Nearshore Americas

Q&A: Facing Prejudices Right Here, Right Now, in Latin America IT

The “Black Lives Matter” movement has unleashed long-simmering frustration over widespread inequities in the United States and inspired protests against racism in many countries around the world.

With the issue of systemic discrimination under the international spotlight since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, corporations big and small in the United States are choosing not to stand by idly, with many committing financially to push for change.  At the same time, many of those companies are now faced with the task of looking inside their own organizations and becoming accountable for workplace conditions and hiring practices that are unfavorable toward people of color.

Problems of racism, under-representation and unequal pay have not been widely discussed in the Nearshore IT industry, but clearly a good time to start is right here, right now. As an Afro-descendant raised in Costa Rica, Luis Campbell is one IT professional who has seen first-hand the destructiveness of racial prejudice. Campbell,  Vice President and Managing Director at business software and technology consulting firm,  Fast Lane Latam, points out that it is only through recognition of the problem and policy change within IT organizations that real change and more equitable treatment will start to emerge.

In an interview this week with Nearshore Americas, Campbell shared some of his own personal experiences at a time when issues of racial injustice are reaching new levels of awareness.

NSAM: In your view, how prevalent is the practice of discrimination in the hiring of Indigenous and Afro descendants in the IT industries of Latin America?

Campbell: I am not sure if there is any data available on discriminatory practices in the recruitment of professionals in the IT industry. However, there are some investigations that analyze the wage gaps between Indigenous and Afro-descendants in relation to the white and mestizo population in some countries of the region. In my opinion, however, hiring tends to be determined by the preferences (biases) of employers, consumers, or other factors within companies.

Just look at the management positions in most public and private companies in the region, which are occupied by white people (or self-defined white).

In most cases, Afro-descendants and Indigenous citizens will mainly be in lower wage positions. Prejudices and stereotypes often play a decisive part in the process, even when qualified Afro-descendants apply for those positions.

Another fact is related with the salary paid to Afro-descendants and Indigenous citizens, who receive lower pay than their white colleagues for similar roles and responsibilities, and with similar technical attributes. I remember a case in Brazil that came to my attention as a Managing Director of the company, where an Afro-descendant employee raised concerns about his wage. His boss said that instead of worrying about an equal salary he should be grateful to have the job.

NSAM: You were born and raised in Costa Rica and managed to become a successful IT entrepreneur. What were the most common barriers you faced in your career, and what did you do to overcome them?

I was always the only Black person in my classroom since day one of school. I had to deal with prejudice and stereotypes in an educational system that makes Afro-descendants invisible and does very little to promote inter-culturality and the respect for other cultures. However, we always knew that we would have to excel and be twice as good as others to achieve our goals. The system in this country gave us equal access to education and we were able to take advantage of that situation. I knew that our only chance was through education and we took it.

They (Latin America companies) must point their attention to the policies of their organizations and create internal processes that give equal rights and opportunities to all employees. They need to create an environment of respect and integration between all their employees.

Now, as an IT professional, it is crucial to focus on results. Many companies do not trust and do not want to deal with companies led by us. And if they deal with our companies, they think they are going to be given a reduced price and better conditions. We fight all the time with this prejudice. On more than one occasion, a company manager has refused to have a meeting with me because I’m Black and has asked to meet with lower levels of management.

NSAM: On one level, we see governments and well-financed international institutions advocate against racism and push for equal treatment in the workplace. Costa Rica, in fact, has been one of the region’s most outspoken nations in fighting for the rights of the marginalized. Do these policy actions make a difference? What measures ultimately bring the biggest change?

I believe that the best way to introduce change is through policies. In Costa Rica, we have clear labor laws regarding discrimination and racism. The policies and laws help change people’s mentalities over time. Another fundamental aspect is education – teaching children about diversity and cultural differences. In Latin America, you see few Afro-descendant and Indigenous people in the IT industry, at least not in proportion to the population. Brazil, for example, has a new law that establishes quotas for Afro-descendant people in universities.  That will make a difference in the future, because without that law, they won’t have a chance to get into good universities and as a consequence, they won’t get good jobs.

NSAM: For a time, you lived in South Florida. Can you compare what it was like living there, and living in Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica? Is there a sense you have as to why racism is more prevalent in one country over another?

Each country is different in that regard. In all of them, the situation is determined by the impact of slavery, the size of their population and the emancipation process, just to mention some of factors. You can’t compare Brazil, where more than 50 percent of their population is Afro-descendant and where many of them live in poverty, with Mexico for example, where the Afro-descendant people have been made invisible and have lacked recognition for centuries. In the United States, on the other side, segregation was very important to create the identity of their culture. Costa Rica is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America and its people define themselves as the whitest country in Central America. However, there is a system of social security and free public education that allows Afro-descendant people to acquire equal rights and benefits. The common denominator is the fight for recognition, equal opportunities, access to equal conditions and basic rights.

NSAM: For young Indigenous and Afro-descendants growing up in Central America, especially, do you see a more equitable society emerging when they become adults? Why or why not?

Well, we really hope for that. But for that to happen, there must be changes. Some of our systems must be transformed, which today criminalize young people of African descent and limit the right to education because most of them live in poverty. We hope that movements such as the current explosion of consciousness will help generate those types of changes. As a result of discrimination and racism, our youth are criminalized and stigmatized. George Floyd’s case is not completely alien to us. In Central America, Afro-descendants live in poverty and have limited access to quality education that allows them to get out of that situation.

Costa Rica in this case is an exception in the region. We have a vice-president who is Afro-descendant. The president of Congress is also Afro-descendant. People are starting to talk about racism and there are multiple campaigns for diversity, equal rights and opportunities.

NSAM: Your sister, Epsy Campbell Barr, is Costa Rica’s Vice President and has been a vocal champion for people of color and women in Costa Rican society. Why is her work so important, and what actions has she taken that make you proud?

It makes me feel proud that she has fought constantly for human rights, for democracy and for inclusion in each of her positions: as an international consultant, as an activist, as a member of parliament and now as vice president of Costa Rica. Also because of her national and international work, she has received various human rights awards.

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She is very passionate about justice. She was coordinator of the Afro-Latin American Women and Afro-Caribbean Network; coordinator of the Women’s Forum for Integration in Central America; founding member of the Afro-Costa Rican Women’s Center and an international consultant. She promoted the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance in Costa Rica. She has directed more than 15 international investigations and is the author of 20 publications on social inclusion.

NSAM: As far as the global IT industry goes, where does the thinking need to shift to allow for more diversity in the workplace? Where should employers and industry influencers point their attention?

They must point their attention to the policies of their organizations and create internal processes that give equal rights and opportunities to all employees. They need to create an environment of respect and integration between all their employees. They must look for the people their companies need but also diversify and represent the population where they operate. They must also implement processes that eliminate biases in terms of pay.

The IT industry is currently moving towards technical certifications instead of formal university degrees. That will give Afro-descendant and Indigenous more opportunities because they cost less than a university degree. Companies could also introduce scholarships for certifications.

Applying quotas to all colleges and universities, as in Brazil, allows poor students to have access to good universities. In this way, they can find better jobs and positions when they graduate.

Kirk Laughlin

Kirk Laughlin is an award-winning editor and subject expert in information technology and offshore BPO/ contact center strategies.

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