Companies have been outsourcing work for many years. In outsourcing, specialized companies provide their services to client companies at a lower cost than the client companies would ultimately incur doing the work in-house. Outsourcing this work to "foreign" or "offshore" companies, solely to take advantage of lower labor rates in those countries, became known as offshoring.
Offshoring is often blamed during periods of slow job growth in the U.S. But is offshoring all bad? To answer that, we need to explore the history of this practice.
For decades companies expanded their conglomerates by buying other companies. Initially, these companies were related businesses—often suppliers—but soon the conglomerates began buying companies with no relationship to their business. The desire to be the biggest and most profitable became sufficient justification.
Ultimately, the conglomerates began to collapse under the weight of the acquired companies. Profits started falling, and companies began to retract to their "core" businesses. Next, they discovered that they could shed even core functions by hiring them out to companies that could do them more efficiently and, thus, less expensively. Payroll processing was subcontracted; shipping was farmed out; so was manufacturing; companies were hired for collections, customer call centers, and employee benefits.
Outsourcing made sense because specialized companies could provide their services to many client companies at lower costs than the client companies would incur by doing the work in-house. Both companies profited from the arrangement.
Unfortunately, like the building of conglomerates before it, outsourcing got carried to extremes. Companies began outsourcing work to the lowest bidder and lost sight of the effect it had on the company in every area except for finances.
Initially, mainly manufacturing jobs were outsourced. Other countries were able to manufacture goods more cheaply than in the U.S. because of lower standards of living and less restrictive laws and environmental regulations. Recently, companies have begun outsourcing service jobs as well. In the wake of the Great Recession and its impact on the labor market, many citizens and lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of offshoring.
The arguments for offshoring mainly center around the benefits of free trade and globalization:
- When a product or service can be produced more cheaply overseas, it makes more sense to import it than to produce it domestically.
- Much of the revenue earned abroad returns to this country in wages for other employees, investment in research and development, profits for shareholders, and taxes for the government.
- Companies have an obligation to do what's best for their investors and shareholders. It doesn't matter where the work is done as long as the U.S. companies earn the profit to return to their shareholders.
- Lower-priced goods and services are good for all consumers.
- New, more sophisticated jobs will be created in America to fill the void now that the less skilled jobs have been sent overseas.
- It will help improve the economies of poorer countries so they won't need so much financial aid from the U.S.
The arguments against offshoring focus on impacts on the American consumer and the danger of a brain drain:
- Prices drop only marginally due to offshoring, while wages decrease substantially due to unemployment. This reduces the American consumer's ability to purchase the product or service.
- America was able to turn on a mighty economic engine that ultimately won World War II. Offshoring destroys the ability to do that again.
- The considerable profits to be made from offshoring are retained by the rich, while the middle class pays higher taxes and loses purchasing power.
- Foreign workers do not contribute to U.S. Social Security or other taxes. The increased tax revenue from corporate profits does not equal the amount lost on U.S. workers' income taxes.
- Companies could save more by offshoring the CEO job. The average U.S. computer engineer earns 12 to 13 times their Indian counterpart, but the U.S. CEO gets paid 278 times as much as the average worker.
- The "more sophisticated jobs" that U.S. workers are supposed to take on do not exist, and it is an affront to the U.S. worker trained for the "jobs of the future" to have their job outsourced by their American employer.
- Work is often outsourced to countries where laws are not as protective of workers and the environment as in the U.S. We ultimately pay for those oversights in human rights abuses and further damage to the planet.
A Complicated Picture
Offshoring is perceived as yet another way for the super-rich corporate executives to get richer at the expense of individual workers, but offshoring is neither a cure-all for business nor an economy-destroying monster. The financial advantages for businesses are often smaller than first anticipated due to hidden costs. And in the long term, there is a danger that consumers will stop buying from companies engaged in offshoring or that neither the Americans unemployed due to offshoring nor the low-paid workers overseas will be able to purchase the company's products.
Outsourcing work to companies that can do it more efficiently and less expensively can make sense, provided that it is actually less expensive in the long run, and done with mindfulness toward its impact on people and the planet.