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Outsourcing the Friedman

Thomas Friedman hasn't been this worked up about free trade since the anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Back then, he told New York Times readers that the work environment in a Sri Lankan Victoria's Secret factory was so terrific "that, in terms of conditions, I would let my own daughters work" there.

He never did update readers on how the girls enjoyed their stint stitching undergarments, but Friedman has since moved on-now to the joys of call-center work in Bangalore. These jobs, he wrote on February 29, are giving young people ‘self-confidence, dignity and optimism” -- and that's not just good for Indians, but for Americans as well. Why? Because happy workers paid to help US tourists locate the luggage they’d lost on Delta flights are less inclined to strap on dynamite and blow up those same planes.

Confused? Friedman explains the connection: ”Listening to these Indian young people, I had a déjà vu. Five months ago, I was in Ramallah, on the West Bank, talking to three young Palestinian men, also in their 20's.” They talked of having no hope, no jobs and no dignity, and they each nodded when one of them said they were all ‘suicide bombers in waiting.’ From this he concludes that outsourcing fights terrorism: By moving “low-wage, low-prestige” jobs to “places like India or Pakistan. we make not only a more prosperous world, but a safer world for our own 20-year-olds.”

Where to begin with such an argument? India has not been linked to a major international terrorist incident since the Air India bombing in 1985 (the suspected bombers were mostly Indian-born Canadian citizens). Neither is the 81 percent Hindu country an Al Qaeda hotbed; in fact, India has been named by the terrorist network as “an enemy of Islam.”But never mind the details. In Friedmanworld, call centers are the front lines of World War III: The Fight for Modernity, bravely keeping brown-skinned young people out of the clutches of Hamas and Al Qaeda.

But are these jobs-many of which demand that workers disguise their nationality, adopt fake Midwestern accents and work all night-actually the self-esteem boosters Friedman claims? Not for Lubna Baloch, a Pakistani woman subcontracted to transcribe medical files dictated by doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The hospital pays transcribers in the United States 18 cents a line, but Baloch was paid only one-sixth that. Even so, her US employer -- a contractorís subcontractorís subcontractor -- couldn't manage to make payroll, and Baloch claimed she was owed hundreds of dollars in back wages.

In October, frustrated that her boss wouldn’t respond to her e-mails, Baloch contacted UCSF Medical Center and threatened to “expose all the voice files and patient records on the Internet.” She later retracted the threat, explaining, “I feel violated, helpless, the most unluckiest person in this world.” So much for “self-confidence, dignity and optimism” -- it seems that not all outsourced tech jobs are insurance against acts of desperation.

Friedman is right to acknowledge, finally, that there is a clear connection between fighting poverty and fighting terrorism (a step up from his usual practice of blaming suicide bombing on “collective madness”). He is wrong, of course, to argue that free-trade policies will alleviate that poverty: In fact, they are a highly efficient engine of dispossession, pushing small farmers off their land and laying off public-sector workers, making the need all the more desperate for those Victoriaís Secret and Delta call center jobs.

But even if Friedman genuinely believes that low-wage export jobs are the key to economic development, holding them up as the cure for hopelessness in Ramallah verges on obscene. Every credible study on the economy in the occupied territories has concluded that the single greatest cause of Palestinian unemployment -- now at over 50 percent -- is the occupation itself. Israel’s brutal system of sealing off Palestinian towns and villages -- through checkpoints, roadblocks, curfews, fences and now the vile “security” wall-has “all but destroyed the Palestinian economy,” states a September 2003 Amnesty International Report. “Closures and curfews have prevented Palestinians from reaching their places of work. Factories and farms have been driven out of business.”

In other words, economic development will not come to Palestine via call centers but through liberation. Friedman's argument is equally absurd when applied to the country where terrorism is rising most rapidly: Iraq. As in Palestine, Iraq is facing an unemployment crisis, one fueled by occupation. And no wonder: Paul Bremer's first move as chief US envoy was to lay off 400,000 soldiers and other state workers. His second was to fling open Iraq's borders to cheap imports, predictably putting hundreds of local companies out of business.

Laid-off workers looking to land a job rebuilding their shattered country were mostly out of luck: The reconstruction of Iraq is a vast job-creation program for Americans, with Halliburton et al. importing US workers not only as engineers but also as cooks, truck drivers and hairdressers. Second tier jobs go to migrants from Asia and Iraqis pick up the trash. It seems worth noting that John Kerry and John Edwards, while eager to condemn the loss of American jobs to ìoffshoring,î have had nothing to say about this massive outsourcing of desperately needed Iraqi jobs by US corporations.

Yet these policies, maybe more than any others, have fueled the violence that now threatens to push Iraq into civil war. The men Bremer laid off are “the water tap that keeps the insurgency going. It's alternative employment,” Iraqi entrepreneur Hussain Kubba told Asia Times. It's a view supported by Hassam Kadhim, a 27-year-old resident of Sadr City, who recently told the New York Times he is so desperate for work that “if someone comes with $50 and asks me to toss a grenade at the Americans, I'll do it with pleasure.”

Friedman's bright idea of fighting terrorism with outsourced American jobs is overly complicated. A better plan would be to end the occupation and stop sending American workers to steal Iraqi jobs.

This article first appeared in The Nation.

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