The Flight To
October 21, 2003
you live in a rich nation in the English-speaking world, and most of
your work involves a computer or a telephone, don't expect to have a
job in five years' time. Almost every large company which relies upon
remote transactions is starting to dump its workers and hire a cheaper
labour force overseas. All those concerned about economic justice and
the distribution of wealth at home should despair. All those concerned
about global justice and the distribution of wealth around the world
should rejoice. As we are, by and large, the same people, we have a
Britain's industrialisation was secured by destroying the manufacturing
capacity of India. In 1699, the British government banned the import
of woollen cloth from Ireland, and in 1700 the import of cotton cloth
(or calico) from India. Both products were forbidden because they were
superior to our own. As the industrial revolution was built on the textiles
industry, we could not have achieved our global economic dominance if
we had let them in. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, India
was forced to supply raw materials to Britain's manufacturers, but forbidden
to produce competing finished products. We are rich because the Indians
Now the jobs we
stole 200 years ago are returning to India. Last week the Guardian revealed
that the National Rail Enquiries service is likely to move to Bangalore,
in south-west India. Two days later, the HSBC bank announced that it
was cutting 4,000 customer service jobs in Britain and shifting them
to Asia. BT, British Airways, Lloyds TSB, Prudential, Standard Chartered,
Norwich Union, Bupa, Reuters, Abbey National and Powergen have already
begun to move their call centres to India. The British workers at the
end of the line are approaching the end of the line.
There is a profound
historical irony here. Indian workers can outcompete British workers
today because Britain smashed their ability to compete in the past.
Having destroyed India's own industries, the East India Company and
the colonial authorities obliged its people to speak our language, adopt
our working practices and surrender their labour to multinational corporations.
Workers in call centres in Germany and Holland are less vulnerable than
ours, as Germany and Holland were less successful colonists, with the
result that fewer people in the poor world now speak their languages.
The impact on British
workers will be devastating. Service jobs of the kind now being exported
were supposed to make up for the loss of employment in the manufacturing
industries which disappeared overseas in the 1980s and 1990s. The government
handed out grants for cybersweatshops in places whose industrial workforce
had been crushed by the closure of mines, shipyards and steelworks.
But the companies running the call centres appear to have been testing
their systems at government expense before exporting them somewhere
It is not hard to
see why most of them have chosen India. The wages of workers in the
service and technology industries there are roughly one tenth of those
of workers in the same sectors over here. Standards of education are
high, and almost all educated Indians speak English. While British workers
will take call-centre jobs only when they have no choice, Indian workers
see them as glamorous. One technical support company in Bangalore recently
advertised 800 jobs. It received 87,000 applications. British call centres
moving to India can choose the most charming, patient, biddable, intelligent
workers the labour market has to offer.
There is nothing
new about multinational corporations forcing workers in distant parts
of the world to undercut each other. What is new is the extent to which
the labour forces of the poor nations are also beginning to threaten
the security of our middle classes. In August, the Evening Standard
came across some leaked consultancy documents suggesting that at least
30,000 executive positions in Britain's finance and insurance industries
are likely to be transferred to India over the next five years. In the
same month, the American consultants Forrester Research predicted that
the US will lose 3.3 million white-collar jobs between now and 2015.
Most of them will go to India.
Just over half of
these are menial "back office" jobs, such as taking calls
and typing up data. The rest belong to managers, accountants, underwriters,
computer programmers, IT consultants, biotechnicians, architects, designers
and corporate lawyers. For the first time in history, the professional
classes of Britain and America find themselves in direct competition
with the professional classes of another nation. Over the next few years,
we can expect to encounter a lot less enthusiasm for free trade and
globalisation in the parties and the newspapers which represent them.
Free trade is fine, as long as it affects someone else's job.
So a historical
restitution appears to be taking place, as hundreds of thousands of
jobs, many of them good ones, flee to the economy we ruined. Low as
the wages for these positions are by comparison to our own, they are
generally much higher than those offered by domestic employers. A new
middle class is developing in cities previously dominated by caste.
Its spending will stimulate the economy, which in turn may lead to higher
wages and improved conditions of employment. The corporations, of course,
will then flee to a cheaper country, but not before they have left some
of their money behind. According to the consultants Nasscom and McKinsey,
India - which is always short of foreign exchange - will be earning
some $17bn a year from outsourced jobs by 2008.
On the other hand,
the most vulnerable communities in Britain are losing the jobs which
were supposed to have rescued them. Almost two-thirds of call-centre
workers are women, so the disadvantaged sex will slip still further
behind. As jobs become less secure, multinational corporations will
be able to demand ever harsher conditions of employment in an industry
which is already one of the most exploitative in Britain. At the same
time, extending the practices of their colonial predecessors, they will
oblige their Indian workers to mimic not only our working methods, but
also our accents, our tastes and our enthusiasms, in order to persuade
customers in Britain that they are talking to someone down the road.
The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your
identity and slip into someone else's.
So is the flight
to India a good thing or a bad thing? The only reasonable answer is
both. The benefits do not cancel out the harm. They exist, and have
to exist, side by side. This is the reality of the world order Britain
established, and which is sustained by the heirs to the East India Company,
the multinational corporations. The corporations operate only in their
own interests. Sometimes these interests will coincide with those of
a disadvantaged group, but only by disadvantaging another.
For centuries, we
have permitted ourselves to ignore the extent to which our welfare is
dependent on the denial of other people's. We begin to understand the
implications of the system we have created only when it turns against