Abusing Tech Workers

So a friend of mine’s girlfriend has got a new job, on salary, at a tech company (And many of my readers will know who I’m talking about, but please, for everyone’s sake, don’t mention any names). And she’s working, apparently, some horrific overtime hours. Now, because, she’s on salary, she doesn’t get paid overtime for this. She will apparently get some kind of bonus, and I don’t claim to know how this bonus is structured, but I somehow doubt that it is commensurate with how many overtime hours she put in.

This ongoing abuse of technology workers just astounds me. She even said to me, something of the lines ‘you work in tech, you know how it is’ (I was tired & the music was loud, so I don’t quote). And it’s true, many, many people work terrible hours in the tech industry, myself included. However, what’s different about my position is that every hour I work is paid for. It’s shitty that I have to work long hours, but that is part of growing a company, and I’m also an owner of that company, so I should expect to put in extra time. Never, however, will I expect any employee or contractor of mine to work extra hours without being paid for them — it’s completely abusive to expext someone to work without paying them (and yes, I know that salary workers are in a sense always getting paid — but their salary is usually figured from a reasonable hourly wage calculated on a 37–40 hour work-week. If that work week suddenly averages 50 or 60 hours, their salary needs to be significantly higher (to maintain the same hourly rate), or they need to be paid extra for all hours beyond what their salary is based on. Assuming that someone will work overtime simply because they ‘have to’ or the project wil be late is unjust, and needs to stop. If a project cannot be completed by the team working full time hours, it is the fault of the project manager for setting an unrealistic deadline, and it is their job to explain this to the client, or get funding from somewhere to pay the team the extra dollars required to get the work done on time.

It is precisely this type of behaviour on the par of tech-industry management that makes me rant about unionization of the tech workforce. Now I know that there are alot of problems with unions, and they’re not a magical solution to problems. And unions have simply NOT evolved with the times away from a careerist mentality. But! and this is the big one — unions can grant solidarity, support and most importantly barganing power to allow tech workers to halt this abuse of their skills. And changing this environment has to happen — sooner rather than later. And it needs to happen in two places. First, at the educational level. As potential tech-industry students learn, it should be taught that they are valued contributors, and that they have rights, etc. Perhaps alongside the required english courses, something like ‘Philosophy of labour’ or ‘history of labour’ courses should be required — particularly as universities seem to be more and more about workforce training than ‘abstracted’ education. Second, in the workplace, across North America, workers need to refuse to work unpaid hours. And stocks options, profit sharing, etc, are not acceptable subsitutes. These are carrots to motivate workers to do their job better, not longer. And a company isn’t going to listen to a small group of workers — there are too many unemployed workers desperate for work. So maybe what is required is a professional association, a guild — something less formal than a union, but providing standards and guidelines for both employers and employees.

If employers know that no matter who they hire, they can’t force unpaid overtime, they won’t. On the otherhand, the same professional association can provide pay scales so that companies know what to pay a person — this sort of thing can help stop both the gross over- and under-payment of workers. For the members, it provides a place of recourse for grievances, possibly re-education (as no one becomes obsolete faster than a techy, it seems), etc. The downsides are often the same as the upsides — the standardization of pay means the end of the crazy boom-era salaries (which are mostly gone anyway), it means dues, it means organization, it means stagnation (because almost inevitably, it becomes harder to get rid of someone who’s in a union). But I think that these may be small prices to pay, even if the only benefit is a normalized work-week and pay structure for tech workers.

So an odd thing is that I’m writing this like a trench tech-worker, which as a business owner, simply is no longer true of myself. And I should worry about a unionized workforce, but I don’t. And I don’t buy that rules and regulations stifle innovation and the ‘agility’ that companies claim they need to survive. A company with a sound business plan, that is a good, socially responsible corporate citizen will be able to adjust to a changing economy, even with an organized workforce.