Outsourcing the Friedman

Wednesday 31 March 2004, by Naomi Klein

Thomas Friedman, New York Times’ foreign affairs columnist, wrote about the joys of call-centre work in Bangalore on February 29. These jobs, 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 U.S. 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 déjà vu. Five months ago, I was in Ramallah, on the West Bank, talking to three young Palestinian men, also in their 20s... 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? 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 Centre. The hospital pays transcribers in the United States 18 cents a line, but Baloch was paid only one-sixth that. Even so, her U.S. employer 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 Centre 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." 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. He is wrong to argue that free-trade policies will alleviate that poverty. In fact, they are a highly efficient engine of dispossession. pushing small farmers off their land and laying off public-sector workers.

But even if Friedman genuinely believes that low-wage export jobs are the key to economic development, holding them up as the cure for hopelessness in Ramallah verges on obscene. Every credible study on the economy in the occupied territories has concluded that the single greatest cause of Palestinian unemployment - now at over 50 per cent - is the occupation itself. Israel’s brutal system of sealing off Palestinian towns and villages has "all but destroyed the Palestinian economy," states a September 2003 Amnesty International report.

Friedman’s argument is equally absurd when applied to the country where terrorism is rising most rapidly: Iraq. As in Palestine, Iraq is facing an unemployment crisis, one fueled by occupation. And no wonder: Paul Bremer’s first move as chief U.S. envoy was to lay off 400,000 soldiers and other state workers. His second was to fling open Iraq’s borders to cheap imports, predictably putting hundreds of local companies out of business.

Laid-off workers looking to land a job rebuilding their shattered country were mostly out of luck: the reconstruction of Iraq is a vast job-creation program for Americans, with Halliburton et al. importing U.S. workers not only as engineers but also as cooks, truck drivers and hairdressers. Second-tier jobs go to migrants from Asia, and Iraqis pick up the trash.

Yet these policies, maybe more than any others, have fueled the violence that now threatens to push Iraq into civil war. It’s a view supported by Hassam Kadhim, a 27-year-old resident of Sadr City, who told the New York Times he is so desperate for work that "if someone comes with $50 and asks me to toss a grenade at the Americans, I’ll do it with pleasure."

Friedman’s bright idea of fighting terrorism with outsourced American jobs seems overly complicated. A better plan would be to end the occupation and stop sending American workers to steal Iraqi jobs.

Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo and Fences and Windows. She is also a columnist with The Nation where this article originally appeared.

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