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Outsourcing Culture

By Jeremy Seabrook

The Guardian
30 October, 2003

The movement of jobs from Britain and the US to call centres in Karnataka,
Kerala and the periphery of Delhi has been on a grand scale: more than
half the world's top 500 companies now outsource either IT or business
processes to India, which produces 1.29 million graduates a year. Until
now many were compelled to give tuition to younger students, send out
their scanty CVs to indifferent companies, or join criminal or political
gangs. The call centres now offer fresh hope to those who have studied in
English-medium colleges to enter what economists call "the business
process outsourcing industry".

Of course, economic reason takes precedence over common sense. On
September 11 2001, the calls of New Yorkers, desperate to hire a car to
reach their loved ones, were channelled via Bangalore. It may appear odd
that telephone numbers in Scunthorpe, flight timetables and hotel bookings
in Venezuela should be routed through Gurgaon, on the edge of Delhi. But
each transaction costs just 29 cents.

The backlash in the west has been vocal - and familiar: "They are taking
our jobs". It was bad enough, the cry goes, when they came as migrants to
occupy the mills and factories. How much worse it is now that they can
stay at home and filch our jobs and we can do nothing about it.

Some have seen in the removal of jobs from Britain an act of historical
justice: a kind of retribution for the destruction by Britain of millions
of livelihoods in the traditional textile industry of India. Britain
destroyed ancient artisanal skills, which can scarcely be compared with
the fly-by-night, cyber-coolie labour of call centres. In any case, the
flight of labour is no gift to India by the companies shifting there.
Outsourcing cuts costs by between 40% and 50%.

It is estimated that by 2008 India will earn up to $24bn from this
phenomenon. There has been a boost for intensive English language courses.
There are more coffee shops, internet cafes and shopping malls. And a
substantial core of young people with a high disposable income is a

At first glance, even the social consequences appear positive. There is
employment for graduates, with salaries starting at 10,000 - 15,000 rupees
a month ($200 - $300). Men and women can mix freely, with the gender
apartheid breaking down. Bangalore, with its bars, clubs and restaurants,
has become conspicuously more westernised. But is there any downside to
this benign example of globalisation?

The young people have been trained in the cultural background of the
countries they serve. In order to drown their own culture and remake them
in the image of their customers' requirements, there has been a baptism by
total immersion. They have learned to distinguish between regional accents
and know all about Coronation Street and EastEnders. On-screen, they
become familiar with street maps of city centres they have hardly ever
heard of. They must show they share the knowledge and assumptions of those
who call them, giving no hint that they are not just around the corner.

What's more, they must deal with angry customers, unsatisfactory purchases
and those who cannot understand the simplest of information. Above all,
they must never lose patience or express an opinion. They must submit to
abuse - racial and sexual - while remaining polite, no matter how badly
they are provoked.

The work is intense, stressful and highly artificial. George Monbiot
stated this week that "the most marketable skill in India today is the
ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's". As a job
specification the abandonment of identity seems a rather high price.
Indeed, the most accomplished become, like those Thomas Macaulay envisaged
in his famous Minute on Education of 1835, "a class of persons, Indian in
blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in
intellect". The call centres offer a modernised metamorphosis for those
called into the service of the new global imperium. Of course, the young
people will not become babus in the administration of empire. But they
have their function. Their conspicuous un-Indian lifestyle signals to a
generation that they, too, can be liberated into the have-a-nice- day
culture of global fantasy.

There is a high turnover in the industry. The work prepares them for no
future career. Unsocial working hours are necessary, since their lives are
articulated to the working day of those miles away. After three years
people are exhausted, and the labour leaves no residue of useful
experience that can be transferred.

"You feel high," said Tushar, a 27-year-old engineering graduate. "The
salary is good and you feel part of the modern world. But you don't
realise how much working in a foreign language takes out of you. You try
not to miss a single word of what people are saying. They expect you to be
familiar with their culture, but they don't care a damn about yours. It is
racist. In the end, you get to resent it, and you hate them."

The call centres create new forms of social division, separating these
reconstructed young adults from the rest of society. The easy mixing
doesn't extend to the lower castes, the poor, or the majority who speak
only Kannada and have no knowledge of English. It reinforces social gulfs,
alienating people from their traditions, without offering them any place
in the values they have to simulate in order to ease the lives of distant
consumers they will never meet.

India, according to the prophets of globalism, is to become the back
office of the world. The economic benefits are only too clear, but these
entail social costs. The loss of jobs to rich countries is small compared
to the cultural hybridisation of hundreds of thousands of young Indians.

· Jeremy Seabrook's latest book is A World Growing Old (Pluto Press)