Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses

The tech industry is the future. It pumps out shiny, sleek machines on which we can do futuristic things. The fact that most of these things are extensions of work into what was previously leisure time and space, or enrich the tech industry, or involve handing over vast amounts of lucrative personal data to tech companies, advertisers and shady security agencies is by the by. 

The tech industry works hard to make its own operations look like the future. They don't have offices, they have 'campuses'. On these campuses, work is made to look like play. White-toothed youngsters zoom past on Segways from 'breakout space' to the company basketball court, pausing only to grab 'free' comestibles. They really love big brother. And why shouldn't they? These men (yes, and they're almost all white too) move (in corporate buses and private jets) from the grubby public realm to the primary colours of private, corporate space, free from litter, loafers, the poor, traffic jams, protest marches and anything else that smacks of inefficiency. It's a Hayekian paradise. Better than that: they earn a fortune too.

So we might all be forgiven for not giving a single solitary damn for the problems of these fresh-faced overlords. And yet while they are the chino-wearing shock troops of a eugenicist master-race, they're also a new proletariat in a game that's as old as the hills, as some recent news disclosed. We all know that the tech industry markets itself as making fortunes from 'innovation', while actually making billions from tax evasion – Apple has $111 billion stashed offshore because it doesn't want to pay its taxes – it has learned a lot of lessons from the nastiest of the 'old' industries: MacDonalds, Standard Oil, the mining companies and their ilk. You might make this behaviour by calling it tax 'avoidance', but Apple and its friends are now lobbying the US government for a tax holiday so they can bring it all onshore without having to contribute to the public realm which makes all its activities possible.

Imagine you're a young tech worker. You have flexible typing fingers, you're good with code and you never spill Pepsi down your polo shirt. You've been a code monkey at Google for a couple of years and you fancy a change. Your friends in finance are always telling you about the cold calls you get from recruitment agencies, yet your phone never rings, and your applications to Apple are never answered. Why the hell not?

Why not indeed? Court proceedings reveal exactly why not. Just as the bankers ganged up on the poor to apportion blame for the crash, all those cuddly, cool companies have organised a little cartel to ensure that you and your greedy friends don't increase wages by flitting between jobs. Free markets are for megacorps, not paupers however good they are at Objective C.

The DOJ alleges that Senior executives at each company negotiated to have their employees added to 'no call' lists maintained by human resources personnel or in company hiring manuals. The alleged agreements were not limited by geography, job function, product group, or time period. The alleged bilateral agreements were between: (1) Apple and Google, (2) Apple and Adobe, (3) Apple and Pixar, (4) Google and Intel, (5) Google and Intuit, and (6) Lucasfilm and Pixar.
The civil class action further alleges that agreements also existed to (1) "provide notification when making an offer to another [company]'s employee (without the knowledge or consent of the employee)" and (2) "agreements that, when offering a position to another company's employee, neither company would counteroffer above the initial offer."
There we have it: once you're in a job, you stay there, be proud of the logo t-shirts and little backpacks, or you leave the industry amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth (yours). Otherwise you might damage the dividends.

But…surely not Apple? They're so cool! They're not like nasty Mr Arkwright down at t'mill? Oh dear. Saint Steve was up to his neck in this plot against his own workers, as revealed by the only hero of Silicon Valley, sad little Palm's Edward Colligan. He wrote to Jobs about this cosy little conspiracy after an unpleasant (i)phone call:
Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual's desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal.
 'OK', said Steve. 'You're right. We're way out of line here, and my Buddhist morality won't allow me to carry on this way'.

Only joking.
"Mr. Jobs also suggested that if Palm did not agree to such an arrangement, Palm could face lawsuits alleging infringement of Apple's many patents. This is not satisfactory to Apple," Jobs wrote. "I'm sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies when you say: 'We will both just end up paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money.'"
That's right. The guru of everything cool left the equivalent of a horse's head in a rival's bed, threatening to sue it out of existence if it didn't collude in a conspiracy to restrict their employees' earnings and mobility. That's Steve – and all his mates. Behind the optimistic techno-babble of bright new futures lurks the social, ideological and economic attitudes of the 1920s Virginian coal barons.

This isn't the 22nd century, let alone the 21st. It's the 19th. And it's why we need trades unions. (Also: Dave Eggers' The Circle is a very interesting novel on the way the tech industry experiments on notions of the self and individuality, using its own employees).

This is how companies treat their literate, highly-skilled and articulate workers in the world's most developed (sort-of) country: just imagine how they're treating those who toil in the assembly factories away from our prying eyes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"We all know that the tech industry markets itself as making fortunes from 'innovation', while actually making billions from tax evasion – Apple has $111 billion stashed offshore because it doesn't want to pay its taxes."

Er, no. First, I think you mean tax avoidance. As far as I'm aware, no one has credibly suggested that Apple engages in tax evasion.

In fact, Apple makes something like 70% of its profits outside the US. Thus, for example, iPhones are manufactured in China for the Chinese market, and Apple makes huge profits which it leaves overseas rather than repatriating the money to the US.

This is entirely legal. In the same way many British citizens have, like Apple, and like Apple entirely legally, arranged their affairs in such a way as to avoid domestic tax. I'm referring here to ISAs, which are currently used by 23.2 million UK adults to avoid tax on total assets of £443 billion.

It's the same thing.