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Pros & calls: Quick answer, slow reply
- Blair govt backs outsourcing as survey of Indian service shows mixed results

London, Jan. 14: Indian call centre staff pick up the telephone “more than twice as quickly” as their rivals in the UK, an independent report published in Britain has established.

The average starting salary in India is reckoned to be £125 a month, or Rs 10,500, which would be considered attractive by Indian standards, but this represents a massive saving for British companies who have to pay equivalent staff around £1,080 (Rs 90,700) a month. Indian staff also work six hours a week longer.

The author of the report, Steve Morrell of ContactBabel, told The Telegraph: “The growth of call centres in India has not been organic but explosive.”

Morrell said his report, based on information supplied by 290 British and 44 Indian firms, was independent — he is selling the full report for £582.

One aspect of the report that is critical of Indian call centres has been highlighted in a BBC Radio4 interview with Morrell — and seized by Unifi, the banking union, which is fighting to protect the jobs of its 158,000 British members.

(A PTI report today said British banking giant Abbey has decided to shed 400 jobs in England and move some call centre work to India.)

Morrell’s report claims that the quality of service offered by Indians is sometimes not as good and customers often have to go back a second time to have their queries answered. The Indians are quicker at answering calls, but they are slower to deal with the queries, with the result that the British end up dealing with 25 per cent more calls per hour. Morrell also found that British staff stay in their jobs for three years on average, whereas Indians tend to move on after only 11 months.

Unifi, which wants Indians to join the union, is urging British customers to boycott UK firms if they are unhappy with the service provided as a way of stemming the flow of jobs to India.

Dai Davies, Unifi’s director of communications, said: “These figures (from Morrell) show what we all knew anyway: businesses moving their call centres to India are doing it to save their salary bill, not to improve their quality of service, regardless of what they say.”

He went on: “It is hard to ignore salary savings like these, but if customers get a worse service and end up going to a competitor with a call centre in the UK, then these cost savings will soon disappear.”

Publication of Morrell’s report coincides with a renewed pledge by the British government that it will not undertake protectionist measures to stem the outsourcing of thousands of call centre jobs to India.

Mike ’Brien, Britain’s foreign office and trade minister, told the Confederation of Indian Industry partnership summit in Hyderabad this week that trade barriers would make UK firms less competitive and hurt the British economy in the long run.

He said: “We read about back-office jobs being relocated to India by British banks and insurers, but not that over one million people are employed in the UK financial services sector and that in 2002 alone another 5,000 jobs in the sector were created by inward investors.”

’Brien added: “We read about some call centres being moved abroad but we have still 5,500 call centres in the UK employing around 400,000 workers.”

“Newspapers talk about the jobs lost,” he commented. “But say nothing about the number of jobs gained by companies choosing to locate in the UK. Britain as a whole benefits from globalisation and free trade.

British unions have been campaigning for Tony Blair take action, ’Brien admitted, “but the British government prefers to maintain a sense of perspective”.

He spelt out British government policy: “Our response to the global trend towards offshoring will not be one of protectionism. We have long held the view that one cannot preach free and fair world trade and practice protectionism at home.”

In a long statement, Blair has made his position clear, which is that he cannot slam America for imposing tariffs against European steel and simultaneously act against the outsourcing of call centre jobs to India.

Blair’s argument is: “We live in an economy today which is global, in which there is going to be a lot of churning of jobs, in which the old concept of 9 to 5 jobs, that people kept the same job for many, many years, is changing and has already changed and that the best thing that government can do is not offer a false prospectus to people that we can prevent these changes, but on the contrary help people through education, through skills, through an active employment service to find new jobs if they lose their existing ones.”

The prime minister pointed out: “If you go to India and you go down to places like Bangalore and you see the information technology and biotechnology graduates working there, we are in a different world today, the 21st century is going to be dominated by some of these countries whose labour costs may be lower than ours at the moment, but these countries are catching up fast and we have got to move ahead.”

Blair concluded: “The task of political leadership is to tell people what you honestly believe the challenges of the future are and we are not going to compete with these countries unless we are getting a highly educated skilled workforce moving up the ladder the whole time. And yes it may well be true that there are Indian graduates in call centres, there are probably some graduates here in call centres, but I can tell you there are a lot of Indian graduates now in new technology companies and they are beginning to make a lot of money and a lot of competition for Europe.”

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