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The Heat Is on Industry

Amongst all of the attention being paid to layoffs and unemployment, often forgotten are those workers who are shouldering the brunt of the work of all those former fellow employees.


As I near the close of yet another issue of Chem.Info, I can’t seem to tune out “The Heat is On,” an old relic from Glenn Frey, which has played like a broken record in my brain over the last couple of weeks. (Why that song in particular? I have no idea. The cogs of the mind are intricate mechanisms.) That funky saxophone just keeps tickling my ears as I’d like nothing more than a little peace and quiet to concentrate on editing, e-mail and whatever fires that need to be suppressed at the time.

Similarly, I’m sure that the heat is on in processing facilities nation-wide as workers are forced to increase productivity, although their former associates and friends have since been laid off. A colleague of mine, Product Design & Development editor David Mantey, blogs sardonically about the sugar-coated headlines and politically correct fiscal reports: “Ah, the sweet changes the recession has brought to this nation. With all the restructuring, fat trimming, productivity increasing and headcount changing, it’s hard to believe that anyone was ever fired or laid off.”

It’s an odd inverse correlation — productivity goes up, while employment goes down. We all know what this means. Pardon the phrase (but I was born and bred in Wisconsin, after all): Employers must milk the heifers harder to achieve the same, if not better, yields with an ever-shrinking herd. This is bound to have eventual repercussions on us as a population ... if not on our patience and energy, then definitely on our collective and individual psyches.

It’s no secret that we, as a nation, have fallen on hard times. Numbers don’t lie, and although economic experts agree that the recession is over by definition, unemployment is an enormous obstacle we have yet to tackle in a meaningful way. However, amongst all of the attention being paid to layoffs and unemployment, often forgotten and left in the lurch are those workers who are shouldering the brunt of the work of all those former fellow employees.

Again, Mantey hits it on the head: “The leaner, the better. Right? What do you get when you have a staff of 105 employees and you cut 15? You have 90 employees who will do anything to make sure that they’re not in the next 15.”

The effect is becoming more visibly apparent with each passing day. Remember the spate of suicides at Foxconn earlier this year — 12 of which were successful? The company decided to not only increase wages, but also infiltrate the facility with undercover investigators and string safety nets between some dormitories in which workers were housed. Even though the company provided its workers with free meals, complimentary buses and laundering facilities, free swimming pools and tennis courts, the perks were not enough.

Zhu Guangbing, the man who organized the undercover investigation at Foxconn, told the Telegraph, “The machines keep moving and the staff have to keep up. The workers need practice to become really efficient, and with a heavy churn of new staff, they cannot adapt. In the past three months, the factory has been losing 50,000 staff a month because workers are burning out. Even the engineers and the training staff have had to man the production line.”

And it’s not just happening in China. Employees appear to be at wit’s end all over the globe, and at times, tempers have even flared into violence. In fact, there have been multiple accounts of plant shootings in the U.S. just this year — at Kraft, ABB, Hartford Distributors, etc. — and we still have a couple months to go in 2010.

So while I try to explain to my co-workers why I chose to wear red plaid pants and purple Pumas (laundry becomes less of a priority when on deadline), try to assess your colleagues, how hard they’re working and what they’re sacrificing to make it in this world … If you notice someone becoming unnecessarily aggressive, lend an ear and let them know that they’re not alone. When the heat is on, we only have each other to help cool down.

How do you keep cool? Let me know by e-mailing me at [email protected].