By The Walrus
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 280

Just Call My Number

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
Tales of call centre jobs disappearing to India are not the whole story.
Issue 280

Just how serious is the threat of a call centre jobs stampede to India? Over the past few months the media has been full of stories of a wholesale jobs exodus from British call centres – an ideal cue for film crews to descend on Hyderabad or Bangalore and gush about what a wacky old world we are living in when Asian university graduates need to be clued up about EastEnders and learn to talk like Rex Harrison.

This issue appears to provide a perfect illustration of the unstoppability of globalisation. Giant firms can up sticks whenever they like and ship entire industries to another part of the world – and the message is there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. However, there is also a much nastier and none too subtle undertext, which is to try to implant in the minds of British workers the complete fallacy that here the Asians go again, stealing all our jobs.

Anyone who considers this is leftie PC over-exaggeration might be shaken to know that when the Communication Workers Union (CWU) launched a campaign a couple of months back, called ‘Stop the Jobs Stampede’, and organised a lobby of the British Telecom AGM, some of the placards ended up with ‘Yeah, Pakis Out’ scribbled at the bottom – although union stewards were quick to stamp on this development.

The issue of outsourcing to India has raised a number of very complex issues which unions and the left in the US, Britain and India are still struggling to come to terms with. In Britain concerns over jobs have been raised by a number of major unions with a membership in call centres, including Unison, which has lots of members in the public sector and in the utilities, Unifi (banks and insurance), the TSSA (National Rail Enquiry Services) and the CWU (BT, Vertex and other telecom operators).

On the other hand, anti-capitalist campaigner George Monbiot recently argued in the Guardian that the shift of call centre jobs to India represented a historical comeuppance for British imperialism, which had destroyed India as an industrial competitor at the start of the 18th century. We are now rich, because Indians are poor, he said, and that’s why companies are attracted to the subcontinent, because of poverty wages. Tempting though it may be to agree with the anti-imperialist sentiment here, this way of looking at the argument represents a mirror image of that argued by the most ardent free marketeers – that this is world capitalism at work and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

This is not much use as an argument for anyone fighting to protect their jobs. On the other hand, questions do need to be asked about just how thought-through most of the union responses have been. England would never have developed as an industrial nation without outsourcing – it simply doesn’t have enough of its own natural resources and so has always relied on overseas outsourcing, back to the days of the plantations.

So why is it that such exception seems to have been taken to the threat of jobs moving to India? One explanation is the sheer scale of the shift being predicted by some industry analysts, and the more alarmist forecasts tend to be the ones reported in the press. Figures of 300,000 jobs going in the next three years have been bandied about but there is not a shred of real evidence to support these predictions. Study these announcements more closely and you will see that the scale of these initiatives tends to be relatively small and usually means offloading some of the most stultifying ‘back-office’ functions or telephone operations which can be carried out overnight – and thus fulfil the promise made by firms to provide a 24-hour service.

Something like 850,000 workers are currently employed in British call centres and a series of recent studies have shown that most of the companies which run these operations expect the number to keep on growing over the next few years, though not at quite the rate of a few years back. For every story about outsourcing to India, there is one about a new call centre in Britain, mostly ignored by the press.

Part of the reason companies want to shift operations overseas is to do with lower labour costs. But this is only a relatively small element. It’s about trying to move towards ‘full spectrum dominance’ of the world economy. Major US firms have been in India for a number of years now locating themselves – and hopefully calling the shots – in what are still relatively untapped markets in Asia, Central Asia and the Far East.

Together with a massive input from the Indian government over the past few years – and the lifting of a number of important legislative restrictions – there has been a stratospheric increase in the number of high-tech firms appearing in places like Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Nevertheless, the rate of development has been so rapid and the conditions in many of the call centres so appalling that major issues of labour turnover and skills shortages have already emerged. And when the management at National Rail Enquiries say that they want to move because of power blackouts in Britain they must be having a laugh – we do get them here now, thanks to privatisation, but in Bangalore they get outages for two hours every day!

So things are not all plain sailing for the globalising happy-clappers and it is important to put the issue in perspective in order to avoid demoralisation within the British workforce. One of the unions which has dealt with this best in this country is Connect, the union which represents specialists in the telecom industry. It has drawn up a policy on overseas outsourcing which insists that any foreign nationals brought to Britain are paid on exactly the same terms and conditions as British workers and that if work is transferred there should be a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies. At the same time, workers employed in India on any work which is outsourced must be guaranteed International Labour Organisation approved rates in their own country.

This is the kind of approach which can protect jobs at the same time as contesting the implication that workers in India are primarily to blame for decisions taken by corporate investment analysts. Workers in Britain and India should be fighting the multinationals together, rather than allowing themselves to be led in the direction of ripping each other’s throats out.

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