familiar one: it outsources unpleasant, repetitive tasks to the poor. Take, for example, transcription, which is one of the services advertised by Samasource. Any former research assistant can testify that transcription is a painfully boring and unredeeming task. You listen to the words on the recording and type them out. There's very little thought involved. In order to complete the job, you do need to be able to type and spell, but it isn't the type of job in which you'll learn much of anything. Verifying business listings and checking scanned text, Samasource's other offerings, fall into exactly the same category.

Not surprisingly, though, the women and refugees who are hired to do these tasks are happy to have jobs. Checking scans certainly beats being unemployed and hungry, after all. There is little doubt that Samasource is improving the lives of the people that it employs in terms of their material well being.

Still, Samasource's work raises a number of questions. First, what about the North American workers who are going to lose their jobs thanks to Samasource?

I'll use an example from my own work to illustrate this problem: right now, it costs me at least $17/hr. to have my research assistants transcribe interviews. The going rate on Samasource, by contrast, is a bit more than $1/hr. What a savings! I could hire at least 10 Samasource employees for the price of one North American research assistant.

Of course, research assistants aren't really the example that we should be worried about. Big companies like Facebook and LinkedIn have been contracting with Samasource in order to get their repetitive tasks done. For companies like these, Samasource offers a tempting twofer: it allows them to make more money by outsourcing their work for next to nothing and, simultaneously, lets them portray themselves as upstanding corporate citizens. Samasource, after all, is a charitable organization that is dedicated to doing good.

A second problem concerns the nature of the work that is being outsourced. In order to get a hint of what this problem might be, let's examine  some of the comments that Samasource's founder, Leila Janah, made in the BBC documentary:
I liken what we do [at Samasource] to what Ford did, back in the early 1900s...Ford figured out how to break down the making of what was considered a very complicated machine, the automobile, that previously had only been made in craftsman's studios by people who were highly specialized and spent years making one machine--he figured out a way to divide up the work into small tasks, and teach people to do one of those tasks, and together, they could make a car. But each person didn't know how to make a car individually.
In these comments, Ms. Janah makes the bold move of presenting Fordist deskilling as a positive development for workers. Of course, from her perspective, it is positive, since it is deskilling that makes Samasource possible. Break the tasks into simple, repetitive increments, and anyone can do it! That's Henry Ford's democratic promise!

Despite Ms. Janah's sentiments to the contrary, there is a possibility that this kind of repetitive labor might not be good for people. A classic study of autoworkers from the 1950s, The Man on the Assembly Line, is especially illuminating. Here's how one autoworker in the study felt about his work:
The assembly line is no place to work, I can tell you. There is nothing more discouraging than having a barrel beside you with 10,000 bolts in it and using them all up. Then you get a barrel with another 10,000 bolts, and you know every one of those 10,000 bolts has to be picked up and put in exactly the same place as the last 10,000 bolts.
One can imagine workers feeling the same way about one of Samasource's tasks: digitizing business cards by typing them into a database. In fact, screwing in the bolts might actually be preferable--at least in the case of the bolts, the autoworker was building something with a clear use.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Janah clearly sees the Samasource workers as empowered rather than alienated, as the following comment from the BBC documentary shows:
These are people who have been told that they don't belong in the global economy and that their place is in the fields, doing manual labor...the idea that they could be valued for their brains is so empowering, and I think that's really what Samasource does beyond the makes people feel like they're included, like they're on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
Thus, instead of doing manual labor in the fields, the Samasource workers have been set free to be "valued for their brains" on the digital assembly line. Granted, earning a relatively large salary doing repetitive computer tasks is probably preferable to working in the fields, but no one should be under any illusion that these workers are being "valued for their brains" more in one setting than in the other. If anything, working on a digital assembly line probably requires less brainpower than working in the fields.

In passing, it's worth noting that neither of these two obvious criticisms were addressed in the BBC documentary. This really bothered me. I would have thought that critical thinking was alive and well in the UK (and especially at the BBC), but it certainly wasn't in evidence in this documentary, which offered a fawningly uncritical portrait of Samasource.

The bottom line is that working for Samasource makes marginalized people less marginalized than they were before. This is something. Yet there is something rather disquieting about a charity that puts people to work on deskilled, repetitive tasks for the benefit of large corporations. We should think twice before we praise ventures like Samasource from the rooftops.


1 comment:

gabbielicious said...

I am also from a lower income country and is working from home. I must say, outsourcing on our country helped a lot. It gave us jobs with a good pay. It doesn't really matter if our task is repetitive or boring. We are grateful on the job we have because there are lots of people here that are unemployed. Not all people could have a nice job with a great pay. We owe it all to outsourcing.
When outsourcing is done the right way, there are so many great things and real benefits it could give both the business owner and the freelancer/outsourced firm.