US protectionism: Call centre business model will be under threat if Americans choose to speak to their own

It is common for Indian call centre employees as well as those in the Philippines and Vietnam to be at the receiving end of an American’s ire and invectives. But worse is in store for them and their employers. US President Donald Trump pushed out some dark hints during his election campaign that shipping out jobs to India, Mexico, the Philippines, among other countries, by US companies would be discouraged if not banned outright. Now, he is walking the talk.

Introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio, the proposed legislation, if passed, will require call centre employees to disclose their location and give customers the right to ask to have their calls transferred to customer service agents based in the US. The proposed legislation also proposes the creation of a public list of companies that outsource call centre jobs and give preference, particularly in federal contracts, to firms that have not shipped these jobs overseas.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

This bill, which follows H-1B visa restrictions imposed by the Trump administration that has cut onsite job opportunities for Indian techies, spells gloom if not doom for call centres in India, including the ones promoted by American companies like IBM. As it is, tantrums by American callers were confined to invectives bordering on the racial slur but if the proposed law takes effect, it might well be curtains for Indian and other offshore call centre because American companies would think twice, or several times before awarding contracts to call centres in India, the Philippines, or elsewhere, in the face of the distinct possibility of sustained hostility from American callers.

There are some 7.5 lakh Indian techies working in the US. The Trump administration has made life difficult for their Indian employers thanks to heightened regulatory requirements and higher visa fees, which have affected mid-size Indian IT firms more while leaving biggies like TCS and Infosys with minor bruises. Now, there are some 3.7 lakh Indians working in call centres in India.  A third of them are women.

While it is the foreign dream, more specifically the American dream that excites techies, remaining gainfully employed albeit at ungodly hours doing graveyard shifts has been a compulsion for many youngsters in India, working in call centres a.k.a BPOs. The psychological and physiological problems created by defying one’s biological clock is well documented and known and hence not laboured upon. But the point is call centre jobs are nothing to scoff at in a milieu where employment opportunities are hard to come by.

India should drag the US government to the WTO should the proposed US law be implemented. While Indian boys and girls grin and bear, but nevertheless politely answer queries even in the face of hostility from a caller, bordering on the racial slur, they will be dispirited when asked to transfer the call to someone back home in the USA. The WTO would be constrained to strike down the proposed new US law as discriminatory and anti-free trade of goods and services. However the WTO has been but an effete and powerless international trade regulatory body. Yet, protest must be lodged with it.

‘Buy American, hire American’, the Trump administration’s shrill economic war cry resonates in the USA especially among right-wing Republican sympathisers. Tax and other discriminations against those who ship jobs outside USA might have the effect of US companies like IBM dismantling their call centres in India and offering jobs in the US itself.

The wisdom of and rationale for setting up offshore call centres remain and continue to make sense. It is the cost advantage. The US dollar still rules at Rs 65 or so. For Indian BPOs, it is lucrative to earn in US dollars and pay its Indian employees in Indian rupees. Call centre jobs may be demeaning to some like Arundhati Roy, what with Shyam morphing into Sham and Hari into Harry. But NASSCOM and the Indian government should mount a concerted attack to halt this potentially threatening legislation in its tracks.

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 16:12:36 IST

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