Back to the future: workers & ‘optimisation’

Posted on September 17, 2011


From an employer and business perspective there is one major problem with workers: they are human. As such they are prone to off days, to emotional and physical ailments and fatigue; they take off time to have children and prioritise their families ahead of the financial wellbeing of the companies that employ them.

In short, workers will sometimes be unreliable, perhaps physically on the job, but mentally concerned with personal problems they feel far more pressing; they may slow down, take off work, make mistakes and otherwise adversely affect productivity. And, especially in an intensely competitive economic environment, productivity — the rate of profit per worker — is a critical factor for employers.

This is not a moral judgement, nor is it an attempt to paint employers as heartless exploiters, although many workers may feel this is a valid description. It is just that the weakest link in optimising tightly constrained profit margins tends to be the hired staff.

Yet at the same time, employers need workers. They are, to use a term generally ascribed to the pampered aristocracy of yesteryear, “a necessary evil”.

So the sellers of labour remain essential, especially in the services and retail sectors where worker people are still needed to deal with client and customer people; the need for face-to-face interaction still shows no signs of being completely phased out.

And although the micro chip revolution has greatly reduced the need, in many fields, for human labour — in the process reducing the numbers of customers and clients — workers are still required to operate, maintain and build the machines that now do the work previously done by legions of fallible human beings. As such, these smaller numbers of people are potentially even more powerful than their predecessors. But only if they are organised.

Here is the rub. One that the labour movement is only starting to come to terms with and which accounts for the bitter opposition to casualisation and the business of labour broking. The issue came to the fore again this week with the widely publicised labour survey by the country’s largest employment agency and labour brokerage, Adcorp.

Apart from criticising the methodology employed — Adcorp, for example, claims much lower unemployment than any other survey anywhere — the labour movement tends to see the survey as part of a concerted propaganda campaign to further fragment the workforce. However, major employers have long tended to be aware that a fragmented workforce is an extremely difficult one to organise.

The advent of the internet also made much more fragmentation possible, especially in the media. The now scandal-wracked News Corp of Rupert Murdoch was one of the first to realise this by “farming out” functions ranging from page editing and design to employees working sometimes thousands of kilometres from base.

More than a century in the making, this process of fragmentation is now well established. As a recent statement by Adcorp, noted: “It is understandable that the unions are less than enthusiastic about private employment agencies: temporary, part-time and contract employees represent a dispersed and fragmented workforce among which unions find it expensive and difficult to recruit, organise and mobilise.”

For the most part, the unions did not make such dispersed workplaces an organisational priority; nor did they adapt to the new circumstances. As a result even in workplaces where large numbers of temporary or casual employees are gathered, there has been little union recruitment.

A classic example is call centres which the labour movement has castigated as “sweatshop employment”. The traditional basis of union formation — a relatively stable workforce — just does not apply in the “revolving door” of employment that is a feature in most of these centres.

Because of the high degree of sophisticated monitoring of every call centre employee, many workers also feel not only pressured, but intimidated. The number of calls taken by every worker, the duration of every call and even the tone and response of the employee and caller is recorded and assessed by increasingly sophisticated software. All monitored closely by managers.

This level of monitoring is justified by the employers as providing a means of ensuring the best quality service and most accurate assessment of training. It is frequently touted as something new, known as “workforce optimisation”.

In fact, much like the so-called “neo-liberal” monetarism advocated by the late Milton Friedman, that was little more than the rehashed laissez faire of the 18th Century, there is nothing new about this idea; it is merely an adaptation of the “time and motion” concept published in the United States exactly 100 years ago this year in a book by by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor is widely regarded as the father of “scientific management”, the man who devised methods whereby highly skilled, “craft” labour could be replaced by less skilled, cheaper, and more easily replaceable workers. With large scale unemployment and in the absence of labour laws providing a modicum of protection to workers, this system allowed management to “weed out” the less efficient employees, so increasing productivity.

Henry Ford, who introduced assembly line production, also adapted Taylor’s concepts. The assembly line fragmented craft labour, giving each worker control over only a tiny fraction of the production process. That single move in the making of cars reduced the time to produce one vehicle from 12 hours and 30 minutes to just 93 minutes.

But, as Taylor himself noted about his attempts to redesign the work process “it immediately started a war (with labour) which as time went on grew more and more bitter”. Workers felt his methods treated them as machines and devalued them.

A classic example was the strike by 3 500 unorganised workers at US Steel in 1909 who had been subjected to what today would be labelled workforce optimisation. It led to increased strikes and resulted in the rise of modern trade unionism.

“But we are not going back to those days,” said Lesiba Seshoka of the National Union of Mineworkers, summing up the labour movement attitude.