Lean Mean VRS Machine

Imagine a sleek yellow Lotus Sport Exige sports car (video relay); imagine yourself cruising along the highway at a comfortable sixty-five miles per hour. Where are you in this lean mean video relay machine? You are the supercharged and intercooled high revving engine producing over 15 million horsepower (minutes). The driver is an empowered deaf citizen; his passenger is an equally empowered hearing citizen. The metallic painted body is the federal regulation administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holding it all together. The five spoke forged alloy wheels are the power house telecommunications companies (providers). The high octane premium $7.596 a gallon (minute) gasoline is the public money paid from the Interstate Relay Fund administered by the National Exchange Carriers Association.

The analogy gives insight into the changing dynamics of the profession of sign language interpreting. The profession changed overnight when VRS became an enhanced form of telecommunications relay service (TRS) and became a reimbursable service. There are distinct economic impacts affecting the labor force (interpreters) the consumer (deaf, hard of hearing and hearing citizens) and the businesses which represent the industry (telecommunications companies and interpreting agencies). This is the first article in a series of articles to analyze the economic impact of “lean production” first proposed by Karl Marx. Each article will offer a conceptual economic analysis of the impact and offer suggestions meant to improve the overall outcome on the profession.

The labor force is the key to any industry; interpreters are the engine in the lean mean VRS machine. Harry Braverman defined a skilled workforce (Braverman, 1974, Labor and Monopoly Capital) as “workers who become skilled (at a task(s)) through years of experience, giving them a tacit knowledge of the production process (interpreting) lacking in both managers and beginning workers. Such embodied knowledge grants them a form of power, a power manifested in the ability to control the sequence of operations they perform and the pace at which they work.” Given this definition of skill, a case can be made that increasing federal regulation and widespread technologies intended to maintain high levels of productivity, enhanced monitoring of worker productivity and decision making removed from the worker are “deskilling” the interpreter workforce. It is a common capitalistic desire to deskill the labor force. Braverman further described this desire motivated by a reduction in labor costs allowing more profits to be retained by companies and managements increase in control over the labor process when workers are deskilled and know they can be easily replaced. This goes against the interests of the workforce.

There is a positive side to capitalism, the “lean production” model. Marxian theory describes the lean production model as a counterexample to the antagonistic situation described by Braverman. “The special skill of each individual machine operator (interpreter), who has now been deprived of all significance, vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity” (Marx 1976). The lean production model of the new economy says that skill levels do not in fact tend to decline, the workforce is empowered and multiskilled. The lean production model tends to increase the overall skill level of the labor force. Companies which enhance the skill levels of the workforce increase chances of surviving and flourishing in an increasingly competitive and changing economic environment. The advent of federal regulation, introduction of a new sector of companies (telecommunications companies) and increased barriers to entry (a provider must be a common carrier, contracted to a common carrier, or part of a state relay program) make a strong case for the use of the lean production model.

Adopting the lean production model requires use of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” philosophy. The market’s (consumers/companies/labor) self-interests (profit) further common interests among social agents (labor) favoring lean production companies that enhance the skill level of labor (interpreters). The leads the owners of companies to employ lean production methods and since this is the interest of labor a win-win situation will occur. In order to increase the overall skill of a labor force companies must mobilize the intelligence of the workforce, develop a variety of skills, sustain worker curiosity, and not treat labor as isolated individuals (Tony Smith, 2000 Technology and Capital in the Age of Lean Production).

VRS providers can adopt the lean production model through guarantees of “employability”. This differs from a guarantee of employment by building the inherent skills of an interpreter both in linguistics and ethical analysis. The whole point of lean production is to produce more with less. When a company employs the problem solving and critical thinking skills of the workforce an interpreter’s natural curiosity is peaked. The pervasive use of temporary or independent contractors in the interpreting profession provides a source of cheap submissive labor. When a company uses temporary contract workers beside long term employees the net effect is an easy replacement mentality driving down the motivation of the permanent workforce. This constant reminder that there is no shortage of people if they are unsatisfied with their working conditions is a demotivator.


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