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SLAVE, SCAB, PIPEDREAM
- A BPO-based growth in employment and income is unlikely

Despite their legacy of Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Van Gogh, the Dutch are a severely practical people. The minister of justice in the Netherlands has, not surprisingly, hit the nail on its head. Since the purpose behind outsourcing is to get work done at nominal cost, why, the prisons under its control are the ideal setting for it; the prisoners are as good as bonded labour and will have to complete at token wages whatever assignment they are given.

Bonded labour and outsourcing have in fact often meshed into each other. Consider the opening up of the American continent. The Pilgrim Fathers were followed by steady waves of men, women and children who arrived in North America to escape religious persecution or the ravages of famine in Europe. That was one of the biggest events in the 17th and 18th centuries. Virgin tracts in what later came to be known as Dixieland were waiting to be colonized. There was, however, a shortage of manpower. Inputs of labour were called for before the great United States could emerge lush in prosperity.

The hunt was on. The white settlers were too few in number. Besides, the work called for was of a daunting nature. Some outside source of labour had to be found. The solution of the problem was soon at hand. Impoverished, immiserized workers were purchased, wholesale, at throwaway prices in the dark continent of Africa and shipped to the United States. Outsourced labour, forced to migrate, arrived as slaves and were put to work in the southern territories of North America. The lands were cleared and levelled, and went on to produce unbelievably rich harvests of wheat, corn, cotton and tobacco. American industrialization was based on the surplus yielded by American agriculture, and American agriculture was, overwhelmingly, the product of imported slave labour. The labour force, originally outsourced, was, via migration, rendered into an internal input.

That annal of colonization and colonialism was repeated, in miniature scale, in the middle decades of the 19th century in the shipment of cheap Indian labour, first to Mauritius and subsequently to the West Indies. Scholars have chosen to describe this shipment of indentured workforce as a new kind of slavery. Immiserized peasantry, mostly from Bihar and the United Provinces, were recruited on a long-term basis at laughably low wages and sent away across the seven seas to pioneer sugarcane cultivation in Mauritius and engage in both bauxite extraction and plantation activity in and around the Caribbean Islands. Once again, a key input, picked from an outside source, was internalized through the process of migration.

The slaves imported from Africa into the United States were paid bare subsistence and nothing beyond; they were under bondage to their masters. In the case of indentured labour brought in into Mauritius and the West Indies, some wages were offered, but the workers were still contractually bound to their employers. It could be ' and was actually ' argued that, left in Africa, the slaves would have died of hunger or been consumed by anarchy. Similarly, indentured labour who migrated to Mauritius and the West Indies, came to enjoy, it was claimed, a much higher level of living compared to what was the fate of their cousins left behind in the desolate north Indian villages.

Centuries have rolled by, industrial societies have advanced spectacularly, technologies are transformed, services are increasingly displacing material production in the composition of national output. On top of all this, industrial nations are in fierce competition with one another for survival in the global market. Cost-cutting has accordingly emerged as a major issue of concern for them. The answer to their prayer for efficiency is once again outsourcing. However, unlike in the past, the emphasis now is not on shifting the outside source ' low-cost labour ' inside the country, but on leaving it where it belongs. Were such cheap labour to be imported into the country notwithstanding the huge transfer costs, it could be sucked in no time into the local milieu, get unionized and therefore no longer remain cheap. Rather than that, such workers are encouraged to stay back home and be organized in call centres. Let god be thanked for e-commerce, work will be 'outsourced' from the rich Western countries to these 'off-shore' workers. A fantastic increase has taken place in business process outsourcing, for example, in India over the last 10 years, the rate of expansion exceeding 100 per cent per annum. Processes that are being outsourced include response to credit card enquiries, preparation of invoices, payrolls and cheques, reconciliation of daily accounts, writing medical transcriptions, processing applications, billings and collections, demand and sales forecasts, actuarial analysis, and so on.

Countries like ours have lapped it up. Call centres have come up at furious speed in the major metropolitan areas. Computer-savvy young people, with a background of relative affluence and fluency in one or two foreign languages, have found a haven in these centres. Despite certain constraints at the workplace, the wages offered, while perhaps only about one-twentieth or even less of what is paid in Europe or America for a comparable job, are substantially higher than what the young BPO cadets could expect to fetch in the local labour market.

It would be indecent to spoil the party. Some peripheral comments nonetheless ought not to be held back. The aggregate number currently employed in the Indian call centres is estimated to be around 350,000. Even were this number to mount to one million in the course of the next five years, that would still be barely 0.25 per cent of the total working force in the country. It will therefore hardly do to go overboard. Moreover, the BPO is a totally city-based activity; the millions and millions of unemployed and underemployed in the countryside are beyond its ken.

The other point crying out for attention is the somewhat precarious nature of the employment provided by the call centres. It is the mirror image of a dependency arrangement. Were the political climate in the United States and the European Union to turn sharply against outsourcing, it could be a swansong for the BPO units. Intense debate is already on in the Western world on the economics and morality of outsourcing: the tussle is between employers keen to economize on costs on the one hand and the trade union movement unhappy with the loss of potential work opportunities resulting from outsourcing on the other. The Republican Party in the United States, given its symbiotic relationship with leading business groups, has not stood in the way of BPO. But a Democratic Party regime might be much more ambivalent. The prospects are even more dicey in Europe, where the overall rate of unemployment is eight per cent and the rate of economic growth just nominal. Unemployed workers, who relate their state of joblessness with the contracting out of work to low-wage countries, can be kept pacified with dole of a relatively generous size only if the economy grows satisfactorily. If it does not, there is bound to be trouble ahead.

For nations, at present benefiting from BPO activities, there is a somewhat bizarre socio-political spin-off of the goings-on. The outsourcing network has nurtured a new generation of comfortably placed citizens deeply thankful for the bounty the advanced Western countries have gifted them. Whether this development portends a newer kind of slavery ' with the slaves not removed from their native land ' is a theme that is fodder for dialectics. It would perhaps be equally contentious to describe the BPO recruits as international scabs. Even so, the hypothesis of a breathtaking BPO-based expansion of employment and income in the poorer countries would seem to be a comprehensive pipedream.

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