Upwardly mobile phone jockey... or 'cyber-coolie'?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 November 2003)

My computer technician and I were separated by 11,623 kilometres and a dozen time zones, but we bonded when we confronted a grave problem. One day last summer the fan in my computer died. Other components then overheated. The machine emitted wisps of smoke and shut down.

Computer owners will understand the icy terror that flowed through my veins. I called the manufacturer's help line, and was answered by a man in a headset sitting before a screen in New Delhi. In Toronto, it was four in the afternoon, so for him it was two a.m. He works nights, to help North Americans who want daytime or evening service.

At first, he didn't understand the depth of my ignorance. He was talking to someone who had never seen the inside of a computer, didn't know it contained a fan, and always secretly believed that if you open the box it will probably explode. But by exhibiting limitless patience he persuaded me to take off the casing, peer inside, and describe the contents. We spent two hours together before he figured out what parts I needed so that he could send someone in Toronto to install them.

It happens that I'm one of globalization's enthusiastic supporters (partly because I know some of the people who aren't), so naturally this process thrilled me. Call centres, like the one I reached in India, are a creation of global capitalism and a striking example of how technology ignores geography and spreads employment.

Today, it's nearly impossible to avoid call centres. If you place a phone order with Neiman Marcus, for instance, you'll talk to someone in Alberta. If you call United Parcel Service to order a pickup, you'll speak to someone in New Brunswick, where UPS has about 1,000 employees working the phones. And if you book a flight on Lufthansa, an operator in Cape Town will serve you.

Call centres are made possible by toll-free phone numbers, cheap long-distance, special phone banks, and globally linked corporate computer systems. A dozen or so years ago, with those elements all in place, the call-centre business began circling the earth. Soon millions of people were conversing across the oceans, often without knowing it.

Out of curiosity I always ask an operator "where are you?" But there are call centres that forbid their employees to answer. It's said there are places where operators lie, claiming to be in Des Moines, say, when they are actually in Manila.

In India, which has been most successful in stealing call-centre business from the rich countries, companies teach their operators to understand American accents and imitate them. They watch American movies together, and those who can easily comprehend Sylvester Stallone's dialogue are said to be approaching perfection. Some companies try to create an American ambience by putting little American flags on the desks and providing pizza.

India now has more than 160,000 call-centre workers and expects to have a million by 2008. Raman Roy, who runs a company called Wipro Spectramind, imagines India becoming "the back office of the world." He had 200 employees three years ago and now has 5,100. They take catalogue orders, book hotel and airline reservations, do some telemarketing, and then move up to computer help desks, insurance claims processing, various forms of accounting, and payroll management.

Not everyone finds this system admirable. Last year, a reporter for the Times of India mentioned to Roy that there are those who think these workers operate at the lowest end of the value chain. Roy replied that you can do a low-end job and then maybe move to a better job. "Without the low end, you cannot proceed to the high end."

This controversy recently broke out in an unlikely place, the letters column of the Times Literary Supplement. After Susan Sontag praised Indians for putting their English-language skills to work through call centres, a furious professor in New Delhi denounced her for failing to see that "These poor young men and women are indeed the cyber-coolies of our global age." In the next issue, another Delhi resident wrote that what the professor considers exploitation looks to workers like a way to acquire skills as well as income. He acknowledged that while "it isn't much fun to persuade someone in Detroit to pay his credit card bill" (yet another function of call centres), it builds negotiating skills.

It is an iron law of international economics that the Exploitation Police will swoop down and denounce anyone who creates new jobs, particularly in relatively poor areas. The common complaint is that call-centre companies set up shop in places (New Brunswick is a good example) where they can find well-educated workers at relatively low wages. The Exploitation Police make this sound almost criminal. In fact, it's the way capitalism has always expanded and the way that poor regions have traditionally turned themselves into less poor regions. To consider this sort of change deplorable is to miss the fact that business lives by ingenuity and perishes when it ceases to find new and cheaper ways to get its work done.

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