Outsourcing has become a global phenomenon over the last three decades or so, with a whole range of jobs and tasks from western countries in Europe and North America now contracted out to cheaper labour markets, usually in Asia. The jobs involved have included call centre operatives and computer maintenance technicians, with digital technology making the possibilities ever greater and more flexible.
While certain western entrepreneurs will always try to justify outsourcing by pointing to the low prices that it creates for consumers, campaigners will counter by pointing out the human costs of this kind of economic exchange. How these two groups work to communicate a coherent message will be examined here, in the shape of an analysis of three short films.
The first film analysed was entitled ‘Try Not To Cry’, and a was a critique of Nike’s policy of outsourcing labour to developing world countries, usually in Asia. Delivered with a fair degree of targeted bitterness, as well as emotion, several different rhetorical devices were employed.
Hyperbole was evident throughout the piece, beginning with the statement that Nike was perhaps, “the greatest exploiter of all.” Such a statement is almost impossible to prove, but it possesses strong emotional impact. It also made a directly personal appeal to the viewer on several occasions. The film begins with a statement that it is being presented by Rizwan and Aliboy, south Asian sounding names which help to make the predicament of low paid workers much more personal.
This emotionally involves the viewer. Factual analysis and statistics are presented as evidence to back up the more emotional claims, attempting to appeal to a more logical and less emotionally motivated viewer, who values reason more than intuition. This also helps to give what seems a fairly lightweight film slightly more gravitas. The viewer is quite often questioned too, as well as being appealed to take action. Emotionally charged music accompanies the film, with lyrics such as “I’ll stand by you…your heart is my stone,” helping to reinforce the intended message of solidarity and a call to collective action.
That call to action is reinforced by several images of struggle, and then indications of more mundane actions which people can take to support the workers. Calls to action such as ‘Boycott Nike’ and ‘Stop Child Labour’ are easily remembered slogans which will stick in the mind of the viewer. The emotional appeal of, “Do something. Anything,” adds to the sense of drama and will leave the viewer wanting to participate in the struggle. Repetition also occurs, in phrases such as, “more work, more misery,” helping to hammer home the message of struggle.
The second film examined was a piece from ABC News stating that outsourcing was actually good for the American economy as well as average Americans. The source of the story was interesting here, as it highlighted an argument frequently adopted by a figure who worked for a rival news organisation, in the form of Lou Dobbs. Indeed, much of the piece seemed to consist of ad hominem attacks on Dobbs, with excerpts of his interviews and speeches edited into the film.
These were short and sharp, with little space given to Dobbs to develop his arguments beyond simplistic statements. These statements were then demolished in detail by the reporter. Parallel structures were frequently employed in these attacks, especially when it came to Dobbs’ emotive use of terms like “unAmerican” and “stupid.” This piece, like the first film, also used statistics to back up its arguments. The way in which statistics were presented was also questionable, with sources not readily displayed, and certain figures altered to suit arguments at times.
Problems were minimised, using personal, and very specific examples of workers in America who had benefitted from outsourcing. The choice of white workers in the South who had worked for Levi’s was striking. The people chosen were white and looked like they owned their own property. They were chosen to look as wholesomely, averagely American as possible, making it clear as to which demographic the film was aimed. There was little appeal to ethnic minority Americans, who might well find it harder to find work in certain spheres. The argument was presented with a breezy confidence which did little to engage people who might disagree with its main thrust.
Finally, the third film was another piece which argued against the idea of outsourcing, though it adopted a more rational and less emotive approach than the first film looked at. This piece seemed to be aimed more at a small business professional, with its pop music having an indie, alternative edge to it which might be aimed at a college educated audience. Certainly, it opted to point out a more business orientated case against outsourcing, highlighting costs in terms of likely legal difficulties, or problems with PR.
At one stage, this rational listing of arguments actually made a more personal appeal, asking the viewer how they would feel if their friends in their local area lost their jobs to outsourcing. This appeal to emotions was actually presented in a very dry and unemotional way though, adding to its effectiveness. Word such as “bankruptcy” were used to accompany the main texts, while images of padlocks, empty wallets, dice and chains helped to reinforce the negative impression of outsourcing. Companies who offered outsourcing services were generally presented as dehumanising organisations, who locked honest companies into disreputable contracts, and increased the risks associated with business for American companies. All of this was accompanied by a musical refrain with the lyrics, “In this city” repeated several times, helping to reinforce a message of localism.
Clearly, outsourcing has become ridiculous when a worker can actually outsource his own job. The recent story about an American software developer who outsourced his own job to China shows that old ideas about pride in one’s own work are being undermined (BBC News article, January 16, 2013). The whole notion of supplying quality products for a reasonable price seems to have become lost, with a race to the bottom between certain companies over who can drive prices, and wages, ever lower.
This has been especially notable in some major media companies, which have often been driven to cut costs by outsourcing a range of professional roles (theprovince.com, news article March 4 2013). It is worth remembering the human and social cost of lost jobs in the developed world, and exploitative working conditions in the developing world, when considering cheap sportswear. A more equitable exchange of resources and labour, based on greater mutual respect, would seem to go some way to resolving these issues, though any long term solution cannot be found if only markets are respected, rather than people. The simplistic arguments like those employed by the ABC reporter in the film analysed above tend to ignore the real human costs.
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