The Lonely Art of Refusal

14 Sep 2021

Tomás S., a project manager at a digital agency, reflects on the global wage disparities in his industry, and shares his story of pressuring his employer to drop a dubious client.

A photo of several people looking at their computer screens in a workplace setting.

Web developers working. / Source

I’ve been a project manager in tech for about 8 years, all of it in digital agencies. My other skillset is interacting with overseas designers and developers and help them fall in line with our bosses and clients. But this position also gives me an intimidating opportunity to interject.

Many agencies rely on very talented people who live in countries where costs of living and salaries are significantly lower than in most of the United States. My most recent employer hires workers in Russia for a fraction of the salary the same skilled folks would make in the Bay Area. Management sits in a cushy office in the San Francisco Financial District, and most clients never find out where the work is actually coming from. The last agency I worked at employed workers based in Bulgaria, Ukraine, India, and Colombia.

Without these exploitative conditions, neither my job nor those companies would win contracts, be profitable or economical, or exist. A while back, I found out that a Client I was handed — a biometrics identification company — works with some dubious clients, including the United States Department of Defense (and their Iraq / Afghanistan citizen registries), the Department of Homeland Security, and the Israeli ID card program — entities that are complicit in breaches of international law, human rights violations, and population registries and surveillance.

It’s not hard to imagine how biometric technology enables this systematic oppression. Just the other day, the Taliban got a bunch of biometric data on Afghan collaborators. The technology itself is not inherently ‘bad’ ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘evil’ — I use biometrics to log in to my bank account, and it’s used to verify social welfare beneficiaries. However, it also has military applications and can be used to restrict freedom of movement, illegally detain innocent people, and track behavior without consent. Those are only some of the ‘case studies’ the Client lists on their website. In fact, the only information publicly available about them comes from them, or their industry. We have no control over how that technology is used. And yet, by working on it, we bear moral responsibility for its use.

Being alone with management in a timezone can be lonely. I discovered our contract and complicity at the end of a Friday, when our ‘offshore’ team was long asleep or enjoying their weekend. There wasn’t anyone around to bring this up with, even if I wasn’t working from home in quarantine — only management is in my timezone and they were winding down, too. As it sunk in, I began reaching out to friends, as well as a trusted TWC contact, to validate my shock and look for support. It was clear I couldn’t participate in this project, much less a company that took on such work.

It felt incredibly lonely because I assumed my friends and family wouldn’t understand ‘what the big deal is’ or the professional risk of retaliation involved in speaking out. My Eastern European mindset prevailed: ‘keep quiet and don’t cause unnecessary trouble for yourself’. The Russian Ruble is depreciating, job security is shaky — I expected many of my colleagues to be hesitant to push back. On top of it all, there was the obvious economic pressure and uncertainty of the pandemic. My friends without politics would question the potential impact of any move I might make: wouldn’t they just hire another Agency? Aren’t all companies equally shitty?

It looked like I’d have to resign. A job is always tenuous and I’d been there for some years now. I oppose surveillance of people’s bodies and lives and the policing and broader policies that oppress certain people, and at a minimum, I knew I didn’t want a job contributing to making others’ lives worse. However naive, I’d always thought our work didn’t negatively impact others and had approached the job with that mindset. This contract directly challenged that: we’d be making a beautiful UI that soldiers could use to more easily separate families from each other. Sleek animations to limit the movement of displaced persons. Is this person’s status a dropdown or a checkbox?

I found encouragement in stories of workplace resistance and organizing specific to our industry, especially in recent years. Ogilvy’s contract with ICE was one of the biggest for me, as well as efforts at Uber, Microsoft, Github, Hootsuite, Amazon, and others. Those worker actions made me realise that we could tell management that there would be consequences for working with problematic clients — we didn’t have to just accept whatever management was able to sell. Without those precedents, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to confront this in the workplace.

On a prior internal call about the Project, the design director affably mentioned towards the end, ‘I hope they’re not one of those companies that sells your data or other evil shit’. I figured that’d be a good starting point, so that morning I asked in the project Slack, ‘hey so apparently it’s much worse than we thought, — what do you all think about this?’

Nobody responded, and I felt discouraged. Was it too late in the day, and the team hadn’t seen it? Some of them are usually up working until 1, 2, even 3 or 4 in the morning their time. Such are the dictates of the US team. Or perhaps they felt uncomfortable speaking out, choosing instead to ignore it until somebody else addressed it first. There was no precedent for this, as nobody had ever publicly called out a contract with a problematic client. To be fair, we’d never worked with one where the use of their technology actively caused harm to people. It can certainly be argued that many of our other tech clients caused indirect harm to others — but that’s a slippery slope of philosophical debate which ‘making money’ inevitably wins. This was different because of the military applications of the technology, the potential contribution of our expertise to it, and our inescapable moral responsibility for any consequences of that technology’s use.

I ended up directly addressing the CEO and the sales guy in that same Slack channel, asking if they had been aware of these connections during the procurement process. Both pleaded ignorance while claiming to have researched the client. I pressed further and the gist of the response was “we’re apolitical / ignorant of politics so therefore above criticism”. There were some futile attempts to position me as having a political agenda – but my position was specifically around basic ethics and accountability. Expectedly, the first offer was to put another PM on the project. I reiterated that this still involves all of us, regardless of who actively works on it. I pushed to have a company-wide internal discussion at our next all-hands call.

This threat of workers having a say in their work rather than being dictated from the top was a direct challenge to the established hierarchy at our agency. Finally, the CEO called me and we went in circles on the same points until it seemed there’d be no public discussion of this contract. I realized I didn’t want to work at such a place and said I’d write a formal resignation after we hung up. The tone changed and my boss started backpedaling. I told him I didn’t want to leave my job and had no backup – I was serious. He said he’d discuss the matter with the co-founder and we left it at that.

Not 30 minutes later my boss called me back and said, “we’re canceling the contract” – followed by a public announcement in the project channel.

The best part though? Management would be making a list of companies we wouldn’t work with, including government / military organizations, political or religious institutions, tobacco / alcohol companies, and others. Many previous clients we did work for fell into these categories.

But then, my boss swung into action with the rest of leadership in an attempt to make me feel weak and powerless. He drove the point home that these cancellations and commitments were their decision, simply the right thing to do – implying that it had nothing to do with me. The company absorbed my criticisms without crediting me. A public discussion would have made that impossible and might have created space for even more pushback by fellow workers. After that I received what felt like inevitable comments about my poor work performance in general.

I started looking for others before speaking out, fully expecting to get fired and to have no effect. Instead, I earned management and my peers’ respect, and most importantly changed our workplace for the better. I still wish the public discussion leadership promised had happened, per my original demand – but that would’ve been too threatening to management in the long term.

But then again, this is a long fight: our effort as workers in tech to earn a living without enabling the military to impact other people’s lives. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be acted upon immediately, if not with coworkers then individually to set a precedent.

Thank you to Danny Spitzberg, Jesse Squires, Wendy Liu, Tamara Kneese, and the whole TWC Newsletter team for their editorial and strategic support with my story.