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Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 12 News List

India colonizing UK's job market


When Britain's empire-builders so vigorously exported the English language and culture to India, it seems unlikely they ever guessed that many decades later Indian workers would use these self-same tools to take British jobs.

The issue of British firms replacing local telephone call-center staff with well-educated, English-speaking -- but far lower-paid -- Indian workers hit the spotlight last week as trade unions issued an alarm call about a jobs exodus.

Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) held a protest outside the annual general meeting in London of telecoms giant BT Group, which opened two call centers in India's southern hi-tech capital of Bangalore in May.

Currently employing 750 people, by December these centers will have 2,200 people answering calls from British customers and chasing up late phone bills.

Although employing just a small proportion of the 17,000 people still employed in BT's British-based call centers, the CWU believes the Indian operations highlight a highly damaging trend for local workers.


Up to 200,000 British jobs are under threat from such moves, the CWU believes.

Spurred by the falling cost of setting up international telephone lines as well as India's increasingly tech-savvy workforce, a series of British firms are opening call centers in the subcontinent.

Over the past 12 months insurance firms Aviva and Prudential have shed jobs in Britain while taking on staff in the former British Empire dominion.

Tesco, Britain's leading supermarket chain, has also joined the rush, announcing on Thursday the opening of a center in Bangalore employing 350 people, rising to 1,000 within a year.

Not just phone-answering jobs were under threat, a CWU spokesman said.

"It involves everybody, from call-center workers to IT workers," he said.

"If this becomes a trend, it means every job involving a computer and telephone is at risk."

British workers could not compete on wages, and were unwilling to join a "race to the bottom," he said, adding that the effect on some parts of Britain could be devastating.

"In many areas where we lost heavy industries like shipbuilding and steelwork, when these jobs went the government gave regional grants to set up call centers and service-industry jobs," he said. "Britain is basically now a services-based economy. If we lose the service jobs the same way we lost the shipbuilding, there will be nothing left."


However, companies argue that the cost savings are too big to be ignored in the current business climate.

Prudential says it aims to save UK Pound 16 million (US$25.4 million dollars) a year by moving its call center to the eastern commercial hub of Bombay.

BT, which pays British call-center staff from 5.80 pounds an hour, can employ Indian workers for around one fifth of that.

Salaries are "obviously one of the benefits" for moving, a Tesco spokesman said, but not the only reason.

"You have to look at what they have to offer in terms of infrastructure. They have fantastic telecoms infrastructure, a lot of skilled IT people, a lot of expertise," he said.

Whereas in Britain, call-center jobs are often seen as low-status, in India firms can more easily attract motivated, well-educated staff.

Dismissing the trade unions' criticism, BT Retail chief executive Pierre Danon said the quality of service at the group's Indian call centers is "sometimes better."

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