Transnational Cooperativism in a Digital Age
The working world is changing rapidly.
When it comes to hiring technology workers across international borders, traditionally there have been two primary approaches: immigration and outsourcing. Yet with growing hostility to both approaches reflected on the (far) right in movements like Trumpism and Brexit, and the resistance to outsourcing for varying ethical reasons on the left, what benefits can a coop model of international collaboration provide in a digital age?
Transnational cooperativism is a key alternative to the dilemma between outsourcing and nationalist isolationism. A core part of CoLab’s mission is to promote an international approach to cooperativism that allows paths to ownership for its collaborators across borders. With an active interest in international membership, CoLab has established international nodes across India, Europe, and Australasia. In fact, two of CoLab’s earliest collaborators to become member-owners are Tomaž Korenika, a full-stack developer based in Slovenia, and Amandeep Sapra, a back end developer based in India.
But not everyone is happy when technology workers collaborate across borders. Last December, then President-elect Donald Trump met with some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful executives—including Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Alphabet’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt—in a discussion around jobs, immigration, and the US economy. Many found the meeting’s aims paradoxical, considering the president’s hardline stance on US immigration and in light of big tech’s reliance upon immigrant workers and executives. A recent survey revealed, in fact, that more than half of all major US tech companies were founded by immigrants.1 Another survey concluded that nearly the same number of US tech companies rely on outsourced labor.
The cause for such a significant turn to overseas workers becomes clear when considering the rising costs of labor domestically. Indeed, the tech industry is one of the fastest growing industries, and with that wages that have also increased on a national scale. Yet those costs can be offset dramatically by hiring internationally. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are extreme examples of this trend towards elevated domestic technology labor market value with companies like Google and Facebook paying seven figure salaries to top graduate students (along with, in Facebook’s case, in-person invitations from Mark Zuckerberg himself).2 In India and Eastern Europe—both common outsourcing marketplaces tapped by technology firms—figures shift dramatically downward. As one recent study found, IBM pays senior IT professionals in India an average of $17,000, whereas in the US the same position yields $100,000.3
In light of such figures, it’s perhaps easy to see the appeal of overseas labor, especially for early stage tech companies looking for an economic advantage. But a purely outsourced model invites criticism not only from the neo-nationalist right but from progressives as well. Indeed, outsourcing often neglects the needs of overseas workers and provides them with little if any stake in a company that may be thousands of miles away geographically and even further in terms of ethical commitment. That is, employers often feel less responsibility for workers that do not share the same cultural or national context as seen in Apple’s continued reliance upon China’s Foxconn factories.4 At its worst, then, outsourcing figures as one of the ugliest forms of exploitation—especially when considered from the perspective of the worker.
Not only are workers left with little security and sense of collective ownership, oftentimes there are significant communication challenges that arise between overseas teams and domestic workers. Inefficiencies of collaboration, challenges of cultural misunderstanding, and lack of shared ownership are just a few of the pitfalls that can doom a project whose initial financial projections seemed promising thanks to overseas outsourcing.
As a progressive labor movement, cooperativism has addressed these issues through worker ownership, democratic governance and social solidarity. One beauty of the co-operative movement is that we have an opportunity to establish a true democracy—one person, one vote—in the governance of our own economic affairs. We are co-creators of a shared socio-economic support network.
We are each other’s keepers.
In a co-op, a worker is given the opportunity to transform like caterpillar to butterfly into an engaged and active participant in co-creation of work that contributes to holistic life goals. The doorway to participation and collaboration with peers at the deepest level is wide-open by the very definition of the organization.
Transnational cooperativism dates back to attempts by the Basque group Mondragón beginning as early as the 1950s.5 But historically cooperativism has faced organizational difficulties on such an international scale. CoLab continues in the footsteps of these efforts while drawing further inspiration from current groups like The Democracy Collaborative, Enspiral, and The Working World. We see ourselves as a growing part of this longstanding, quickly evolving, transnational cooperativism movement: a small cluster of acorns soon to grow into a mighty forest.
CoLab is committed to a transnational coop model of using technology to promote social justice, equality, ecology, and collective well-being on a global scale. We are culture hackers of the myth of the zero-sum game. If we share resources with each other in an equitable manner and if we each choose to live life with simplicity, sustainability, and reverence for all of life; we can live together in a harmonious symbiosis of interdependence and balance where all of our collective needs are met.
A global culture of collaboration, mutual support, and care for the earth is our ultimate aim. Our efforts, together with your own, break down the silos of cultural disconnection and disempowerment separating us as a small but grounded step towards realization of this unified culture of loving regard.
Further Reading Reducing Economic Inequality through Democratic Worker-Ownership
1 See http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2016/03/17/study-immigrants-founded-51-of-u-s-billion-dollar-startups/. That number, 51%, was up from 40% in 2011. See: http://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2011/06/19/40-percent-of-fortune-500-companies-founded-by-immigrants-or-their-children/
4 See http://www.theverge.com/2017/1/23/14355668/foxconn-apple-display-factory-7-billion-investment and for background see: https://www.cnet.com/uk/news/riots-suicides-and-other-issues-in-foxconns-iphone-factories/
5 See J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)