Issue 4: Castes of Technology

05 Feb 2021 Latest

Workers of the world wide web, you asked for international perspectives. So, in the news this week, we’re talking about caste in California, farmer protests in India, Rihanna on Twitter, Russian Yandex drivers on strike, surveillance in libraries,… and, GameStop. Also, events are back – RSVP for a movie night, edit-a-thon, and TWIST (Tech Worker Interview Skills Training) mutual aid. As always, we’re here to help you write your worker’s perspective. Check out our open call here.

Old image showing a march.

In January 1969, the Black People's Alliance led a march to deliver a memorandum demanding the repeal of the Commonwealth Immigration Act and an end to state racism. / Source

In the News

Shades of Caste

Cisco made the news last year when California brought forward a lawsuit on behalf on Doe, an unidentified Dalit. In referencing an Equality Labs report, they suggest that a majority of Dalits in America encounter caste discrimination and allege that Cisco, in working with Indians, is unprepared to tackle prejudices of Hinduism.

The State of California has since dropped the lawsuits with the intention to refile it. Meanwhile the lobby group Hindu American Foundation, has filed to intervene in the case accusing California of Hinduphobia. To bring more visibility to the topic, the Ambedkar King Study Circle has been collecting testimonials of casteist experiences in America. Testimonials include experiences of nepotism at work, favoritism, hostility towards activism, and exclusion.

Those worker testimonials echo other discriminations in tech. Late last year, Pinterest settled a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit and earlier this week, Google settled with the Labor Department over systemic hiring and pay discrimination practices. Google will compensate 2,600 female engineers with $1.6 million in back pay from pay discrimination while distributing $1.2 million among 3,000 applicants for its hiring discrimination.

“why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest”

Why do we have to leave it to Rihanna to share the news internationally about the massive farmers protest in India? Part of the reason may be media apathy, but Twitter also blocked accounts linked to the protest – until the company buckled under public pressure and unblocked them.

Arjun, a volunteer with TWC Bangalore, joined the protest in solidarity with farmers. He told us,

Protest is a stigmatized word for a middle class kid growing up in a city in India. After all, we’ve been taught from an early age that the path to success is to finish engineering and find a job preferably in an Infosys or TCS, more recently Google or Facebook. This in essence constitutes the definition of success for a significant number of middle class Indians today. So, I went to the farmers protest with several other tech workers. The rest of people we know were being middle class AF.

Read about the farmers demands and support them here

On strike against ‘The Other Google’

In Balakovo, Russia, dozens of Yandex taxi drivers are on strike, facing daily backlash from the multinational internet company and its collaborators in city government. One article about the strike reminds us,

Бедность таксиста - ровно такая же проблема для его пассажира. Бедность же эту создают компании вроде Яндекса. (The poverty of a taxi driver is exactly the same problem for his passenger. This poverty is created by companies like Yandex.)

If the product is free, you are the product

Since GameStop and Robinhood are in the limelight, it’s worth taking a closer look at fintech and regulation. Robinhood is one of many offerings in the retail investor market, often sharing clearing houses as was evidenced by other platforms freezing $AMC and $GME buy orders.

Pioneers in the free trading scheme, Robinhood used to rely on clearing houses much the same as other brokerages. But in 2018 they became the first company in a decade to build a clearing house from scratch. Instead it relies on payments from Citadel for its order flow data, as much as 40% of its revenue in 2018. Citadel pay millions for access to trading information a few milliseconds before it gets filled. As a result the Citadel and Robinhood link has come into focus.

Fintech isn’t inherently good or bad, not all clearing houses nor products are the same. Apex Clearing similarly temporarily shut down trading over liquidity concerns but that doesn’t prove a conspiracy. Finance is an exotic world that would rather not be regulated and that’s exactly what the Biden administration is now tasked with and their nominees all appear to favor unregulated fintech.

The House Always Wins

On the trading side, despite fears of short sellers being squeezed, the the wealthy got wealthier. Among the winners in this story of David and Goliath, was Detroit’s own Goliath, subprime auto lender David Foss who almost singlehandedly turned Detroit’s 36th District Court House into his collection agency. And remember that trading data Robinhood sold? Firms like Fidelity have asymmetric access to information, meaning their $GME impulsive buys were worth $2B had they not started selling them off. In the end it’s likely that the winners won before word got out.

It Pays to Flay

Amazon settled with the FTC to pay $61.7m after an investigative report surfaced rampant stealing of tips from Flex drivers. It does not appear that there are any other damages or fines assessed, which suggests that monopolistic tech companies have little deterring them from stealing wages, other than paying back a token amount if they are caught. But Amazon is certainly paying close attention to its workers. Evan Greer re-shared a promo video for a driver monitoring system, which uses AI to track if workers yawn. This is not unlike the Ring home surveillance system (which they should also cancel). As usual, tech is just part of the system: Amazon worker and organizer Adrienne Williams in this video explains how brutal her morning routine is already as a driver – and how much worse things will be under monitoring.

They don’t slow down your route, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 159 degrees outside. They act like you’re a machine. “Keep going Black girl, who gives a shit if you can breathe.”

Amazon is also tracking workers organizing a union in Bessemer, Alabama, where warehouse worker Ms. Bates explains to Kim Kelly,

To see how they’re working to keep the union work behooves me because, I didn’t see this much work when were fighting to have our voices heard. We didn’t see this much attention from Amazon when the workers was asking for help.

Safety Without Surveillance?

From Julia, a volunteer with TWC San Diego:

The one thing I can’t get out of my head is this immense frustration that we are forever willing to pour enormous funds into complex surveillance networks which are often ineffective (at least for their stated aims), while simultaneously pretending we don’t have money for basic care, like healthcare, housing, or mental health support. Invest in care not control!

For the past few months, I’ve been organising with TWC San Diego for a surveillance ordinance. And although the TRUST coalition (a wider coalition which TWC is a part of) were successful in passing two ordinances regulating the use of surveillance technologies in November, there is still a lot of work to do. For example, only a few weeks afterwards we learned that Chula Vista police are giving ICE access to license place data they collected as part of a previously unreported partnership with a private company. Too often, our society equates safety with surveillance even though surveillance itself is a threat to safety and privacy, particularly for already marginalised communities. We created this forum with our partners at the Asian Solidarity Collective and Showing Up for Racial Justice San Diego to imagine alternative surveillance-free futures together. Watch the forum recording and get our write-up and resources.

Events

“The Plan” watch party

Tuesday, February 16th, 8-9:30pm Eastern Time, online

Decades ago, workers at Lucas Aerospace came up with a plan to (re)organize the company away from making jet engines for fighter plans and towards “socially useful production” like truck-trains that operate on roads and rail lines. Sick of building weapons for war, itself a dying industry, and anticipating management laying off thousands of workers, they developed their own vision that lives on – although the company ignore them and did not survive. RSVP for a viewing and discussion.

Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon on Organized Labor

February 19th-21st, online

What is going on in tech labor organizing? What has happened in the past? Why? Join a edit-a-thon with volunteers from the Berlin chapter of Tech Workers Coalition to add and curate documentation of labor movement and tech worker organizing topics across Wikipedia. RSVP to join the edit-a-thon.

TWIST (Tech Worker Interview Skills Training)

Saturday, February 19th, 1pm Pacific Time, online

Want to help out your fellow workers? The Tech Contractor Support Network, organized by volunteers from TWC Seattle, is looking for extra interviewers for the TWIST mutual aid event – a space for people with engineering, design, research, and other tech industry skills do mock interviews with bootcamp grads and contractors currently looking for work. If it’s your first time interviewing folks, we’ll can help guide you through the process. To help interview or to be interviewed, RSVP via the TWIST contact page.

History

What role can Asian people play in Black Power?

In the 1960’s, South Asians suddenly became visible members of movements for racial justice and Black Power in the United Kingdom. They were led by Jagmohan Joshi, a principled, uncompromised member of the Indian Workers Association (IWA) who unified South Asians and African and Caribbean workers around shared experiences of racism and poor working conditions after WWII. Arslana S. writes in Jamhoor about Joshi’s path and how solidarity comes at the cost of racial, ethnic, and class allegiance.

Joshi’ branch of the IWA aligned with South Asian women whose male Indian bosses had fired them for demanding higher pay and unions. After another IWA chapter refused to take an anti-capitalist stance, Joshi called them “Enemies of the working class and the Indian community.”

Today, large numbers of Asian and Asian Americans work in the tech industry, but at what cost? In 2019, when hundreds of employees walked out of the Boston Wayfair offices to protest the company’s contract with ICE, co-founder Niraj Shah defended his company, saying, “It is standard practice to fulfill orders for all customers and … sell to any customer who is acting within the laws of the countries within which we operate.” In 2021, Google CEO, Sundar Pichai called the unceremonious firing of AI researcher Timnit Gebru the byproduct of “transparency,” instead of the racism and retaliation that Gebru charges. Shah, Pichai, and others like them exemplify the dreams of many Asians in tech – success at any cost.

What role can Asian people play in racial justice? We see a future following Jagmohan Joshi’s lead, choosing worker power over the bottom line, and without apologies.

Song

Kraftwerk - The Robots

Wir sind die Roboter (We are the robots)
Wir sind die Roboter (We are the robots)
Wir sind die Roboter (We are the robots)
Wir sind die Roboter (We are the robots)
Wir funktionieren automatik (We work automatically)
Jetzt wollen wir tanzen mechanik (Now let’s dance mechanically)