Ben Hammersley at The Guardian has written an article about outsourcing that puts a new spin on the subject. In this case, he's not talking about corporations moving jobs offshore, he's talking about individuals doing so. In the course of the story, he hires programmers in Belorussia, web designers in India and a transcription service in New Zealand, all at rates affordable for most developed world citizens.
I find this to be intriguing, but also a bit troubling -- although I can't quite put my finger on why. It's another example of the effect of global information networks on local economies, and undoubtedly the income from the work that can be done in this way will improve the lives of the coders and transcribers and the like who are doing it. At the same time, this is only possible due to the economic disparities between countries.
What do you folks think?
I also had an initial bad reaction to the story, but the more it sits with me, the less icky it feels. As compared with traditional outsourcing, there are fewer middlemen to take a cut, and more direct interaction between the cultures. And anything that gives individuals more control over their work and lives strikes me as a good thing.
I think it depends on whether the people providing the services are viewed as mere commodities. A commodity is indistinguishable; all that matters is its price. Global information networks which help me find new colleagues, someone very skilled at something I need - that's just great. Global information networks that help me turn everybody into a commodity - that's a step backwards.
The trick is to pay prevailing local wages to the distant people. No one does that.
This is a good example of the very mixed feelings I have about globalization. Its supporters tell us that when the U.S. (for example) has easy access to Chinese markets (for example), U.S. consumers can pay less for products ranging from TVs to refrigerators, because Chinese wages are lower. As a result, inevitably, workers manufacturing similar products in higher-wage countries lose jobs, by no real fault of their own other than that they live in those countries where wages (and costs of living) are higher.
I was also troubled by the Guardian article, because it affects me personally. I'm an independent software engineer living in Switzerland. Swiss companies can easily find offshore programmers in India or Russia who will charge a fraction of what I do (or must?) for the same service. I'm not trying to soak my clients; living expenses in Switzerland are simply higher than in India. Is that my fault? How can I compete, short of moving to India?
Therefore one of my main problems with globalization is about how it affects employment. I don't believe in protecting industries that aren't viable on their own. But the determination of viability has to include more than just "Is a company the lowest-cost producer?" Is it more important to be able to pay less for a new TV, or to live in a society where those who want to work, can work?