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Winter 2005

Factor mobility, efficiency and language discrimination: analysis of four company scenarios in Catalonia, by Amado Alarcón

This article presents the results of a case study of companies in Catalonia (Spain, European Union) in which we analyse the problems of efficiency and distribution of resources based on ethno-linguistic criteria. The academic literature, especially that carried out from Quebec, has analysed language demands in the workplace in bilingual contexts indicating that these latter are found to be conditioned by: 1) the language in the consumer markets 2) the language of the technologies used in the work, and 3) the language of the company owners. What we have here, however, is a more complex situation than the bilingual, given the linguistic heterogeneity of the European Union. This complexity increases with the mobility of factors otherwise in place (Economic and Monetary Union) and can be seen in the growing linguistic diversity of companies. In fact, as we shall see in the body of the article, factor mobility places the owners, workers and customers from different language communities in the same physical or virtual space in which to coordinate their activity.


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1. Introduction: Languages and factor mobility

2. Linguistic regimes

3. Conclusions: Two linguistic outcomes

4. Bibliography


1. Introduction: Languages and factor mobility (1)

Monetary and Economic Union involves the lifting of barriers to free circulation of factors and increases the amount of language contact among Europeans. The focus of interest, from the economic point of view, lies in the (removal of) cultural and linguistic barriers between companies which limit the mobility of the work factor in attaining a market of factors in Europe which really acts as an efficient mechanism of assignation. The search for efficiently cannot realistically adopt the solutions of other great markets like that of the United States where the dominant position of English over the ethnic minorities frequently leads to the imposition of the so-called "English-only work rules" as a mechanism for company coordination (Dicker, 1998). What is more, the problem of language diversity as an obstacle to efficient assignation increases with the centralisation of the management of knowledge and information and, therefore, the linguistic intensity of the productive process (Harris, 1998). Also, although economic efficiency is a central problem, we should not play down the problem of equity between groups speaking different languages. Our approach then has been to look at questions of linguistic justice as a result of the way processes of globalisation generate winners and losers out of different linguistic groups. From this point of view, the problem is not the disappearance of minority languages but rather the position in which members of each linguistic group (each language and its speakers) find themselves as a result of the incipient new world order.

Basing ourselves on these considerations, the following objectives were selected: 1) Analyse the linguistic criteria applied in selection and promotion in companies, in accordance with position of such companies vis-à-vis the flow of factors internationally (the national origin of the capital, the international distribution of the consumer markets and ethno-linguistic origin of employees) and the linguistic intensity of the production processes; and 2) Look at the effects of the expansion of the markets on strategies and linguistic outcomes. Notice that Catalonia itself is an example of relative failure in the public regulation of linguistic exchanges in companies (Solé and Alarcón, 2001; Alarcón, in press).

We consider that the linguistic groups inserted in the productive structure are not a homogenous or monolithic whole that reacts to structural changes, irrespective of the different positions of each agent in the social structure and in the international economy. Thus, the main hypothesis guiding our investigation is that the language choices available to individuals depend on their position in the company, and on the corporate options of the company's organisational structure and position in the structure of international competition.

To test our main hypothesis by means of empirical observation we have opted for qualitative strategies. Specifically, in-depth interviews (20) and the setting-up of discussion groups (10) consisting of employees in the sectors which we considered to be especially affected by the socio-economic situation resulting from globalisation and economic and monetary union. We proceeded to analyse the relationship between 3 groups: Spanish-born, foreign-born EU and non-EU in employment in industrial scenarios unequally affected by economic and monetary union. In terms of specific scenarios, we selected the following: Ethnocentric German multinational car industry corporations; 2) Geocentric multinational corporations of Anglo-Saxon origin in the Information Technology and Communications sectors; 3) A cluster of Catalan-capital companies and, 4) Small-and medium-sized social and healthcare companies in coastal Spain.

2. Linguistic regimes

Ethnocentric companies

The first scenario analysed is that of global corporations, also known as ethnocentric corporations, where there is a high degree of international cooperation in production, and a low degree of independence at the level of the branch companies. The market of potential customers are seen as a whole, where an effort is made to maximise scale economy and there are no products designed specifically for individual states within the market, but rather for segments of population which are seen as global. The label ethnocentric derives from the fact that the management is based on strictly one nation's set of criteria, that is, the country of origin of the corporation. Identity is mediated through the values, language and higher management of the same national derivation, found in the mother company and at the higher levels of the different branches of the corporation. In the companies studied (in the car industry) the nationality and language in question is German. It is in this language that major decisions are taken and transmitted to the management of the different branches. It is an asymmetrical regime in which general company policy is planned from the centre, from whence the implementation of the different branches is monitored. The company's decision-taking is thus controlled by the mother company and a group of managers of the same nationality.

These are companies where there is worldwide coordination which is articulated by means of a high degree of mobility among management within the internal labour market. This is a vertically organised model of worker mobility from the centre in Germany, outward to the branches in other countries, and from those countries to the centre. These internal labour markets create an elite with a high degree of knowledge of the different centres of production. Admittance to managerial levels of the company is only achieved by non-nationals (non-Germans in this case) after working for considerable periods of time at the headquarters in the mother country. In this way, they become fluent in German, and above all cultivate links or bonds of confidence with other members of the managerial class at headquarters. These companies are typified by a sharp division between international planning and local implementation. In our sample, these are companies where production involves low linguistic intensity. More specifically, the production centres in Catalonia which we analysed are engaged essentially in assembling automobile components, although admittedly their role at R+D level is steadily increasing. The language used by employees in these centres is Spanish, and to a lesser extent Catalan --that is, the languages of the immediate environment. Foreign languages are not required of new recruits, nor for promotion among blue-collar workers.   It should be noted that managers in charge of manpower resources, and above all of collective bargaining, are also Spanish nationals and constitute a link between blue collar workers and the German management.

To sum up, the language of these firms takes on a value as a manifestation of power and identity. The corporate language (German) erects a barrier to professional advancement for native-born managers (Spaniards and Catalans), and the local languages (Spanish and Catalan) have very little to do with the global planning and strategic coordination of the corporation. Thus, the local languages (Spanish and Catalan) are the languages of the shop floor and industrial relations, while German is the language of planning, of management, and of the staff. This means that in these cases, the value of the languages in the company does not depend on the markets that the company is directed at, or the social milieux which the company is installed in, or either the linguistic intensity of the productive process or the product. It depends, essentially, on the origin of the capital.

Geocentric companies

In the second scenario, we find companies known as transnationals or geocentric companies where there is similarly a high degree of international coordination on production, but where there is a greater degree of independence observable across branch companies, and greater orientation towards satisfying the demand among local markets. The origin of capital becomes blurred as the corporation expands internationally, and a greater number of international managers are recruited. The heads of the branch companies enjoy greater autonomy and decision-taking is more horizontal, tending to be carried out among branch managers. Management by process is emphasised as well as the increased need for communication between the management of the different branches. The corporation that best fits this model, in our opinion, is a leading IT and communications company which manages the data bases of the company's customers and offers after-sales services to both internal and external customers using the new information and communication technologies. From its headquarters in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) an comprehensive service is offered to customers. The objective here is to provide these services in the customer's own language, limiting this objective to the main languages of the countries in which the company operates (homogenisation on a state-market basis). This fact means that the headquarters staff is highly capitalised, linguistically speaking.

Recruitment of co-nationals of the individual markets where the company operates is emphasised here. Thus, among employees we find Brazilians, French people, Swedes, and so on. For instance, the headquarters in Barcelona consistently seeks foreign employees with a high degree of knowledge of the markets where the company has customers. In its recruiting, the company exploits the symbolic capital of the city in the aftermath of the 1992 Olympic Games, and its Mediterranean character. There are many young Europeans who want to travel to Barcelona attracted by cultural and / or leisure interests, and employment in a company such as this provides a means of financing a prolonged stay in the city. It should be noted that the company finds employment conditions, and salary levels in particular, that are more satisfactory than the equivalent in central or northern Europe. In contrast to other international localities that have similarly low salary levels, this city has good infrastructure as well as trained international workforces.

It is the consumer markets that this company concentrates upon which gives added value to knowledge of languages within the company. Language as capital is very evident to company employees, and the languages of the States that are markets (hereafter, Market States or MS) are particularly valued. In fact, English emerges as the language of international coordination of the company and is widely shared and used by staff thanks to the horizontal structure of the company. In fact this language is an essential requirement for all employees. Note that the type of employee that these companies demand are those who have vital experience in the MS. It is not just a case of knowing the language in question, but of being familiar with the characteristics of the market that they will be responsible for within the organisation. Thus they are not simply seeking human capital, but looking for social capital acquired in other countries --that is, knowledge of the customs and norms, formal and informal, of the interaction within each of the given markets.

Industrial cluster companies

Turning now to the furniture cluster in Montsià (a quasi-rural county in the south of Catalonia), what we find here are a group of specialised small and medium-sized companies which are complementary and labour-intensive. They are notable for their high degree of cooperation, such that seen as a whole they complement one another in the overall production process. Furthermore, they are linked among themselves and with local institutions owing to ties of family and friendship which increase confidence in the local cooperative process. The product is typically of medium to low quality, aimed at the domestic market. Competitiveness has been achieved, from the sixties and seventies onward, simply by employing cheap labour. Initially, the source of such labour was internal immigration from other parts of the Spanish state. As result, the blue-collar workers were mainly Spanish speaking, while the managers and other white-collar workers remained Catalan-speaking as always. With the ceasing of internal migration, and the increased demand for furniture toward the end of the nineties, linked to the boom in house-buying in Spain, the furniture companies began to look for new sources of labour and above all to recruit Romanians. At the present time, this nationality makes up ten percent of all workers and approximately fifteen percent of the inhabitants of the municipalities in the country.

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