Sep 17th, 2008 by ravi
New frontiers in worker porn

An amazing economics experiment and how it got field workers to pick a lot more fruit. – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine

The owner had been paying a piece rate—a rate per kilogram of fruit—but also needed to ensure that whether pickers spent the day on a bountiful field or a sparse one, their wages didn’t fall below the legal hourly minimum. Farmer Smith tried to adjust the piece rate each day so that it was always adequate but never generous: The more the work force picked, the lower the piece rate. But his workers were outwitting him by keeping an eye on each other, making sure nobody picked too quickly, and thus collectively slowing down and cranking up the piece rate.

Bandiera and her colleagues proposed a different way of adjusting the piece rate: Managers would test-pick the field to see how difficult it was and set the rate accordingly, thus preventing the workers from engaging in a collective go-slow. (If the managers made a mistake in their estimate, and the pickers didn’t earn minimum wage, Farmer Smith would make up the shortfall with an extra payment. This rarely happened.) The economists measured the result. By the time the experiment was over, Farmer Smith’s initial skepticism had long evaporated: The new pay scheme increased productivity (kilograms of fruit per worker per hour) by about 50 percent.

The next summer, the researchers turned their attention to incentives for low-level managers, who would also be temporary immigrant workers but who would be responsible for on-the-spot decisions such as which workers were assigned to which row. The researchers found that managers tended to do their friends favors by assigning them the easiest rows. This made life comfortable for insiders but was unproductive since the most efficient assignment for fruit picking is for the best workers to get the best rows. The researchers responded by linking managers’ pay to the daily harvest. The result was that managers started favoring the best workers rather than their own friends, and productivity rose by another 20 percent.

Small wonder that the economists were invited back for another summer. They proposed a “tournament” scheme in which workers were allowed to sort themselves into teams. Initially, friends tended to group themselves together, but as the economists began to publish league tables and then hand out prizes to the most productive teams, that changed. Again, workers prioritized money over social ties, abandoning groups of friends to ally themselves with the most productive co-workers who would accept them. In practice, that meant that the fastest workers clustered together, and again, productivity soared—by yet another 20 percent.

The series of experiments provided a fascinating confirmation that financial incentives can trump social networks, with some precision and much detail about the mechanisms involved.

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3 Responses

  • Doyle Saylor says:

    Hello Ravi,
    Interesting argument. Since this is the most aggressive oppressive environment for workers – piece work – in which earning just at minimum wage is carefully gauged wouldn't that suggest that people are being coerced to go toward a way to get enough money to live by constantly finding ways to up the amount of work they must do to simply survive? That trumps social ties only in the sense holding a gun on someone does. And lasts as long as the effort to subvert the methods fails. I'm sure you agree. Anyway these sorts of reports merely illustrate that the worst aspects of labor in capitalism are still being used. These practices go way back and are nothing new despite the claim 'economists' are at the wheel of these experiments.

  • platosbeard says:

    Hmm… I am till learning this Disqus thing… hence my empty comment above. What I wanted to write:

    Doyle, I agree with you entirely. You summarised it perfectly with this line:

    That trumps social ties only in the sense holding a gun on someone does.

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