Outsourcing the Friedman

By Klein, Naomi | The Nation, March 22, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Outsourcing the Friedman

Klein, Naomi, The Nation

Thomas Friedman hasn't been this worked up about free trade since the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Back then, he told New York Times readers that the work environment in a Sri Lankan Victoria's Secret factory was so terrific "that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work" there.

He never did update readers on how the girls enjoyed their stint stitching undergarments, but Friedman has since moved on--now to the joys of call-center work in Bangalore. These jobs, he wrote on February 29, are giving young people "self-confidence, dignity and optimism"--and that's not just good for Indians, but for Americans as well. Why? Because happy workers paid to help US tourists locate the luggage they've lost on Delta flights are less inclined to strap on dynamite and blow up those same planes.

Confused? Friedman explains the connection: "Listening to these Indian young people, I had a deja vu. Five months ago, I was in Ramallah, on the West Bank, talking to three young Palestinian men, also in their 20's.... They talked of having no hope, no jobs and no dignity, and they each nodded when one of them said they were all 'suicide bombers in waiting.'" From this he concludes that outsourcing fights terrorism: By moving "low-wage, low-prestige" jobs to "places like India or Pakistan ... we make not only a more prosperous world, but a safer world for our own 20-year-olds."

Where to begin with such an argument? India has not been linked to a major international terrorist incident since the Air India bombing in 1985 (the suspected bombers were mostly Indian-born Canadian citizens). Neither is the 81 percent Hindu country an Al Qaeda hotbed; in fact, India has been named by the terrorist network as "an enemy of Islam." But never mind the details. In Friedmanworld, call centers are the front lines of World War III: The Fight for Modernity, bravely keeping brown-skinned young people out of the clutches of Hamas and Al Qaeda.

But are these jobs--many of which demand that workers disguise their nationality, adopt fake Midwestern accents and work all night--actually the self-esteem boosters Friedman claims? Not for Lubna Baloch, a Pakistani woman subcontracted to transcribe medical files dictated by doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The hospital pays transcribers in the United States 18 cents a line, but Baloch was paid only one-sixth that. Even so, her US employer--a contractor's subcontractor's subcontractor--couldn't manage to make payroll, and Baloch claimed she was owed hundreds of dollars in back wages.

In October, frustrated that her boss wouldn't respond to her e-mails, Baloch contacted UCSF Medical Center and threatened to "expose all the voice files and patient records ... on the Internet." She later retracted the threat, explaining, "I feel violated, helpless ... the most unluckiest person in this world." So much for "self-confidence, dignity and optimism"--it seems that not all outsourced tech jobs are insurance against acts of desperation.

Friedman is right to acknowledge, finally, that there is a clear connection between fighting poverty and fighting terrorism (a step up from his usual practice of blaming suicide bombing on "collective madness").

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