Free food, billiards and daycare: Silicon Valley exports labor feudalism

The first time I entered the headquarters of the most famous technology company in Silicon Valley, I was shocked. A gigantic metal slide descended from the first floor to the restaurant. Firemen’s bars allowed to go down from the second to the third. ‘Vintage’ cable cars and London cabins were used to make calls. In the restaurant, delicious options for breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared by renowned chefs. On Fridays, some Asian chefs came specifically to make sushi. Foosball and pool table. Hairdressing, massages, daycare, laundry … It was strange, on the one hand everything seemed wonderful, the future towards which all companies should evolve. On the other hand, something was whistling in my head.

One day, they gave us movie tickets. Nobody complained about not being able to choose the movie. I remember the feeling of kindergarten children queuing, a feeling that was accentuated because they had given us a ticket for a drink, popcorn and ice cream. Was the future of the company to become a nursery? The beeping in my head started to bother me.

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Another day, the billionaire founder stopped by our office and was upset that there were people playing pool during work hours. I guess you must have seen the Russian programmer who every day He brought his own disassembled billiard stick in his briefcase, put on a special glove and spent half a day playing. The founder’s complaint left people unsettled. If you couldn’t play during working hours, what did billiards paint in the office? Little by little, norms and more internal norms were arriving, some reasonable, others debatable, but all tried to put an end to that initial good roll that the founders had promulgated so much.

The whistle became deafening when I learned about a couple of cases from colleagues who had been tried by a committee. I say judged because they were accused by another employee of harassment and subjected to an internal process literally called “trial.”

Google employees in Singapore playing table football. (Reuters)

From that point on, I began to realize that the company behaved like a feudal lord who graciously granted a nobility made up of tech workers his protection and privileges over the common people who lived outside the walls. The company provided employment benefits that far exceeded the realm of work and, in return, imposed a series of internal rules that somehow replaced the judicial system. The three unified powers. In the United States, the welfare state is very small and there is a tradition of acting as an individual or company to ‘do justice’ or ‘fight inequalities’, and philanthropy reaches stratospheric levels.

In Europe, our tradition is different. Although each country has a different model, the State guarantees social benefits universally or defines their beneficiaries. In the same way, it is the State that legally regulates labor relations and in case of conflict, the courts act. It is the three powers of the State that we allow to fight inequalities, defend or limit freedom of expression, and it is the citizens who, through the political parties in Parliament, make the system evolve in one direction or another.

The difference is obvious, in Europe, companies offer fewer benefits because many are already offered by the State

The difference is obvious, in Europe, companies offer fewer benefits because many are already offered by the State. In Europe, workers do not demand leadership in social justice from companies, Social justice is an area of ​​the State and is claimed through political or union initiatives. The political activism demanded of companies in the US, in Europe, would be considered an interference of economic power in politics.

Each model has its advantages. In the American model, there are companies that are real work havens and others are hell where you live on tips. In Europe, there are more or less generous guaranteed minimums, but a regulation that, according to some, hinders economic development. There are critics who see the European State as paternalistic, but in the same way it could be said that in the US the paternalists are the companies.

Reception of Amazon headquarters in New York. (Reuters)

In Europe, we are used to the state being accused of over-regulation, but Do we really want to leave regulation to the rules and internal committees of private companies? An internal Facebook committee has just decided that it was correct to close Donald Trump’s account, a decision that according to some was an injustice, but according to others it was late and incomplete. In Europe, a decision on a fundamental right would probably have been made by a judge following a legal framework and with its different appeal bodies. The independence of the judges can be questioned, but believing in the independence of a committee appointed by the company itself requires communion with millstones.

One of the benefits among the most ‘chiripitifláuticas’ technology is unlimited vacations. It is a false benefit: whoever takes it at face value is fired at once

The paternalistic model of social benefits is sometimes laughable. One of the most fashionable benefits among the most ‘chiripitifláuticas’ technology is unlimited vacations. It is a false benefit, because in practice there is a vacation limit at the discretion of the company, that is, whoever takes the benefit at face value is fired at once. The uncertainty about the limit causes employees to end up taking fewer vacations than before. It is public that several companies that offered this benefit have had to implement a minimum of mandatory vacation days, a trip for which saddlebags were not necessary. These companies that are in the future in technology, in labor relations seem to be in the Middle Ages.

The problem with corporate paternalism is that, unlike state laws, it can change at any time at the sole discretion of managers. Precisely because of a swerve from the managers, social networks burned a couple of weeks ago. Basecamp, one of the most revolutionary, influential startups and an archetype of good business vibes, radically changed its rules after an attempt at self-regulation via an internal committee. The result has been that a third of the employees have left the company.

There are many rumors and each one brings the ember to his sardine, but the documents published by some and the open letters of others make clear a general loss of papers. And it’s not about equidistance, it’s about the fact that in that discussion everyone has forgotten their place. Good-looking bosses who try to pretend they are not bosses and employees who decide to settle accounts with the universe, whoever falls. The end result will not surprise you: the bosses deny the good vibes, clearly show their power and are accused of being dictators.

Jason Fried, CEO de Basecamp. (Flickr)

The origin of this mental cocoa is that all parties have forgotten two things that cause blush to remember. The first is that the main objective of a company is to make money. The second, that the main objective of the worker is to earn a salary in exchange for their working hours. A company works by common interests that revolve around money and the employee’s time, it is not a great family governed by a paternalistic leader, nor is it the place from which to change the world unless we want to create a privileged ghetto. Companies offer benefits to attract employees and retain them in an extremely competitive market, benefits that would be eliminated the moment it is decided that they do not help the company. An employee agrees to do his best to justify and improve his salary, but if he receives a better offer, he will leave the company. “It’s the money, stupid,” the hackneyed phrase would say.

When you forget where you are, problems begin. A company opens a nursery for employees that improves their quality of life and therefore their productivity. The nursery is nothing more than a payment in kind that suits both parties, company and worker, so far so good. The problem begins when the company gets out of hand with ‘marketing’ and begins to preach about how much it believes in work-life balance. From there they go on to talk on the corporate blog about how they are going to make the world a better place. Some employees buy into the religious discourse of “we are good and we do not do evil” and believe that they are in an NGO changing the world instead of being a privileged caste. Inevitably, they topple over.

One day, Fulano comments that the whales are dying intoxicated by plastics, Mengano proposes to reduce plastics in the company and Zutano directly prohibit them, the three get into an argument with other employees that ends with mutual accusations of Nazism. The good-roll founder comes out sheared trying to mediate and goes into Terminator mode. The atmosphere is charged and anything irrelevant can set off the spark. Employees will transform their managers from heroes to villains overnight.

Demonstration by Google employees against company policies at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View in 2018. (Reuters)

The manager who has just bought a Tesla with the ‘stock options’ will use the oppressed servants who live outside the castle walls without any remorse and, as in the ironic Orwell textYou will see the evil in everyone else. When the alphabet of company-worker relations is unknown, unions are not formed, nor is the strike known, but manifestos are signed and ‘hashtags’ are put on Twitter, these things happen. It’s bombastically called a culture war, but maybe it’s a caste war or poses. Molar as a philosophy.

In our European society, companies are responsible for generating wealth and it is the State that corrects inequalities. Of course, that does not mean that companies should make money at all costs or at any price, but it is the State that defines the legal framework in which companies operate, not an internal committee of doubtful independence from the company’s management, nor a self-proclaimed group of motivated vigilantes. Philanthropy, paternalism and the ‘wokismo‘from Silicon Valley go in the same’ pack ‘. In Europe, we must ask ourselves if we really want to import that model.

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