Outsource This

I was a temp worker, doing brainless clerical work in an office. In the back of the same building, the company had their factory, churning out medical equipment. It wasn’t a high-tech product, because nobody manufactures high-tech in America, but it was “junior high-tech.”

The guy who invented the device had founded the company, long ago, and for years it had been a mom & pop operation with a solid reputation. Then the founder/inventor died, and as these things invariably seem to go, the company had become a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a huge international conglomerate.

No matter where on earth you live, you almost certainly have the conglomerate’s products in your bathroom, kitchen, and/or linen closet. But unless you’re a doctor in a particular specialty, you’ve probably never heard of the medical device that was made in the factory behind the office where I was working.

Any day on a temp assignment can be your last day, and you might not know it’s your last day until the last five minutes, so when the boss called me into his office I thought it was to say goodbye. Instead he said that he’d recommended me for another temp assignment in the same building, working directly for a big-wig VP of our tiny subsidiary. Woo-hoo. Temp jobs suck, but a job is better than no job, so I walked upstairs to meet the VP who’d be my new boss.

VP gave me a limp, oily handshake, but before he would explain what the new project was about, he said I’d need to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Well, that’s out of the ordinary. No job had ever asked me to keep my mouth shut before, because I’m generally a quiet man, especially at work. No chatterbox, me. They weren’t offering me a lawyer and I sure couldn’t afford to hire one, so I read through the document without legal advice:

• It said I’m not allowed to go to the media. As if.

• It said I’m not allowed to discuss any aspect of the project with anyone else in the company, except “authorized personnel.” “Who’s authorized?” I asked. “Pretty much just me,” said the VP who was sitting across the table from me. Hmmm.

• It said I can’t “disparage the company” during my employment or afterwards. (Spoiler: I have disparaged this company many times, during my employment and afterwards.)

“I’m supposed to sign this before you tell me what the work is?” 

Yup.

Question: “OK, if I sign this you get my silence, but what do I get from signing?”

Answer: I’d get a guaranteed three-month engagement as a temporary worker on this super-secret project. My present temp assignment was ending, and a three-month promise sounded good. I’m addicted to eating, OK? So I signed their non-disclosure agreement.

Now came the big reveal: VP tells me that the company I’d been temping for is going to go full NAFTA — North American Free Trade Agreement. Most of the assembly work that was currently being done in the back of the building here in the good ol’ USA would soon be done in Mexico instead. The office at the front of the building would remain open, but everyone in the back of the building would be phased out, replaced by lower-paid foreign workers building the same devices. In exchange for the layoffs, the company would get a tax break, because outsourcing is the whole idea behind NAFTA.

So, long story a little bit shorter, VP was asking me to handle the logistical and clerical documentation that would enable the company to lay off everyone in the back half of the building. Bear in mind, having already worked in the building for a few months, I knew some of these doomed workers by name. Would I take this distasteful assignment?

You’re damned right I would. If I’d said no, they would’ve found someone else to do it — someone who had no qualms. I had qualms coming out the blowhole, and I’d already decided that I was going to do everything I could to slow down and generally fuck up this outsourcing project. I made it my goal to do at least three things every day that would set the project back, and most days I met that goal.

The company thought I was pursuing all the myriad federally-required documents, establishing the country of origin for every tiny component, and every tiny component of every tiny component, of every medical device the company manufactures and sells. The company’s tax-break would be based on what percentage of these components were sourced from North America, vs other continents. So that’s what I had to do, but I didn’t have to do it well.

The very first thing I did was violate the non-disclosure agreement. My new temp gig started on Monday, but the Thursday before I’d already told two people in the manufacturing section what was up, and they discreetly spread the word.

Remember, I wasn’t an executive at this company. I wasn’t a manager. I wasn’t even an employee — I was a temp. What the hell do I care about a non-disclosure agreement?

If they fired me I could have a new assignment somewhere else within a week or two. If my temp agency blacklisted me, who cares?, there were seven other agencies in town. If the company sued me for breaking the NDA, what would that get them? I had maybe $1,000 in the bank and a ten-year-old Chevy. Sue me, fuckers.

I am double-darn delighted to report that this three-month project took almost a year to complete, largely because of me. How did I intentionally screw it up? Let me count the ways:

When VP was in a conference call with some rep from China or Mozambique, it was easy to mess with the connection, or disconnect the call — “damned phone company.”

Most of the time, though, VP wasn’t even on the line; he had me represent our branch in many of the conference calls, so I recorded some “static” sounds off the internet, and there was always mysterious noise on the line.

VP had an Excel spreadsheet tracking everything, but his password was literally on a post-it note beside his mouse. Data tended to inexplicably drop off his spreadsheet.

I fiercely enforced the “authorized personnel” requirement, too. Any time anyone called from anywhere in the world — North America, South America, Asia, anywhere — to inquire about NAFTA crap, I’d ask them to fax or email me a copy of their badge or ID, to establish that they were “authorized.” That was always good for at least a half-hour’s delay on any question, and because of the different time zones the delay was often overnight. The VP even told me that he liked that extra layer of security I’d invented. Security? Nah, just doing what I could to apply the brakes.

If incoming documents arrived by FedEx, scanned and tracked all along the way, there wasn’t much I could do about it. But documents that arrived by ordinary mail — meaning, with no tracking number — were quite easy to lose.

Documents that arrived by fax, I would re-fax and re-re-fax to myself, until they became completely illegible and needed to be re-requested.

Documents that arrived as PDF attachments? “Gosh, I’m sorry, but these docs just won’t open.”

When I realized that the VP wasn’t checking my work very closely or often, I started sometimes forging signatures imaginatively — using clearly legible signatures of people who didn’t exist, so if any agency ever audited our paperwork someone somewhere would have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy. But it wouldn’t be me explaining anything — I was just a temp, so I knew I’d be gone in a few months.

What I’m proudest of, though, is that most of the factory workers were able to find new jobs, and one-by-one quit before they were laid off, because I’d tipped them off. This also had the effect of reducing quality and monkeywrenching the manufacturing process, before it could be outsourced. By the time the company announced the layoffs, most of the people who worked in the factory and lost their jobs had only been there for a few weeks or months.

I had played a role in those layoffs, though. I’d intentionally done plenty of things wrong, broken laws, and delayed it as much as I could, but there’s no denying that it was me who’d gathered the required signatures, gotten the legal documents signed and notarized, and answered many people’s questions — often correctly. I felt crappy about that, and still do.

That was the worst job I’ve held so far in my life, and I gave it my worst effort. It won’t surprise me if the next job is worse, though. That’s the nature of employment in a corporate-controlled global economy.

Typing this up today, I’m tempted to name the conglomerate. Our sub-sub-sub-division was so tiny that there’s almost no chance anyone could identify me or even the branch I worked at, and it’s been a few years. I never heard another word about the NDA, after signing it. But — nah. If you’ve gotten away with something, it’s pretty stupid to risk the “got away with it” part by blabbing. So today I shall abide by that non-disclosure agreement.

I’ve clicked around the internet to find some reviews of the products involved in this tale, products which are now manufactured in Mexico. The recurring theme in the reviews is exactly what you’d expect: “These [bleeps] used to be very reliable, and I don’t know what happened, but they’re not as good as even a few years ago…”

Outsourcing ought to be illegal for ethical and economic reasons, and in addition to being bad for the workers, bad for America, and bad for customers, it’s also bad for the companies that do the outsourcing. Management is just too stupid to understand that.

Here’s the moral of the story, from a guy without many morals: If you need a good worker bee at a well-run company, I can be that — I would prefer to be that. But if you want to manufacture slipshod medical equipment for the cheapest possible price, putting Americans out of work, just to add .000001% of additional profitability to the corporate bottom line, I’m happy to hinder.

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