If you only learn one technical term from labor economics, make it "chickenization" - Christopher Leonard's term for the way that the Big Three poultry processors have structured the chicken-farming industry (I learned it from Zephyr Teachout).
Here's chickenization: you're a chicken farmer. There is only one company that can buy your birds, thanks to market concentration. They tell you how to design and maintain your coop. They sell you the chicks. They tell you which feed to use, how much and when.
They tell you when the lights go on and when they go off. They tell you how which vet to use, and which medicines they can use. They bind you to secrecy through nondisclosure and strip you of the right to sue through arbitration.
They experiment on you. Your barn is filled with sensors that they monitor, and they tell you to vary feed, lighting, medicine and other variables to see if your birds get bigger. They are the only buyer in your region, so they know how each farmer's birds are thriving.
But if the "independent" farmers ever tried to compare notes, they'd be violating their nondisclosure agreements and could be sued. Farmers who complain to regulators are barred from the market.
Once your birds are grown, you bring them to the processor, who exploits their information asymmetry to figure out how to pay you JUST ENOUGH to go back to things, but not enough to get ahead. Since chickenization, poultry farmers have faced a wave of suicides.
Once you know about chickenization, you see it everywhere: crop farmers are chickenized by seed companies, and Uber drivers are chickenized by their apps.
The contours of chickenization are impossible to miss: it's a shifting risk from the employer's side of the balance sheet to the workers', using the fiction of independent contractorship, the data-gathering capabilities of digital work, and monopolies.
Today, I learned about the worst chickenization scheme I've ever encountered: a giant, global company that has chickenized a vast workforce, but maintains total secrecy, even as it services massive blue-chip companies from Airbnb to Disney.
That company is Arise, and Propublica and Planet Money just blew the roof off its ghastly charnel house of a chicken farm by, as Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott and Ariana Tobin reported out leaks, arbitration reports, and whistleblower accounts.
Here's chickenization, Arise style: the company is a outsource phone support system. Workers have to pay to work for Arise (they're "independent contractors"): buy a dedicated PC, internet connection and other equipment.
They have to do weeks of unpaid "training" just to get started, and then they have to pay more to get specific training for every one of Arise's giant corporate clients, from AT&T to Carnival Cruises to Comcast to Disney to Airbnb to Intuit to Barnes and Noble to Ebay.
After passing random, invasive, in-home inspections, after shelling out thousands of dollars and doing weeks - if not months - of unpaid training, they are finally eligible to sign up for shifts.
These shifts come in 30 minute slices, widely spaced, and turning them down gets you blacklisted. It's impossible to hold down another job while you're an Arise chicken-farmer.
But you don't get paid for 30-minute shifts. You just get paid for the time that you're talking to customers.
The whole time you talk to a customer, an algorithm is ready to penalize you: i.e., if it takes too long to deal with queries, or if there're too many pauses.
Meanwhile, the client's outsource managers randomly (or not-randomly) listen in on your calls, and they can penalize you too.
The main penalty is being "deskilled" - barred from working for that client, after paying (in cash and time) to get trained to be their phone rep.
Workers are barred from hanging up on abusive customers. Women report high levels of sexual harassment, which they have to patiently endure, because they risk getting fired if they hang up on their abusers.
And all workers are expected to tolerate unlimited abuse from callers. 64% of Arise's workers are people of color. 89% of them are women. Arise's recruiting ads target Black women in particular.
There IS a way to get ahead in Arise: recruit other workers. Because, in addition to everything else, it's a pyramid scheme, and the business is riddled with people who've been previously convicted of wire fraud.
Nearly every person in the Arise structure is chickenized:. The following jobs are all performed by "independent contractors":
* Client Support Professionals
* Quality Assurance Performance Facilitators
* Chat Performance Facilitators
* Escalation Performance Facilitators
Not only do you have to pay to work for Arise - you have to pay (a "contract termination fee") to stop working for them.
Arise binds workers to arbitration, meaning they can't sue. The right of workers to join class actions in spite of arbitration waivers went to the Supreme Court in '18, where the illegitimate justice Neal Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, ruling against workers.
Arise honors Juneteenth with a day off for all employees. But all those Black women it has chickenized are independent businesses and are still expected to show up for work.
Arise's founder is Richard Cherry, a Canadian "serial entrepreneur" who started off writing scammy get-rich-quick and lose-weight-quick books before moving to Florida and getting heavily involved with the Home Shopping Network.
Today, the company is a division of a giant private equity fund, Warburg Pincus.
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