Socialist Worker

Long distance connections

by Paul McGarr
Issue No. 1843

WORKERS AT 34 BT call centres were to stage protests on Thursday of this week over the company's plans to axe 2,200 jobs and transfer work to India. The battle goes to the heart of debates over capitalist globalisation. Some commentators have argued that opposing BT's plans will hit Indian workers, and so is based on a narrow nationalist outlook. The workers' CWU union has rightly rejected this argument.

It says, 'The CWU has no issue with India or Indian workers. Our issue is with BT.' BT plans to cut jobs in its centres running the 192 directory enquiries service. It wants to transfer work to two call centres in Delhi and Bangalore in India. Behind the move is a scramble to cut costs and boost profits at the expense of workers everywhere.

It is driven by the logic of a 'race to the bottom' built into the process of capitalist globalisation. As the CWU says, 'BT's reasons for wanting to move work to India are almost entirely cost based. The pay of a call centre worker in India is approximately £3,000 per annum.'

BT is a hugely profitable company. Its latest figures, for the three months to December 2002, show a £521 million profit, up 37 percent on the previous three months. That's £66 a second. But like every corporation BT is driven to cut costs in the face of competition. Sometimes it is argued that national governments have no control over the process of globalisation.

That is disproved by the action of the British government. Its official Oftel telecom watchdog has used 'competition' as the excuse to abolish BT's monopoly on directory enquiries. Rival multinationals launched their own directory enquiries services on Monday.

US corporation The Number has a service based at a Cardiff call centre, while Irish corporation Conduit operates from centres based in Swansea and Cardiff. These firms will undercut BT by making workers work harder for less money, and in some cases by attacking or refusing union rights. BT's response to such threats is to look for even cheaper labour and move work to India.

It is a myth that most companies can simply switch operations around the globe easily. But in some industries, most obviously those like telecoms, companies can move operations much more easily. The only requirements are stable communications links, and skilled, and in BT's case, English-speaking, workers.

BT does not give a damn for any Indian workers it will employ. They will be told to work often unsociable and long hours at miserable pay. And no matter how hard they work, the instant BT finds it can move to say another Indian city or another country where wages are even lower it will do so. Accepting the logic of BT's plan means workers everywhere buying into a race to the bottom.

The kinds of pressures this leads to are already being felt in British call centres. Hundreds of call centre workers in Thornaby and on Tyneside in north east England have just accepted wage cuts of between 12 and 25 percent to keep their jobs.

Their employer Npower said the alternative was the jobs moving elsewhere. Unfortunately the workers' Amicus union responded pathetically. 'It was two hard choices really,' said Amicus official Dave Harrison. 'One was lose your job, the other was have a reduction in wages.'

But there is another choice. This is to reject the bosses' logic, and instead stand up to the corporations, which are more vulnerable to workers' action than they pretend. The CWU is right to protest and would be right to follow with more hard hitting action such as strikes.

BT has plenty of money and can be forced to abandon its plans. The threat of seeing its £66 per second profits plummet as workers struck would concentrate the minds of BT's board members wonderfully. Workers can fight for levelling up. That was the stance advocated by the RMT, and its predecessor unions, over the issue of seafarers on Britain's merchant fleet.

The union insisted it has no issue over what nationality the people doing the work were, and argued that they should all be paid the proper rate. Capitalist globalisation faces workers and their unions with a stark choice. Either unite to fight the corporations on this basis or be sacrificed in a race to the bottom.

  • The call centres where protests were planned on Thursday are in Aberystwyth, Ayr, Bangor, Bathgate, Blackburn, Bury St Edmunds, Cardiff, Carlisle, Chelmsley Wood (Birmingham), Cheltenham, Crewe, Dudley, Dundee, Glasgow, Gloucester, Grimsby, Hereford, Hillsborough, Inverness, Kingstanding (Birmingham), Kirkcaldy, Lowestoft, Mansfield, Margate, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Newport, Nottingham, Portadown, Ryde, Stockport, Sunderland, Torquay and Yeovil.

    The protests will run from 11am to 2pm. The CWU union is appealing for 'other trade unionists' to 'show solidarity on the day by visiting the site'.

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    Article information

    Sat 22 Mar 2003, 00:00 GMT
    Issue No. 1843
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