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The other side of the call center
Old 10-01-2005, 01:20 PM   #1
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The other side of the call center

Spouse watched a fascinating PBS documentary (Wide Angle, 1-800-India) last week on building a call center outside of New Delhi. It mentions outsourcing's effects on the American economy, but it's not about outsourcing-- it's about changing an entire civilization.

First the infrastructure had to be created amid local towns/villages. There's an electric plant nearby but it's unreliable so they designed a huge diesel-generator backup with a gigantic fuel tank. (Power outages can last for days, not hours.) In this rural area, just filling the diesel's fuel tank appeared to be the equivalent of buying the national strategic fuel reserves. Water and sewage posed similar challenges (no details given). Telephone lines required their own exchange (hey, it's a call center) and huge landline/microwave/satellite backups. The building's steel, concrete, wiring, plumbing, and other construction materials had to be brought from all over the country because the local economy would never create or use that much raw material.

Now they had a building-- but no workers. What self-respecting man would leave his traditional Indian career for an undignified menial call-center job? The laws actually had to be changed to allow (a) men and women to work together unchaperoned, and (b) women to work at night. Still nobody came, because changing a law won't change your family's culture.

So the new company essentially subsidized everything. They bought a fleet of minivans to shuttle three shifts (round the clock) from neighboring villages. (That started a mini-hiring boom to find drivers.) They added on a cafeteria run by a chef who used to manage the restaurant at a five-star luxury hotel. They added showers & locker rooms. They raised wages to unheard-of levels-- above what a doctor or lawyer could earn, and enough to persuade many older Indians to change careers or come out of retirement. Finally they sent buses to the local communities to bring in tour groups (local families) to show everyone the working conditions. The key to breaking the employment logjam turned out to be hiring older managers (men AND women in their 50s) to reassure these traditional families that their 20-somethings wouldn't be exposed to any hanky-panky on the graveyard shift.

So the 20-somethings began to flock to the employment office-- but they needed job skills! Classes were held to add the necessary business vocabulary and to change their accents to American Midwestern English (several years later they're adding Australian & British English, Spanish, and French). Then came a major cultural upheaval-- teaching these people about checking accounts, credit cards, loans, mortgages, and the Internet. This was necessary for the call center's phone scripts but not familiar to people who grew up with tight credit, a lack of local lenders, and minimal bandwidth.

Once the place was up & running and the employees had money, a whole new entrepreneurial spirit flocked to the site. Roadside vendors popped up. The Indian equivalent of a strip mall offered business attire, sewing, laundry, electronics, snack foods, computers, games, Starbucks, Internet cafés, and other "necessities". In another aspect of the entrepreneurial movement, the call center began to turn into a maquiladora magnet for other local businesses.

The cultural changes were the most interesting. One 20-something woman said that her father respects her for the first time in her life. She's the oldest child, but her father did the equivalent of wailing & beating his chest for a year because his wife didn't give him a son. She eventually gained six brothers, and her parents stopped her education after 10th grade and were ready to arrange her marriage to afford to pay the tuition for the sons to go to college or vocational training. Now she has a call-center job that pays more than all six of her brothers combined. She bought her family business a truck and she's putting one of her brothers through college.

The children in this area used to finish school and continue to live at home (no money for their own place) while their parents chaperoned their social lives and arranged their marriages. Now that the young adults have wages (and bank accounts, and credit cards, and mortgage applications) they're starting to move out of the family homes to "be closer to work" and to "not disturb the family with my night shifts". What it really means is "I want the heck outta here." While office hanky-panky is officially & culturally frowned upon, yuppie dual-income romances have blossomed and people are actually arranging their OWN marriages. Then they combine their households, build or buy a house (they know all about the financing) and start their own independent lives.

When it was built, the call center was a captive subcontractor of GE. Now it has dozens of contracts with companies around the globe.

We're not outsourcing-- we're exporting Western civilization. How does that figure into the American trade balance?
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Re: The other side of the call center
Old 10-03-2005, 07:13 AM   #2
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Re: The other side of the call center

Ugh, that makes me ill just to think about it. We can't leave people half way across the world alone in their simple lives; we have to infect them with our cultural diseases. How long until the call center workers are up to their eyes in credit card debt? :P
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Re: The other side of the call center
Old 10-03-2005, 10:36 AM   #3
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Re: The other side of the call center

Quote:
Originally Posted by brewer12345
We can't leave people half way across the world alone in their simple lives; we have to infect them with our cultural diseases.
I think it spreads more like a virus. GE didn't exactly have to fight their way in, either.

On the flip side, as I was watching the food parts of the documentary I was wondering why there are so few Indian restaurants in Hawaii. I haven't had a good vindaloo curry in years...
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Re: The other side of the call center
Old 10-03-2005, 11:25 AM   #4
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Re: The other side of the call center

Quote:
Originally Posted by Nords
On the flip side, as I was watching the food parts of the documentary I was wondering why there are so few Indian restaurants in Hawaii.* I haven't had a good vindaloo curry in years...
Ah, that's an area in which I have you beat, Nords. We used to live in Jackson Heights, one of the top 5 most ethnically diverse zip codes in the US. Virtually any cuisine you could want was there for the asking. Now living in the burbs, there is a large Indian community 10 minutes away, and we hit the Indian grocery about once a month to get supplies for our own renditions of the classics. Haven't tried the restaurant that advertises as "Desi-Style Chinese Food" yet, though.
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Re: The other side of the call center
Old 10-04-2005, 01:34 AM   #5
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Re: The other side of the call center

It's easy for us to pine for a purer, simpler culture unadulterated by crass Western commercialism, but as Nords points out, the purer, simpler culture was actually a stultifying culture in which people lacked economic means and, therefore, lacked the means to achieve personal freedom. Globalization works, as Martin Wolf argues in his aptly named book, because money = freedom. Why else would everybody on this board be lusting after FIRE, a big part of which is FI, i.e. Financial Independence. If the RE part is all we're after, then we could all retire today to the back woods of West Viriginia and live, if not like kings, at least like free men -- free men without health care, dental care, proper nutrition, and interesting lives.

This is not to say that as Americans who could be caught on the downside of globalization and outsourcing, we shouldn't worry. Doing so would be imprudent. Draw a supply and demand curve for domestic labor and another supply curve for global labor, assuming a near-infinite (horizontal) supply at a price far lower than the domestic equilibrium price, and the picture is clear. Globalization increases the overall economic surplus for the U.S. as a whole, but the increased surplus goes entirely to the demand side of labor, i.e. employers, so when members of the Bush administration advocate that globalization is good for America, they're speaking the truth, but only half of the truth. This by no means demonstrates that Bush is evil. Protectionism would be much worse. It would ensure that the lucky few who were connected enough to be in protected industries would reap outsized rewards at the expense of everyone else.

As workers we need to get used to the new workplace paradigm with little stability but quite a bit of fluidity and creative destruction. Put it simply, be prepared to keep your resume up to date, be prepared to move, and be prepared to go back to school. Don't forget to save your money and live below your means. Members of this board have all of these things covered.
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