Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A longer hiatus than expected...back to blogging!

As one of the largest of the world’s multinationals, Vodafone gets plenty of attention from cheerleaders and critics alike – but not in the way that it should.

If we are reading the Financial Times, we will perhaps get a sense of how big and powerful Vodafone is in the business world. Vodafone has been forming partner network agreements with and buying majority holdings in national-based telecommunications operators throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Vodafone is spreading its wings with the breathtaking span of the globe, becoming the world’s largest mobile phone group with sales of more than US $ 58 billion and a market value of more than US $ 112 billion.

And with the news comes plenty of criticism. Customers in the UK, for example, expressed their grievances over Vodafone’s mobile call cost increase without any prior notification. We know about shareholders’ disgust at a few dozen people becoming extraordinarily wealthy from Vodafone’s acquisition of Mannesmann. We even hear criticism from bankers and investors, who, in 2005, accused Vodafone of being overly aggressive in the bond markets by issuing a US $ 880 million bond.

The veneer of its imperturbability begins to peel away, revealing cracks at the seams.

However, little is made public of the internal workings of Vodafone, except perhaps for board-CEO clashes, and yet, much is revealed from the inside, not only of Vodafone but of our times.

In Egypt the word on the street – among mini-bus drivers, recent college graduates and middle class professionals alike – is that Vodafone is one of the best companies to work for. The salaries are among the highest, the benefits among the most comprehensive, promotions and perks common.

Beyond this exclusive club of formal employment, however, lies a pool of subcontracted workers. Subcontractors with Vodafone hire workers with no contracts or benefits. In fact, being a non-Vodafone employee of Vodafone may be described as driving through a hurricane with a quick entrance and an exit that does not come quickly enough.

To illustrate, this year half of one cohort of Vodafone call center agents, hired by subcontracted employment agencies, left the job within the first three months – and about half of these employees left during or at the completion of the first month of training.

Non-married students and foreigners with varying levels of competent English language skills are attracted to Vodafone’s call center agent positions because the wage is nearly two times the competitive wage of entry-level professional positions in private firms in Cairo. It is slightly above the competitive rate of call center wages (excluding commissions).

Why then such high turnover? There are three ways to frame the answer: First, these unofficial employees are without a contract and ‘sign up’ for the job by signing away their rights and non-work life. Vodafone has expectations and requirements of its call center agents, and yet, does not make most of these known or clear. At the same time, Vodafone holds its agents responsible for what remains unspoken. For example, if an agent is absent from work two days in a row (without prior authorization), three days of pay is taken from the agent’s pay check. Without a contract, agents often only ‘discover’ this when they are confronted with the fact that they did not get paid for a day that they worked.

It is an infuriating double standard: The employer is not held accountable for anything, and at the same time, holds the employees responsible.

Second, the ‘your time is our time’ principle holds: The employee’s own time is at the whim of the employer. Call center agents are expected to stay until their supervisors tell them that they are finished for the day, even if that requires them to stay past their shift. The schedule regularly changes and the next week’s schedule remains unknown until the day/night of the next shift, making advanced non-work scheduling impossible. Agents are expected to arrive to the Vodafone premises 30 minutes before the ‘official’(i.e. paid) start of their shift, and they are expected to upload all applications within 15 minutes of the start. All of this is the employees’ time, taken for free by Vodafone.

Employees who rely on Vodafone transportation often arrive an hour before the start of the shift, spending three and a half to four hours total en route to and from Vodafone premises. Streamlining transportation costs, Vodafone pick-ups and drop-offs are at unreasonable times, such as a pick-up two hours before a shift at 4 in the morning! In the end employees spend nearly all of their waking hours during the work week either at work or going to and from work.

Third, the great contradiction of the post-Fordist era – the contradictory pull between ‘efficiency’ and ‘quality’ – is also borne squarely on the shoulders of the call center agents and their supervisors applying the pressure. This pressure to meet efficiency targets comes at the expense of quality customer service.

The streamlining of personnel costs, plus the general push to the bottom in terms of quality in the design to production to distribution stages, translates into a near constant furry of customer calls coupled with the constant pressure to get rid of the customers as quickly as possible.

In a degraded work environment, such as that in Egypt, this type of humiliating work becomes not only permissible but desirable. As Egypt’s General Authority for Investment proudly claims, Egypt’s wages are “among the most competitive in the region.” Or in other words, labour conditions are among the worst in the region.

But it is not as if workers in Egypt are just swallowing it. For the last five years there has been unprecedented protest among Egyptian workers – from factory workers to professionals – for public sector layoffs and low wages. And of course less dramatic than collective protest is saying high and dry ‘good bye’. The call center agent job may be attractive but for many its attraction wears quickly. The agents leave and Vodafone loses. There is no stability for workers but there is also no loyalty for employers, who then face hiring and training an incoming cohort.

Struggles are and should be waged for agreed-upon work conditions, with full employment rights and dignity of the person. However, we must not stop at the door of multinationals.

After all, Vodafone reflects and informs trends in the corporate world – of a two-tiered labor force (those with contracts and those without), of a revolving door (promises turned into grievances), of low costs and low quality. Low in-country investment and contributions to anything that may be called “development.”

This trend is not exclusive to the corporate world. Vodafone Egypt is part and parcel of the larger world of work, in Egypt and beyond. The work at Vodafone’s call centres is characteristic of work in the private and public sectors, in a neo-liberal era of stripped labour rights, steep hierarchy and weak stability.

Vodafone Egypt provides its call centre agents not a training befit of the latest approaches to work-based learning, but rather a run of the mill training en par with a 9th grade classroom in any private school in Egypt – a learning environment of control, that strips students of their sense of self and capabilities – an environment entirely befitting of work in Egypt.

It is exactly the privatization and liberalization policies that have propped up such an environment to which our attention and struggles must extend. More than two decades of such policies have created a regulatory framework that has only reinforced a culture of hierarchy and control, leaving workers of all stripes with few protections and rights. Deregulation of the private sector has ended up attracting multinationals like Vodafone to Egypt and at the same time propping up entirely undemocratic systems of governance and operation.

Plus, if we are only to point our fingers at Vodafone, the multinational may skip bail with the next forecast, just like Vodafone is currently considering. Good bye to Egypt, hello to India.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bodies II

I felt that I did not do justice to Orbach’s book in the first entry, hence, this “Bodies” entry clarification.

Orbach is actually advancing two arguments in her 2009 book, the first of which is that “bodies are and always have been shaped according to the specific cultural moment,” and the second being what I summarized in the previous entry – how our body sense or our relationship to our bodies is being shaped at this cultural moment.

In other words, Orbach is addressing the question of “why bodies?!” If in this cultural moment, there is intense commercialization and commodification and distress over the body – why the body? What is it about this relationship that is important or vulnerable?

A first point: Everything from how we walk to the way we speak to what we eat to how we mark ourselves – all are indications of bodies belonging to a certain time and place.

A second point: There is a biological projection onto the body. For instance, scientific studies have shown that the human body is capable of feeling what is not there, such as feeling a limb that is no longer. Another example is how human infants learn to walk, develop their cultural specific gaits and so on. Humans may not have a mirror neuron system, but Orbach contends that there clearly appears to be a cellular function of how to move by observation before one has made the movement.

From this Orbach weaves together a delicate telling of how intricately our emotions and bodies are tied together. One way in which she illustrates the body-mind complex is by making a case for the importance of touch – touch being “the most basic and fundamental of human experiences.”

Rene Spitz, a Hungarian-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, reported from a wartime hospital in the 1940s that babies who received the same feeding and changing but were closer to the nurses’ station and received more touches had a higher rate of survival. Spitz also compared babies raised by mothers in a penal institution who were raised by their mothers the first year of their lives with babies who were raised in a hospital who had less than an eighth of an individual nurse’s attention. The babies raised in the hospital suffered from illness or skin diseases as well as development lags.

Another example: Scientists have discovered that the physical process of touching raises the level of a bonding hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin helps us be receptive to soothing, calming and closeness. In contrast, those exposed to much stress or brutal touch have raised levels of the stress-related hormone called cortisol. The effects of high cortisol can be permanently damaging, because the person is readied to seek out stress. And the way stress is relieved is by increased stress, as the body’s opiates kick in with heightened stress.

A discomforting argument that she is making is that how we are touched and generally the physical sense of our caregivers as young people deeply affects our relationship to our bodies as adults. In other words, it is not just that we as young people are exposed to disquieting images on the television, but that we are disquieted in part because of the dis-ease carried from the generation of our parents.

This argument may seem to put extraordinary responsibility on the caregiver for an epidemic as large as body distress! However, the author’s point is more profound. Again, we must move away from “thinking of our bodies as just existing, propelled to grow by reasonable nutrition and genetic inheritance,” and rather think of them as part of a cultural moment with its emotions, neurosis, preoccupations. For Orbach we can not understand the disquietude of the ‘acceptable body’ today – and its particularly tight contours for girls and women – if we do not understand the historical trajectory of the unhappy physical sense of selves.

And this seems to be more profoundly revealing than any narrow interpretation of personality formation that derives from story telling of the modern self.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

body dis-ease

What is a large and growing epidemic of global proportions about which little is heard? Could it even be there is an epidemic which is weakly addressed? Could it be that it is growing at alarming speed but with little alert?

According to Susie Orbach, British psychotherapist and social critic, there is indeed such a epidemic – and it is very real. It is what she calls body distress.

I could scarcely say I know someone in the global North who does not suffer from body distress, which may come as a surprise to those who know me. And having spent significant amounts of time in the global South, I could say quite definitely I have recognized and continue to recognize signs of this distress in nearly every place I have been.

But what is body distress? You may be saying, “I do not fuss over my weight or my looks and yet you are saying that I am likely suffering from some sort of body distress?”

Orbach argues in her 2009 book Bodies that until recently we humans essentially took our bodies for granted. Our bodies were shaped by each cultural moment, as they are today by this cultural moment, but we produced things with them. Now, in this era of what she refers to as late capitalism, in industrialized societies our bodies have become the production itself, and thus, our body “is judged as our individual production” (p 5). For instance, what used to be taken for granted as natural processes in the life cycle – such as body changes due to child birth or facial wrinkles due to aging – have become unwanted and in need of manipulation.

Other signs of body distress may be dieting (and the exploding dieting industry) or eating disorders (overeating, under eating, binge eating) or skyrocketing profits of the cosmetic industry or even psychosomatic disorders (like irritable bowl syndrome and eczema).

The signs are many but clearly this epidemic shows itself in the singularizing notions of beauty. Orbach argues that no longer is bodily transformation a part of social ritual, but rather it is about creating an acceptable body – and what is ‘acceptable’ is narrowing worldwide, especially for women (p 82).

Recently I went with a friend to a festival of short Egyptian films. One of the clips was about a young, single Egyptian man who recently returned to Egypt from abroad. He had a neighbor who talked non-stop about his lovely wife, and the young man was awaiting to see this beauty to whom his neighbor referred. A climactic moment in the film is when the neighbor opens the door to introduce his wife, a woman who is visibly large and who takes on a jolly-go-lucky persona. And at that moment the audience laughs hysterically.

The vision of the beautiful wife was apparently shattered at the site of a round woman with a double chin. When I express my dismay to my friend, she kindly tries to explain to me that in Egypt “we like women with a …figure.”

One of the theoretical arguments Orbach is making in Bodies is that body distress is not necessarily about compensating for something else, as is commonly believed, but rather reflects “the conundrum of how to have a body” (p 74) or “bodily disenfranchisement” (p 75). Her theory, in contradiction to what she refers to as the most current theory, is that situating the origins of distress in the mind fails to fully capture the dis-ease that pertains to the body. Rather, it is more challenging to understand body distress as “a signal of a body that is struggling to express itself and its needs, or even to exist” (p 76).

In this way, she is refusing to single out commercial interests as the problem, but at the same time fully recognizes that “fashion’s handmaidens in the diet, food and pharmaceutical industries a nefarious role, adding to a sense of our bodies being a battleground” (p 94).

In other words, it is clearly not enough to talk about “The Price of Beauty,” as the new VH1 series refers to cultural practices related to prescriptions of beauty. This is not just about diverse specifications of beauty but about growing pressure on women and men to have an acceptable body – and those growing pressures are largely informed by commercial interests or religious doctrines. Highly processed foods and drinks, same-same glossy and digitalized images on the tv and movie screens, damning prescriptions from religious sects.

And let us not be deceived that the distress comes from failing to achieve the standard. It may seem so, we may try to convince ourselves it is so – if only I had thinner legs, less freckles, lighter skin – but the point of the commodified body is that it is not attainable. It is not that you can’t thin your legs, but that the project of working and reworking is ongoing.

As someone who has spent most of her professional life promoting healthy bodies, Susie Orbach does not just stop at the critique. She urges us, as products of this cultural moment, to take our bodies for granted and enjoy them!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Taker Culture

How you know you are solidly within Taker Culture, a culture systematically destroying the web of life*:

It is believable or seems feasible or fails to seem utterly ridiculous that –

God created the earth and the creatures on the earth and THEN man to be God’s “successor” or to have dominion over all other beings on earth.

God is ego-maniacal – i.e., demanding and expecting praise from humans.

There is eternal continuity of the self or Ego.

Your kitten is naughty when he tries to bite you!

(Fill in)

* For the reference to “Taker Culture,” see Daniel Quinn’s books Ishmael and The Story of B.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Public Private Partnerships abound.

In Egypt perhaps once a week or twice or more there are public announcements of private contracting bids for new public private partnerships. The announcements come from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Housing, the Ministry of Aviation, and so on – and in partnership with this or that foreign agency (say, a Swiss Development Fund or a Kuwaiti bank) – they seek international contractors to construct a wastewater facility or design the new Medical City or build a new runway for Hurghada international airport.

It seems nearly any public function is placed on an international bid, and it is the ‘big guys’ who get to compete. Not the local construction companies nor even the regional consulting firms. No, they don’t have a shot standing alone. So the local or regional company joins in a ‘consortium’ with a multinational contractor like Halliburton or a Big 5 auditing firm like KPMG.

Why all this?

In short, development agencies offer the reserve-poor, indebted government a loan to contract part or most of the development project to a private company or consortium.

The justifications are many: Egyptians don’t have the proper technical expertise; Egyptians don’t produce internally the proper tools, parts, materials; private international investment will attract more investment, which will generate growth; and so on.

Well, it is not just reserve-poor, indebted governments like the Egyptian one that contract out their development role. In fact, most countries outside of the Global North, even the superbly wealthy ones of the Gulf region, contract part or most of their new development projects to Northern companies.

Who else to do development then those who are developed?!

But wait, are multinational corporations experts at development? These corporations or company consortiums are offered fantastic deals. In fact, that is the whole point of attracting foreign investment: underpricing energy resources and setting up ‘economic zones’ with tax holidays and lax labor and environmental regulations. Why else would a foreign 'investor' come to Egypt, when it may get a better deal in Vietnam or India?

In the end the job may or may not be done properly; nonetheless, huge profits are reaped by a few. There has been no or little realization of internal capacities to get the next job done.

And Egypt has more debt. It borrowed money for this PPP and will borrow money for the next.

Monday, January 25, 2010


What lies beyond what is seen? What does the eye mask? Can the eye detect what it does not expect?

I see concrete, I see dead dogs, I see clouds of fumes. I see rows of concrete buildings and the steel of cars. I see the planted tree and the grass. I see the cat hiding and the donkey waiting.

I see a world of human design.

And I feel despair.

Until, high above, viewing where I do not view, seeing a sight that I did not expect. A delight.

Shimmering white, hovering, perching, looking below. Looking intently, only to fly out of sight.

But remaining within an audible range of sound. Screaching.

In Moroccan Arabic MOKA, Egyptian Arabic BOOMA, Amharic GOOGUT, French HIBOU.

In English OWL. The bird that can make the sound of O OO OW embodied in the roundness of her face.

A round O and an exquisite presence. A regular barn owl, the most common of birds of nearly any place.

Such remarkable commonness where tall concrete buildings meet an empty lot, the metro, a long “garden” strip and palm trees.

Indeed, in the trees lies the unseen, in the ground the unheard and unremarked, in the empty buildings and spaces of Cairo the seekers of darkness in light.

The world of human design becomes a world of such breadth and depth, a living and deadening energy, manipulation and resistance, will and determined paths.

A mystery.