2004-03-12 / Columnists

From the

Editor
By Howard Schwach

About a year ago, I bought a Dell Com puter over the Internet. It was a good deal that included some upgrades and free shipping that made the machine a compelling buy, especially since it was faster and more powerful for the price than anything I could get at Staples or CompUSA (where I bought my last two machines).

Because my bank had a limit on how much could be spent on my debit card, I had to break the payment to Dell into two.

Dell sent me Email to that effect and asked me to contact its financial desk to split the payment.

I tried calling the toll-free number a couple of times and then realized that there was a major storm raging in the west and southwest that probably accounted for my inability to get to the company’s headquarters.

When I finally did get through the next day, a nice youngish-sounding man took my call.

I told him what I wanted to do, and he said that he would take care of it right away.

I joked that I tried to call him the day before, but the storm probably interrupted communications in his part of the country.

He surprised me by responding that there was not storm in his part of the world. He was in Bombay, India.

Welcome to the world of "outsourcing," an issue that might make a difference in the coming election.

There is a story going around that might be an apocryphal one.

A man calls Dell on the last day of his warranty period because his hard drive had gone south.

He is told by the tech rep that his warranty has expired and he cannot get a new drive for free.

He pulls out his papers and sees that he is on the last day of the warranty period and he tells that to the tech rep.

"Sorry," the rep answers. "We are in Bombay, India and it is already the next day. The computers here won’t accept your warranty.

"I’m in America, I bought the computer in America, it is an American machine, and I am still within the warranty period here," the angry man fairly yelled into the phone.

While his problem got taken care of, it is indicative of some of the problems that outsourcing jobs to another continent can bring to both American consumers and workers.

While gay marriage seems to be the issue of the moment, it is clear that jobs, and the Republican policy of moving jobs to other nations will be the major issue in the coming presidential campaign.

Big business loves outsourcing. It is much cheaper to do business in Bombay, India than in New York City or Dallas or Log Angeles. There are no unions to worry about, no minimum wage, no pesky labor regulation.

That’s why Bush and his Republican brothers and sisters in the business world love outsourcing.

Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon.

Thousands of New York residents who have questions about their food stamps call the help line number provided by the state. Unknown to the majority of those customers, their calls are being rerouted to Mexico and India.

J. P. Morgan Electronic Financial Services, which has the contract from New York and 30 other states, finds it much cheaper to do business in those two nations than in any American venue.

"We have a contract and that contract calls for a call center," a spokes person for the food stamp bureaucracy told reporters. "The contract is being fulfilled."

The English-speakers who call the help center are forwarded to operators in Bangalore and Pune, India. The Spanish-speakers are transferred to Tijuana, Mexico.

Though J.P Morgan reportedly de clined comment, a source close to the program said that money is the key. "The company would be glad to set up help centers in the United States, if New York were willing to bear the additional cost," the anonymous source told reporters.

Amy Waldman, a reporter for the New York Times, which has many more assets than The Wave, went to India for a story on outsourcing. I asked the publisher for permission to go to Bombay for the story, but was turned down. Something about time and money.

Waldman interviewed a number of people for her story, including one woman, Ravi Shankar, 36, who works for Tata Consultancy Services, the largest of the technology companies with outsourcing contracts from major American companies.A fluent English-speaker, her job is to interact with American customers. She is probably trained not to tell her customers where she is unless the question comes up during the conversation.

Shankar does not see the problem.

"We really don’t understand why you are so afraid," Shankar told Waldman. "If you are going to talk about competition, you should have no fear – may the best man win."

Many American workers, particularly those who are out of work in a declining job market, do not see it that way.

"America lost 300 thousand jobs to overseas firms," one worker told re porters. "At least some of those jobs could have been mine."

The Bush White House says that the job market is not declining, that may new jobs have been created in America over the past year.

Opponents of outsourcing, however, say that those jobs are mostly in the service area – day spas, nail shops, graphic design.

"Not all jobs are created equal," New Yorker Maura Keaney wrote to the New York Times. "Working in a unionized factory with good pay, affordable health care and a pension is not the same as giving facials for $7 an hour without benefits or job security."

The Democrats are sure to make that point between now and the Nov ember election.

Is Shankar right that American workers should not be afraid of a little competition?

Probably not. Not when the playing field is not equal.

If you are the CEO of Dell Com puters and you need a technical support system, where would you go?

To Dallas, where you have to pay knowledgeable people at least $35,000 a year and face union and federal work rules, or to India, where you can pay a college graduate who speaks fluent English $10,000 a year and face no union or government work rules.

For business, the answer is easy. The business God is the bottom line.

The real question, in my mind, however, is what do those companies owe America for their success? What loyalty do they owe to American workers?

Bush and his advisors seem to think that it’s not personal, that it’s just good business.

Hundreds of thousands of American unemployed men and women, out of work because of outsourcing to foreign nations, do not agree. We will have to wait and see whether that dissatisfaction translates into Democratic votes in the upcoming election.


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