Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Child of the crisis

The economic crisis brought us masses of articles about banks going bust and bosses complaining. Here we tell you a different story. Someone working for a multinational, sitting at the bottom of the ladder, anxious that he could be laid off. Anytime. By Vinz.

My dad told me once: "Son, bear in mind you're a child of the crisis. Be a good boy at school, study as much as you can. You do not want to work in factories or be a plumber"... I did not fully pay attention to his statement. I just thought the old man was having one of those typical dad-like patronising moments. Still, somehow, I can recall that day…

Even if most of us are far from being financial and speculation pundits, we now all know the score: to keep it short and simple, the US mortgage crisis, that (in)famous credit crunch, has led the world into probably the worst economic downturn seen since 1929's Great Depression, implying worldwide mammoth job losses. Let’s spare the boring figures and details; however, I must confess I am definitely concerned by and interested in what is going on these days: my job is indeed at stake…I have always thought it would only happen to other people. Selfish and arrogant reaction? Well, I guess I'm about to change my mind.

For more than 4 years, I have worked for AM, former A, current world leader in the steel market. Even though I got a business Master - lots of blah blah and a bit common sense - and followed daddy’s advice, I don’t rate myself as a white collar. I just did what was expected from me to secure a great future, in other words, financial stability surrounded by the walls of a comfort zone. Like most of my office colleagues, I am trilingual, having lived and worked in 3 different countries in Europe. To some, it might sound like a great professional asset. I just reckon, as I still sit at the bottom of the ladder, that it enables me to watch any movies on WW II without subtitles.

When my big boss, Mr L.M., successfully launched his unfriendly bid over A two years ago, to turn it into AM, he was depicted as sort of megalomaniac cost killer, a man on a mission with a master plan to control the world, and nobody to stand on his way. Not to mention he is the first fortune in Britain, and ranked in the world top ten billionaires, which scared a lot of us.

Restructurations were on the agenda. These days, they are a fact. It has demanded and still demands flexibility and efforts from all employees, from production lines to nice furnished and equipped offices. However, L.M. promised there would not be any redundancies as a direct impact of the merger. I have to say, to my knowledge, he so far kept his words. Still L.M.'s wind, in the form of unprecedented series of measures, was soon blowing over the company: boldness, aggressive price policy, added value-hunting, ambitious expansion strategy through consolidation, further mergers and acquisitions…In 2007 and for the first 3 quarters of 2008, AM achieved tremendous financial results. Under today’s economic circumstances, it would be inappropriate, if not indecent, to quote any figures.

Despite being a brilliant businessman – lets be fair, he is – L.M., as the rest, could not anticipate the magnitude and speed of the decline in the sector. He wasted very little time in adapting to the crisis, and announced between September and November a $5bn savings plan. All in all, the production was cut by a third over the last 2 quarters, reflecting a significant decrease in the steel demand. Strictly from a business standards point of view, the response is, some say, remarkable.

But let’s not forget the social aspect of things. No one makes savings by magic. The company will see 9000 jobs casualties by mid 2009 - out of which 6000 in Europe - among Sales and General Administration staffs, the so-called white collars. Beyond this kind of cost cuttings and savings policies, there are workers. Behind them, there are families.

Given the latest results achieved by AM, and since the board itself acknowledged there is no cash flow problem, the whole situation makes me wonder. First of all, employees learn more in the media than they would from their management. Aren’t we worth talking to? "Sad…" is my first reaction. Then, all these jobs will go on a voluntary leaving basis – mainly in "sensitive Europe" where complex labour laws and unions are legacy of the past. What does this mean? Who is ready to quit his job within 6 months, when it will be so much of a mission to get another one? "Oh yeah, I’d be pleased to struggle for the next year, if not longer" is something I have hardly ever heard… "Yeah, whatever, talk to the hand…" is then my second reaction…

As anger and miscomprehension start to grow, I wonder again. Thanks to, or because of my study background and business understanding, I start to think: isn’t this world crisis just a pathetic excuse to carry out and accelerate the company’s reorganisation, which was inevitable following the merger? Hasn’t L.M. always had such a plan anyway at the back of his mind? Is he taking advantage from the current situation? Aren’t we going to pay the price for his overambitious expansion strategy? Let’s be honest and fair: I don’t know…

In fact, who is directly concerned by this voluntary leaving plan? Employees close to retirement? You may as well tell them "you’re now too old, inefficient, useless, go home"…Or those who have been with the company for a while, still young and efficient, but who actually don’t speak as many languages as I am lucky enough to do? Or maybe those who just started on the job? Is management going to be cautious and gentle to look into each employee’s personal and private situation, and ask who’s married, who’s got children, who’s got a mortgage, who could move somewhere else and eventually take another job? What if there are not 9000 brave volunteers? Are people going to be forced out? Is the company going to look into production staff, actually not better off than white collars? Are those, volunteers or not, going to be at the top of an unlikely "to be hired" list in case the steel demand picks up soon again? I don’t know…

I therefore face an ethical and moral dilemma. If some of my older colleagues have to go, do I have to feel relieved to stay and replace them? Do I have to feel good and safe about being single and childless? Is the company willing to keep me because I am young and still flexible? Do I have to develop some sort of survival instinct and act selfishly? I still don’t know…But if you think about it: I should be the one to go. I might be in a better position to bounce back…

Beyond the world financial system, based on hardcore capitalism and speculation, this situation also challenges the whole education system, even though it might be another debate. Don’t want to be a plumber, he? Nowadays, there aren't actually enough of them. That extends as well to other underrated professions, like builders. Universities are overcrowded; students are granted cheap degrees leading them to packed offices, offering low-paid and dead-end positions. If not worse…Quite naively, I ask myself: shouldn’t governments and other bodies have thought about it before? Shouldn’t they have monitored their billions of statistics?

So, at the end of the day I don’t even know what is going to happen to me and my fellow colleagues, what I am going to do and how I will adapt. I hope I won’t be ashamed of my luck in the future. It sounds pessimistic, but I actually don’t even know what my future will be made of. The only thing I now know: daddy was right. Bless him. I am a child of the crisis. And I am, for sure, not the only one.

No comments: