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Creative ‘Sweatshops’?

B.C. workers say Electronic Arts and other ‘cool’ digital firms demand 100-hour weeks. And they’re exempt from paying overtime.

Peter Tupper 17 Dec
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“And yet,” said Scrooge, “you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work.”

The clerk observed that it was only once a year.

“A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning.”

Electronic Arts, one of the world’s foremost makers of videogames, found itself playing the role of Scrooge just in time for Christmas this year.

Here in British Columbia, high tech companies are specifically exempted from having to pay overtime, which allows companies like EA to work their employees for eighty hours per week or more, without paying any overtime.

In an industry that sees companies rise and fall in a matter of months, EA is an institution and a success story, with nearly $3 billion in revenues for 2004 and about 4800 employees. Founded in 1982, EA has some of the most popular and lucrative franchises in PC, handheld and console gaming, including Lord of the Rings, James Bond and Harry Potter. It also produces sports and racing games at the EA Canada campus in Burnaby.

On November 9, an anonymous blog posting suggested EA’s success is built upon grueling work schedules. A woman calling herself EA Spouse decried the thirteen-hour workdays and six-day workweeks expected by EA throughout the development cycle.

“Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule,” she wrote. “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.”

EA Spouse is one blog poster, but the message set off a storm of controversy across the Net, with testimonials and debate about EA’s management practices, and those of the software industry in general. 

Later in November, EA became the defendant in a class action lawsuit in California, filed by Jamie Kirshchenbaum, et al. The case alleges that Electronic Arts failed to pay overtime due to the animators, modelers and other artists employed in making games, under the California Labor Code (section 1194). EA image production employees regularly worked more than eight hours each day and forty hours each work week, not to mention weekends and national holidays, all without being paid overtime.

The digital grind

According to “An Academic’s Field Guide to Electronic Arts”, by Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, “The largest sin at EA is not delivering your game on time.”

“EA employees must be willing to work very hard.... there are ‘crunch times’ with long work hours before deadlines, followed by ‘down times’ after those deadlines are met. I believe EA would like to reduce both the length and the severity of crunch time; finding the management processes to do so is an ongoing challenge in a still-developing medium.”

Rob, a former employee at EA Canada for more than five years who agreed to speak under anonymity, said that EAC is no exception.

“The hours are extremely long. At times, they exceeded ninety to a hundred hours each week. That was almost invariably during the summer months. Things usually picked up around March in preparation for [the trade show] E3... What that generally meant is that from March till about September was pretty much crunch time. And that sometimes extended in October.” However, “There is no compensation for overtime. None. In fact, even the contractors didn’t get compensation for overtime.”

Rob attributes this to a culture that regards programmers and other employees as replaceable. “There’s a long lineup of people who want your job. Go away, work somewhere else, we don’t want you,” is how he characterizes EA’s attitude.

This way of making games takes a toll on the workers. Rob was away from his wife and children. “I spent all my time there. I think my record was two and a half months, non-stop, weekends included. It wasn’t that unusual.

“I almost ended up getting separated over it. There were several people who had separations and divorces and breakups who were on my team over the course of the project. It takes a pretty understanding spouse to deal with you not being there. The amount of money that you’re making is very small compensation. Most of the spouses I know would be quite happy with their significant others making considerably less money and being home.”

Perks and celebs

Rob eventually left EA for another software company, which doesn’t make such demands on their employees. “In the end, I decided the money wasn’t worth it. I felt that, what good was the money, if I was divorced and my kids hated me because I was never around, and I never got a chance to actually spend it and go anywhere?”

There are times when EA seems more like Santa’s workshop than Scrooge’s counting house, however.

“The benefits are great,” says Rob. “They had good health benefits, they had a lot of nice perks. The environment was nice. They had lots of staff parties. They’d set up a lot of events for the employees. Compensation was very good.... They’d often be ten per cent above the industry. The stock options... generally have been pretty lucrative.”

“There’s been a lot of celebrities that have come by. When we had the mo-cap [motion capture] studio, there were professional wrestlers and Prime Minister Chretien coming by for a visit.... That’s not the kind of thing you’re going to get in a database programming job.”

Furthermore, working on videogames has a cachet among programmers that working on point-of-sale systems can’t match. This has the additional effect that there are few other game producers in Vancouver, thus making it even harder for an employee to leave.

Overtime exemption in B.C.

Since February 1, 1999 the Employment Standards Act has exempted high technology professionals from Part 4, which deals with hours of work and overtime, with the exception of exception of section 39 of the Act which stipulates that employers must not require or allow an employee to work excessive hours detrimental to the employee’s health or safety.

However, this only applies to high technology professionals, which are defined as people qualified in certain professions who have some kind of performance-based pay or stock options in their contract.

Employees of high tech companies who aren’t classified as high technology professionals have fewer protections. Employers are not obligated to give them a minimum 32 work-free hours each week, nor to pay overtime wages for work beyond 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week. Work over 12 hours per day or over eighty hours in 2 weeks is paid time-and-a-half.

Karl, another former EA employee of seven years who asked to remain anonymous, was present when overtime ended. He wrote in an email, “I would describe working there in the first 4 as being a pampered slave, and the last 3 as a steady decline in environment/morale.”

After working as a 3-D artist for 65 to 100 hours per week, “OT pay was killed.... salaries were slightly bumped 8-10% and the hours pretty much stayed the same.” He eventually set himself a quitting date, but was dismissed two days before bonuses in 2003.

Graham Currie, the communications director at the Ministry of Skills Development and Labour, says that this exemption came about through consultation. “The minister of the day had appointed a section-seven committee, made up of the government member, which was the committee chair, somebody from organized labour and one from industry. I know they had a web site at the time for input. They did invitational meetings with employers and workers. They made the report public on the website for a while.”

Currie also notes that, “The labour member did not support the recommendations that went forward.”

‘White-collar sweatshop’

If the government itself will allow these kinds of management practices, what can prevent high tech employers from abusing their employees?

Organizing is something that computer programmers and other technically skilled employees have long resisted, seeing it as something for blue-collar workers.

In White-Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Its Rewards in Corporate America, Jill Andresky Fraser writes, “While-collar workers have traditionally resisted efforts at unionization. But there may be signs of change on this front, after two decades of layoffs and benefit cutbacks that have taught men and women on all rungs of the job ladder just how vulnerable they are as individuals, rather than members of a collective.”

Over the last few years, professionals like Boeing professionals and AMA doctors have unionized, and the AFL-CIO has established Silicon Valley as an important target for improving the conditions of temporary workers.

Rob isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of unionizing programmers. “I think that unions are a good thing, when employees are being abused by the employers. However, I think that when the situation gets rectified, it isn’t necessarily good for them to stay on. It’s a balance.”

If the labor regulations were changed to require overtime, how would EA react? Rob says, “Making it so that overtime is paid makes the managers more accountable for keeping people crazy hours. If you have to pay people to keep them in over the weekend, you’re going to be less inclined... to use it unless you need it. Right now, they’re incentivized to get people in there as often as they could, and there was no downside.”

Threat of moving

Computer programming is one of the most purely cerebral forms of work, yet in many ways it is more like manual labour; repetitive, incremental tasks that relies on dogged thoroughness instead of brilliant flashes of insight.

The problem is that if British Columbia’s labor laws were changed to give protection to high technology workers, EA could easily pack up their studios here and move the jobs back to the United States, or offshore to India or China, where people will work for even less.

Asked to comment for this story, EA’s only response is a form email that concludes: “EA remains committed to our customers and our employees and will continue to do all we can to ensure EA is a great place to work.”

The myth of the maverick brain-for-hire computer programmer, like the rugged individualist cowboy, has been slowly dying since the dot-com crash, but that myth is still compelling. As Paulina Borsook wrote in Cyberselfish, “But consider that most cowboys were actually hourly wage-workers, often for large outfits. They were more like office temps (with really bad working conditions) than bold cavaliers.”

Vancouver journalist Peter Tupper is a regular contributor to The Tyee, and often focuses on technological issues.  [Tyee]

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