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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
ea_spouse
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.

EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?

I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.

Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.

Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.

And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.

This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.

No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.

EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

But can they?

The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)

To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.

The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.

I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.

If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Right?


===

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 11:01 am (UTC)

WHO TO WORK FOR??

One of the good things about EA is that its possible to work for them, develop games, and not live in California. Does anyone have input on good, stable, video game companies who are hiring, treat their employees decently, and are NOT in California?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-13 07:26 pm (UTC)

Re: WHO TO WORK FOR??

A lot of people have been coming forward with testaments about studios that do not treat their people this way. I will be compiling a list of them and backdating a journal entry with that list of reccomended studios. =)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 11:11 am (UTC)

Let's form a Union :D

I know your pain.

My marriage was ripped to shreds because my husband was overworked by a particular online company in the bay area that is generally regarded as an excellent company to work for!

When my husband was on call (usually a full week, every other week) he was not allowed to be more than 15 minutes from a secure internet connection. This meant that every weekend was ruined. When he was on call we could not go to the park with the kids, or do anything outside of the house together. I would end up taking the kids out myself while he stayed home, waiting for the inevitable call. On the weekends he was not on-call, he was so exhausted from being called in every night (on-call was just another name for mandatory overtime) that he wasn't really available emotionally, physically, or psychologically, as a husband or a father. Even now that we're divorced, he's still breaking his back with the same company to support his children, while he scarcely gets to see them.

I was so angry at his company that I called around to see exactly what the legality was of what they were subjecting us to. Of course it turned out that it was all legal because the prevailing attitude is that people can choose to work where they feel comfortable. But this attitude doesn't take into account a couple of things: One, is the lack of jobs in this industry means that people are desperate for work. Many highly qualified people are unemployed right now, and it frightens those who *are* employed enough that they put up with abusive standards. Two, is that if all tech companies treat their employees the same way, there is no place to find respite. There are no options when every choice is the same.

I see two possibilities to remedy this situation. The first possibility is to change the law so that it is illegal to expect overtime without appropriate compensation (and set an overtime limit regardless of pay so that people are not dangerously overworked). The second possibility is to create an IT union so that workers' rights are not steamrolled by the corporations for an extra buck here and there.


We also need to address the culture that puts work above family. Employees often defend the company that abuses them, because the abuse is treated as "normal" by other employees, and by the company itself. The employee is immersed in the culture and there is a sense of working toward a common goal - that helps to provide some purpose. A wife who complains that her husband hasn't been home long enough to spend any time with his children is seen as a b%^%.

I lived as a single mother when I was married - and our family was tethered to my husband's company even when he was supposed to have time off. My husband didn't have enough time for anything but sleeping and recuperating when he was home, let alone any kind of productive communication.

We are now divorced - a marriage cannot survive a complete disconnect like that for long. We only saw each other when it was time to sleep, and we were so stressed out when we spoke to each other that it was like speaking through a brick wall.

I hope that some day the demolition of family is prevented by forcing companies to hire enough people that they don't have to make their employees work overtime on a regular basis.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 11:23 am (UTC)

Software industry killed me.

I really feel for them. I used to constantly work 60-100 hours a week as a developer. I completely burnt out after 5 years and am now disabled. I cannot work or stay awake for 8 hours (I have M.E / C.F.S) any more.
If anyone is this situation, my advice is GET OUT before your body is beyond recovery. Working in a factory or store may not be intellectually stimulating but it keeps the bills paid until you can find a good employer.
If I knew what was I was doing to my body before I got ill, I would have quit the industry and walked away. If I could go back I would turn down the £40,000 a year salary and worked in a factory for £12,000. I will never have my health back and may never be able to hold down a full time job again. All because I really cared about what I was producing.
Companies better realise soon that development is a very tolling activity on the miind and body. Most problems arise from bad management and unrealistic expectations. If you stop saying ´You can have it six months´ and start being realistic, programmers will create better quality, bug free-ish code and be happy to do 100 hour weeks as deadlines approach. Expecting them to work 100 weeks all through the project will eventually destroy them. Not that companies give a damn nowadays.
The days of an employee being valued are long over. ´You can be replaced´ is all you hear nowadays. Companies should actually take care of the good employees and replace the lamers. If your staff actually want to come to work, they produce better products, actually care about what they do and will help out as much as they can.

To the 2 companies that drove me into the ground. F$*! YOU. You have destroyed my life and bailed when it came to my health insurance. You worked me death. I made over 2 million pounds for you B*&$%*DS and you cut me loose to live my life unable to work or even have a social life because I am so ill.

I hope you all rot.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 11:50 am (UTC)

Re: Software industry killed me.

I'm sorry, I almost lost my hands to carpal tunnel because I was young and didn't know how to stand up for myself when the pressure came. It was probably the scariest thing in my life. I was blessed that I healed almost completely. I hope things get better for you.

Leo
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 11:58 am (UTC)

the suck

what do you expect in america? this country is powered by money and greed. its sad.
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[User Picture]From: harroldsheep
2004-11-13 11:58 am (UTC)

having worked for EA...

...this sounds right on target.
i always wondered if the managers got overtime? the artists certainly didn't.
but we got free video games. i guess that made up for it.*

* Yes, i am being sarcastic
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-22 06:24 pm (UTC)

Re: having worked for EA...

If you want to get paid for the hours you worked, I am helping with a class action lawsuit against EA for overtime violations. I am also a union organizer and I am looking for more information about the company. Most people are scared to even talk to me, but I am hoping that a former employee might not be so intimidated. I am at 415-441-6400 or unionjosh@local16.org
you can remain anonymous if you wish.
josh
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 12:04 pm (UTC)
I'm just a gamer and value all the wonderful work you guys do and it makes me sad to hear you are all treated this way, my heart really goes out to you guys and want to say thanks for all your hard work, you've made my world a happy place I enjoy waking up to.

It's look like some kind of article here relating to this, don't know if anyone has seen it, since it's too much to read 21 pages. It'a about an EA lawsuit. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/content_page.php?aid=5463

I realized myself as a gamer that EA was a horrible company years ago back when I beta tested Battletech. It became evident to me EA's strategy of buying good companies with passionate people and laying the people off, as alot of good people where let go and that project canceled. They also cancelled Air Warrior around that time those people were pissed too and their spooky spy game bombed, can't remember the name. I swore off ever buying another EA product then at the dissolutionment they caused then to employees and passionate fans.

Years later the publisher of the great Total War series had a distribution deal with them and I was forced as well as other gamers to be on the short end of the stick as they once again attempted to screw this company over and left us with a bad expansion without the features we were promised. We all railed against EA on the boards and luckily the studio listened and left EA for their next release.

The point is big companies need to know their are consequences for not being forthright and honest with their employees and customers. Eventually you piss off enough people and it will bite them back their track record proves it. So as a consumer I'm with you guys and I hope EA gets theirs. The brain power you programmers can muster is amazing and if you did focus on this one problem you could all certainly defeat it and change things for the better. Goodluck and thanks for the wonderful years past and future!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 12:10 pm (UTC)

We didn't know

Most interesting. Me and most fellow European gamers did not know how bad EA is. Fellows, let's go and meet in the forums and talk about what we can do.
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From: tazokvandyk
2004-11-13 12:15 pm (UTC)

Recommended Literature for mentioned managers

Just a simple introduction into HRM, maybe it's just plain ignorance of them;)

Human Resource management- gaining a competitive advantage(international edition)
Noe,Hollenbeck,Gerhart,Wright
fourth edition
Publisher McGraw-Hill
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 02:21 pm (UTC)

NO PASSION, ONLY MONEY!

I am a gamer. Not the sort of gamer that EA and relative companies target. In fact apart from Desert Strike and the first FIFA on Megadrive, I have never enjoyed playing a single 'game' pumped out of the licence-based powerhouse of EA. Even then I was not impressed at these two games. I just rented then for a day or so.

EA is evil because its all about the money. It doesnt give a f**k about how games are or should be made. Where is the intelligence put into games by companies like SEGA, CAPCOM or ATARI in their golden days??? -to name a few that cross my mind- That is how I understand evil EA as a gamer. It screwed the gaming world and it continues to do so. I see now that this evil is reflected on its employing policies.

Personally I dont care about sleak graphics and licenced crap. I like innovation, immersive, subtle control and passion in games. I refuse to give my money to EA! Their games are not even worth downloading...

But nothing will change. And in fact I dont blame EA. It just wanna make MONEY! The real problem is that the gamer does not exist. He has become a stupid consumer. It not about innovation anymore. Its all about demographics and marketing. Sorry for the guys working in the EA. They are slaves.

LONG LIVE SUPER MONKEY BALL!!!!!!!!!!!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 02:02 pm (UTC)

That doesn't sound so bad...

Ever heard of medical residency? Although there is now a cap on the number of hours worked per week (80), the government didn't legislate that there could be less patients, and hospitals didn't add more residencies to programs, so they're now working harder with less hours doing the same theoretical amount of work. Couple that with the fact that the average resident's salary is only in the $40,000 range, and it sounds like a pretty similar arrangement.

Although I guess physicians do have the financial security of post-residency life as a light at the end of the tunnel. ;)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 08:41 pm (UTC)

Re: That doesn't sound so bad...

EA MAKES TOYS THEY DON’T SAVE LIVES
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 02:28 pm (UTC)

NO PASSION, ONLY MONEY!

I am a gamer. Not the sort of gamer that EA and relative companies target. In fact apart from Desert Strike and the first FIFA on Megadrive, I have never enjoyed playing a single 'game' pumped out of the licence-based powerhouse of EA. Even then I was not impressed at these two games. I just rented then for a day or so.

EA is evil because its all about the money. It doesnt give a f**k about how games are or should be made. Where is the intelligence put into games by companies like SEGA, CAPCOM or ATARI in their golden days??? -to name a few that cross my mind- That is how I understand evil EA as a gamer. It screwed the gaming world and it continues to do so. I see now that this evil is reflected on its employing policies.

Personally I dont care about sleak graphics and licenced crap. I like innovation, immersive, subtle control and passion in games. I refuse to give my money to EA! Their games are not even worth downloading...

But nothing will change. And in fact I dont blame EA. It just wanna make MONEY! The real problem is that the gamer does not exist. He has become a stupid consumer. It not about innovation anymore. Its all about demographics and marketing. Sorry for the guys working in the EA. They are slaves.

LONG LIVE SUPER MONKEY BALL!!!!!!!!!!!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 03:01 pm (UTC)

worked as well for ea

I worked as a tester there for a couple of months and had to work in different studios all over the world, as well in Redwood Shores. Every project we did was a crunch. I think there are no projects without crunches as long as enough money flows into the pockets of the big manager. EA really doesn't care about your health. You are nothing and easy to replace if you do not become this job as full time job for your private life.
You can't compare the working conditions for tester and developer, but for our job we need to work on weekends and 12 hours a day as well. This kind of working conditions is common for ea... Only the mangagers are going home just in time for their weekend.....
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 03:50 pm (UTC)
I want to thank the workers of EA for their incredible hard work. The conditions are not fair in the least, and I know this story is 100% true. Just know that people like me on the consumer side do appreciate your genius and hard work.

The shit is hitting the fan next week, folks. Rumor has it that labor people are coming soon. Grab a chair and watch!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 03:57 pm (UTC)

Why this probably won't end....

First of all I want to tell you how much I feel for your situation, but I have to agree with those who say "get out". I know that might not be possible immediately, but you guys have to plan for it and esacpe that madness. I'll explain why I feel this is the only solution, by telling you a story about my own life. I aspired to be a game developer, since I was a teenager growing up in the early-80's I wanted to develop game software. Before I entered college I was able to get in touch with game developers working at Origin systems based in my hometown (Austin, TX), (side note: Origin was bought by EA in the mid 90's. I was told 50 hour weeks were the norm, but I was also told that there was rising pressure to be able to put out product for less money (isn't this always the case?), and the game industry was quickly being obsorbed by the corporation. The other thing I was told was that to be in a creative position as a coder in game development, you have to be at the top of your game (where else are you going to model the laws of physics in real-time and incorporate linear algebra on a daily basis?).

Just on the principle of knowledge/education over base payrate, Game developers are grossly underpaid. When you factor in the horrific, unrealisitic work schedule, your SO is probably in a worse situtation than if he were working in a sweet shop in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. You could get legal action against EA, but here's the thing... There are many, many, many kids coming into the workforce who have dreamed about being a game developer their entire life. I'm willing to bet EA is banking on this. While their model doesn't make sense to most of us, it may very well be part of a larger strategy. Once the current crop of developers are exhausted after 2-3 projects, they quit (EA doesn't have to pay unemployeement) and a new crop is hired.

This is too high of a cost to pay to do "something you love". I have found business software development to be a very rewarding alternative. Even in these "hard times" with overshoring more and more popular, most of our junior developers make $40k with a fair benefits package. Sr developers can make $60-$70k, Architect developers can make even more. I suggest crossing over now. Now depending on where he lands, a normal workweek isn't always 40 hours. For IT thisn't haven't been a reality in a long while. 45-50 hour work weeks are more the norm, but that's a hell of a lot better than what you're use to now, and in some of his new found free time he could program for himself building small games for J2ME (cell phone games) or writing web based games, something fun that he can control.

I wish you guys the best, you have to get out!













I choice to go down the path of business software development

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 04:02 pm (UTC)

No-lifes and Losers please get a clue!

You can't compare untrained blue collar work to white collar labour abuses. Ditch diggers and computer programmers are not in the same league. Many of these people invested thousands of dollars and a lot of time into their training and they should be duly compensated. The fact that this company is growing so quickly at the expense of it's employees is completely unjust. Supporting this kind of abuse will inevitably result in more and more infringements on our rights down the road until we end up having no better standards than people in India or China. Is that what you want? You need to get some PERSPECTIVE, man!

Not to mention that if there are this many people in North America who feel that something is _very wrong_ then something has to change.That right there is enough of a reason to know there's a problem. Anyone with half a brain can see that it's a dumb idea to go against a growing tide...especially if your own dumb ass stands to profit from any reforms or pay increases.

As for these people with no life saying others are off base for complaining, all I can say is wait five years until you have eye or throat cancer from the longterm of working under these conditions and then let me hear your opinions on the subject. If you say you'd be doing that anyways at home, then you're a self-destructive idiot and there's no hope for you until you get a clue. But don't expect those of us who love life to suffer because you're loving your misery! There's a perspective maturity gives a person that you just cannot have when you are young and clueless if you don't have some RESPECT for those around you.

You can't buy cool-- it's something that comes from life experience-- not from gaming and grovelling. Learn to respect your elders, pull up your damned pants and get the hell out of the way. Those of us who give a damn about the future are going to make things right.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:31 pm (UTC)

Re: No-lifes and Losers please get a clue!

Working 12 hours days 7 days a week with no end in sight... If that's not a sweat shop, I'd like to know what you consider one to be? The difference in a third-world country is the opportunity for change may not exist. In the US the opportunity for change is there... It may create undesriables (relocation, lose of luxury, etc...).

At some point you have to ask yourself, what you're working for? On a 12/7 schedule you're working just to get up and to do more work. At best you're working to support dependants, but you're still a slave to your job no less.




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That being said... - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: morgandawn
2004-11-13 04:31 pm (UTC)
soudns like time fora work slow down. nothing formal or organized(dirty word). just: gee, I am so tired how did that mistake happen. your body may need to be there that many hours, but you don't have to give them your all. slaves have done this for eons.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-13 07:38 pm (UTC)
This happens naturally simply through fatigue, actually... whether the workers intend it or not. However, they don't intend it, in the cases I've observed at least... because if they slow down, it only prolongs the project, which is not good for anyone. I also think that this kind of passive resistance in the end will only increase the employer's abuses; in a backhanded way it is sort of showing them what the results of slavedriving are, but you're then relying on employer perception to change courses, which is unlikely when they're already enmired in the project.
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