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Filmmaker Examines Jobs Lost to Outsourcing, Offshore Production - 2004-09-02


U.S. industry is increasingly turning to countries like Mexico and China for its manufacturing, and to India for high-end services like computer programming. The phenomena called "outsourcing" and "offshore production" have divided Americans and become political issues in this year's U.S. election. A California filmmaker has documented the impact on American workers.

Video producer Greg Spotts says that early last year, he noticed that many of his friends were not working. "And I hadn't really remembered a time like that where so many of friends in different cities, different industries, were in between jobs," he said. "And at the time, we were reading about this terrific recovery."

The 36-year-old freelance television producer started collecting news stories about the economy. Before long he had 1,000 articles stored on his computer.

"And I started to have a sense that there was underlying structural change rather than cyclical change happening in the economy," he noted.

It was clear that many U.S. jobs were moving overseas, and he wanted to hear the story from the Americans most affected, displaced workers. With a camera and small production kit, he set out on a journey to film those stories. The result is a video called American Jobs.

"I visited 19 different cities and towns making this film, from January 5 to July 3 was the last interview," he said. "I did a lot of the interviews the first three months of the year with various displaced workers in all kind of different industries form textile to garment to commercial aviation to software."

Early in the program, he visits a high school in Los Angeles and asks students to go to clothing stores to see where the merchandise comes from.

Female Student: "It was from Thailand, Turkey, India, Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, Vietnam."

Almost none of the products were made in the United States. From manufacturing to customer service, U.S. corporations have moved key functions overseas and downsized their domestic operations. The movement, says Mr. Spotts, began in 1993 with the North American Free Trade Agreement that links the United States, Canada, and Mexico in a common market.

NAFTA was fiercely debated, before the U.S. Congress approved the agreement and President Bill Clinton signed it. The measure had bipartisan support, but many Democrats and a few Republicans now have reservations and say it marked the start of a slide in the standard of living for U.S. workers. The critics also worry that the agreement undercut the U.S. industrial base.

Mr. Spotts' film is not overtly political, but he agrees with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that outsourcing, offshore production, and the resulting layoffs are hurting U.S. workers.

One of the people he interviewed, engineer Kennett Bivens, is among the tens of thousands of workers who lost their jobs at Boeing Commercial Aircraft near Seattle. It was partly a result of the downturn in aviation because of terrorism, and also because the company downsized and outsourced some of its work as part of a strategy to stay competitive.

"October 25, 2002, two days after my birthday, I was called into my boss's office and explained that I was being given a "warn" that day, meaning that it was a warning that my job was in jeopardy and I was at a good risk of losing my position at the Boeing company," he recalled.

Mr. Bivens lost his job a few months later.

Business consultant David Bowman says business shifts are painful, but he sees the process from a different perspective from Mr. Spotts. An advocate of free trade and supporter of President Bush, he says business must cut its costs to stay competitive in a global market.

"Certainly, in the micro sense, it's bad because obviously you're got a terrible emotional, financial difficulty in terms of families," he said. "It's terrible, obviously. But in a macro sense, outsourcing is just a continuation of the economic evolution that's been going on in this country since it's founding."

He says the move from farms to urban factories was a painful, but necessary result of the industrial revolution, and the transnational nature of business today is part of a natural process of globalization.

Gregg Spotts is not so sure that globalization is either good or inevitable. He believes that trade agreements like NAFTA and the international partnerships of the World Trade Organization (WTO) were crafted to help business, and says they lack important safeguards for workers and consumers.

Others say the agreements reduce prices for consumers and open markets for U.S. products in developing countries like China. Mr. Spotts, on the other hand, believes that China's growing middle class will eventually end up buying only Chinese-made products.

Mr. Bowman responds that free trade increases profits for U.S. businesses, which flow back to investors and permit the development of new products and services. And he says Americans are far ahead in what he calls "the knowledge game," which allows them to stay in the forefront of business. He thinks opponents of free trade have some legitimate concerns, but also misplaced worries.

"It kind of reminds me of the talk 40 years ago, remember when [people said] oh, all jobs are going to be eliminated because of computers?" he said. "We were going to be in a horrible mess. Well, exactly the opposite happened, if you'll recall. Since then, 72 million jobs have been created."

The two men agree on one issue, saying government and business should do more for displaced workers. Today, U.S. state and federal agencies provide transitional assistance and retraining, but Mr. Bowman says corporations that move operations overseas should also do more. Mr. Spotts questions the value of retraining, saying many displaced textile workers that he met in North Carolina were being retrained for medical billing, a job that is now being outsourced to India.

The two agree that U.S. officials must do more strategic planning to deal with the growth of offshore production and displacement of workers.

Mr. Bowman adds that workers need to take responsibility themselves and manage their career like a business, to prepare themselves for the changes they know will be coming.

Mr. Spotts' documentary, American Jobs, is being shown at film festivals and at private screenings around the United States.

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