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


In this instance, unlike the ones we looked at above, the foreign workers are in an inferior position in the employment structure. These blue-collar workers simply carry out simple instructions given by Spanish / Catalan bosses and supervisors. Communications relations are absolutely asymmetrical, and as one member of a discussion group put it: "We never open our mouths when we're at work". As the employers see it, knowledge of the language is not necessary to be able to do this unskilled work, and inability to speak either Spanish or Catalan is no reason for not taking a worker on. The important thing, in the words of one employer, is that "they should be hardworkers." There is a perception in this respect that these workers from former socialist republics are docile and hardworking. In none of the companies in question had any of the Rumanians risen above the level of manual worker. In these companies, the managers carry out a variety of functions including selling. It is notable that none of them know any foreign language and in the rare instances where they have attempted to penetrate foreign markets they placed the sales effort in the hands of outsiders. The location of this industry in a basically rural area, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Barcelona, and the fact that production has always been very largely for the domestic market, has meant that this cluster has remained apart from the main international channels of production and distribution. Even with the arrival of workers with a greater linguistic repertoire, as in the case of the Rumanian workers, the local management's international connections have not increased. But the fact is that their competitiveness at the present time is predicated on the use of an international (Romanian) workforce who accept poor conditions of work and pay.

The value of the different languages is not established at the base of production or productive process. Catalan and Spanish take on value for the Romanian workers for their capacity to integrate them into the local community. The native-born speakers on the other hand have not adapted to the new situation of access to open markets in Europe. Catalan continues to be the language of power and prestige in the community, and is a necessary requirement when seeking advancement; it is the only language used by the managers and company owners.

Small and medium-sized health and social care companies

We analysed a sample of small and medium health and social care companies located along the coast of Catalonia especially affected by foreign residents. Progressively, as a result of the surge and flow of tourists and holiday makers and their tendency to settle along the coast, the customers using these small concerns have become international. The increase in linguistic complexity is not the outcome of any process of internationalisation, but rather of the international nature of the people who seek their services. This internationalisation poses something of a challenge to these companies, run as they are by natives. In the first place because the patient-healthcare patient relationship is very intensive linguistically speaking. Secondly, because the foreign patients are totally heterogeneous (they may be British, German, Belgian…, and more recently, Eastern European). Thirdly, because these professionals (doctors and nurses and others --for example those employed in geriatric institutions) have a linguistic / language repertoire which is largely limited to Catalan and Spanish. In point of fact, the medical profession in Spain is heavily influenced by the massive presence of the Spanish National Health Service, where foreign languages are not asked for, but where Catalan is a distinct advantage. When training, little or no thought is given to the increasingly heterogeneous future of  Spain’s coastal areas, or the way that this might effect day-to-day practice.

We detected three strategies with respect to the linguistic complexity of the local markets. The first involves companies of local origin which concentrate on the native-born patients. The second strategy is to recruit staff who have qualifications in one or more of the languages of the foreign patients. In such cases, auxiliaries and orderlies have in particular been sought who can mediate between doctor and patient. The third strategy which is beginning to emerge is where companies are owned by foreigners specialising in patients from their respective countries and basically employing foreign doctors as well as some Spanish nationals as auxiliaries. In such cases, the owners tend to be the doctors themselves. Here, then, the fact that the language of the patients is spoken becomes of prime importance, generating confidence. In fact, these customers actually prefer medical staff of their own nationality. In this way, the local or Spanish professionals are seeing their prospects progressively undermined by their lack of languages, and by foreign competition.

3. Conclusions: Two linguistic outcomes

In synthesis, we have looked at two linguistic results that are in themselves quite different: 1) Reinforcement of linguistic divisions as a means of segmenting resources (Ethnocentric multinational companies, and the Catalan industrial cluster furniture firms), and, 2) Strategies orientated to increasing and enhancing corporate efficiency and effectiveness, assuming the costs of external transactions to reach a linguistically heterogeneous market (Geocentric multinationals in transition, and social and health care companies) as well as reducing the internal transaction costs by means of “de-ethnification” of the corporate language (discontinuation of an ethnic or insider language for the company).

The reinforcement of linguistic divisions inside the company in the case of strategy 1) can be explained by the fact that the language in question is a vital counter in the hierarchic rationalisation of the company and in power relations, shaping the paths of promotion within the company. The language policy serves to limit access to tangible and intangible assets, such as higher management positions and within-company social recognition. This is what is known as a process of social closure based on linguistic and ethnic criteria. As a result, there are two clearly defined linguistic groups in the company, those involved in planning –the dominant linguistic group– and those involved in execution (implementation) –the linguistically dominated group.

In the cases, we have looked at the corporate language is that which carries out the functions of prestige and identity within the corporation. That is to say German (in the ethnocentric company), and Catalan (in the industrial cluster). In terms of benefits, the strategy permits the creation of certain shared values and norms among the managers, a fact which increases confidence and cohesion in this group. The disadvantages include, above all, the conflicts between Spanish nationality managers in the branches and the German nationality managers at head quarters. Also, this increases mistrust between the management, Spanish nationality blue-collar workers, and the German elite of the capital. Furthermore, this situation is aggravated at the present time in Spain by  continual threats and warnings that production will be switched lock stock and barrel to the East of Europe. We have defined this scenario as a zero-sum game where the function of utility is derived from control. The assets to be distributed are limited and fixed. It should be noted that the reinforcement of language barriers is something which is especially feasible in companies run on Henry Ford's principles since, here, productive efficiency does not depend on linguistic factors but rather on a high degree of specialisation and separation between groups or types of workers.

In strategy 2, which we have defined as an assuming of transaction costs, language is a key variable in the productive process. By means of their chosen language policy they hope to enhance relations with customers and achieve efficiency in internal management. Linguistic capital in its varying forms is highly valued when appointing new staff. Trilingual personnel are especially sought after: the languages spoken where the branch is located (Catalan and / or Spanish, to some extent devalued by their lowered value in global markets; the languages of contact with the market), English (as the language of the company's technical and horizontal coordination), and, above all, any one of the languages of the foreign MS with marketing value. In the small and medium-sized companies in the social and health care business, the language of coordination and of the international customers tend to coincide as a result of the ethno- linguistic segmentation of the companies in this market, as we have seen. What we have here is not a symbolic or emblematic gesture aimed at reaffirming control of the market, but rather the maximization of communicative efficiency with the patients or customers.

The overcoming of the linguistic barriers means an increase in the market value which can benefit the different actors simultaneously. Workers receive a reward for their linguistic capital and the companies are able to have access to the global reorganisation of their services and to a linguistically plural market. Discrimination is effected via the process of staff selection rather than promotion, which fosters and promotes cohesion within the company.

Lastly, we have seen how analysis of the varying dynamics involved in the different corporate coordination scenarios clearly leads to different linguistic regimes that are evident in the mechanisms of selection and promotion of staff. These linguistic regimes are the result of differing forms of organising production and differing positions taken with respect to the mobility of factors. Such mobility does not necessarily lead to linguistic homogeneity, but rather to diversification fraught with inequality. The selection and promotion of personnel will, if it is based on linguistic factors, imply forms of occupational stratification differentially affecting different language groups. This poses serious problems for those social strata which have not succeeded in investing in the most valued linguistic resources.

4. Bibliography

Alarcón, A. (in press): Economía, política e idiomas. Madrid: Consejo Económico y Social.

Dicker, S. J. (1998): “Adaptation and Assimilation: US Business Responses to Linguistic Diversity in the Workplace”, Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 19: 282-302.

Harris, R. G. (1998): “Language and Virtual Economic Integration”, Paper presented on 30th May 1998 at the Canadian Economic Association Meetings, Ottawa.

Solé, C. and Alarcón, A. (2001): Llengua i economia a Catalunya. Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Catalans.

Amado Alarcón
University Rovira i Virgili

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