A Third Wave of Outsourcing?

November 6, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Posted in Labor, Outsourcing, Political Economy, Production | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Persistently high unemployment figures in the United States have led to strident calls by politicians about ‘unfair’ trading practices by China, India, and other countries and demands to curb outsourcing of US jobs to lower wage locations overseas. Much of the discussion, especially in the context of President Barack Obama’s 10-day visit to Asia, has focussed on low-cost manufacturing in China and white-collar service work to India, a new type of outsourcing pioneered by Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk service just five years ago, represents the potential to transform outsourcing in some sectors. This represents a further assault on incomes.

Indiajoke-thumb.jpg

Claiming to take the tedium out of repetitive, monotonous tasks that are notoriously difficult to automate (recognition of handwritten messages or numbers, for instance), a handful of companies are creating software to further deskill digital labor. Essentially, these companies–Microtask, CloudCrowd, Cloudflower, and others–break up tasks into many different component parts both to shield the identity of their clients (as each worker gets to see only a miniscule portion of the document and therefore cannot identify the real client) and to lower labor costs by widely distributing the tasks: Cloudflower claims to have a virtual workforce of 500,000 people in 70 countries while CloudCrowd which was formed only in 2009 claims a virtual workforce of 25,000 and says it has completed 2 million tasks by September 2010 according to its promotional video.

Companies take different approaches. Microtask, a Finnish upstart, contracts with firms and provides software to its clients’ employees which enables them to do a small task–recognition of handwritten numbers, comparison of two images of a product, few minutes of speech transcription–without leaving their computer screen to get more information from the Internet. The software rotates and mixes up the tasks so that there is no monotony while the main computers of the client can compile the tasks performed by its employees–leading to an unprecedented level of control while minimizing the possibility of leaks.

crowdsourcing-is-outsourcing.gif

Other companies directly contract with individual workers. At the Mechanical Turk website, there are are number of tasks on offer and once a person performs a test to show his or her talent at a job–identifying business locations, proof-reading, and such like–they can sign up and do tasks steadily at their own pace and when they want to work. However, Randall Stross reports in the New York Times that when Miriam Cherry, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and her research assistant tried an assignment offering 2 cents “each for finding the contact information of 7,500 hotels and 3 cents each for answering questions about 9,400 toys,” they did not even make the minimum wage!

GetImage.ashx.jpg

As Stross notes, “Worker control is precisely what the Microtask model has engineered out–that’s the source of its insidious efficiency. Just as Ford’s assembly lines a century ago brought work to workers who performed a single, repetitive task, Microtask’s software, via the Internet, does the same. Every two seconds.”

Yet, the so-called ‘cloudsourcing’ (from the Internet ‘cloud’) model is different in crucial respects. By farming out work across the planet, companies do not have to confront organized labor–protests against low wages become infinitely more difficult if workers are spread across many, many jurisdictions. Cloudcrowd, for instance, takes translations of business documents that used to be done by a single person and initially submits it to translation software. The software translation is then broken up into pages and sent to people who look for nonsensical sentences. These are then submitted to native speakers and finally to editors who have no special expertise in the language, but simply make the text more readable. By farming out the work to several unconnected individuals, anonymity is assured and translation costs are minimized–from 20-25 cents a word to just 6.7 cents. And, of course, minimum wage legislation would not apply.

640_fiat_hot_autumn__69[1].jpg

Even if these widely-distributed tasks do not earn minimum wages in the United States and other high-income economies, they beat the minimum wage in many low-income countries and hence many of the workers for Cloudflower and other ‘cloudsourcing’ companies are located in places like Malaysia and the Philippines. Seen in this light, too, it is not surprising that the new president of the State University of New York at Albany, George M. Philip, could eliminate the departments of Italian, French, Russian, Classics, and Theatre without hesitation!

 

 

Advertisements

3 Comments »

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Interesting post! I always feel that governance is falling further behind the creativity of the global entrepreneur. In this case it seems that the trade in services is flowing toward the low-income countries, however, economies with high-skilled workers should encourage exporting specialist knowledge the other way. Otherwise the down-ward pressure on wage will become too big.

  2. I hope you don’t mind that I set up a link to your page from my blog?!

    • Not at all. Thanks much


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: