Saturday, July 9, 2011

Outsourcing, a double edged sword

When economic progress is equated to getting out sourced businesses, destruction of an existing social fabric cannot be avoided. This is a three year old discussion turned argument with a friend, who claimed that third world countries will progress and thrive for the next few decades because of the call centers. My opinion at that time was (and still is) it is a short term thing and will have more repercussions then advantages due to several reasons.

My reasons were pretty simple, though for many it may sound totally unparalleled and unrelated. I saw it happening on a different scale in an isolated mountain community after a disaster. After the 2005 Earthquake struck Kashmir, several hundred international organizations (IO)s and NGOs rushed in to provide relief and support to the vulnerable public. It showed dedication and commitment on part of the rest of the world, and meant opportunity for the locals.

Work for masons, carpenters, laborers etc was plenty to be had and that too at a wage twice or thrice of what they usually received from their own community. So, there was a rush of a large workforce from all over Pakistan towards the destructed region. However, it soon started to backfire because while the NGOs and IOs had well-paid workers, the common people who actually needed work to be done, could no longer afford the market rate of a mason or carpenter. Also, as the foreigners started to gradually trickle out of the region, many workers’ dissatisfaction with local conditions, especially the normalization of wages forced them to migrate to cities like Karachi, Peshawar and Pindi. So, instead of staying in the disaster areas and implementing what they learnt regarding the construction of Earthquake Resistant buildings they ended up leaving the region leaving the people to mostly build for themselves or to use whatever labor force was left. Anyway, before I digress too much.

The problem with call centers is on a larger scale with the additional baggage of being in a stagnant situation progress and skill wise. On a call center floor, there’s hardly enough room to move forward in any direction, unless one is really lucky. Moreover, in countries like Pakistan and India it works like a vicious cycle. Once you get in, there’s no way out. Reminds me of a line from Hotel California, “You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave.” The major reason why it’s a cycle is, call centers despite requiring very little skill, pay more than the skilled jobs in these countries, so once a person gets used to the pay scale they cannot return to the paltry sum they get as, let’s say as an entry level junior Architect or Civil Engineer.

This in turn leads to social problems, dissatisfaction, and alienation, to mention a few. On the other hand, there is also this constant threat of the outsourcing businesses deciding to move back their offshore offices. Which, I do think will happen ultimately since training new recruits again and again in foreign countries will become a costly burden. We may have an endless supply of new recruits, but the supply of money is limited. It will become expensive to train a new customer service agent, telemarketer every 6 months then having a stable worker at the main office, who also does not have any accent problems. How long it will take for all this to happen? In my estimation, definitely not a few decades, rather not even one.

And also, let’s not forget the havoc it wrecks on the economies of the countries like the US, where the unemployment rate has reached an all time high of 9.1% this year. While the people in the first world are being pacified with more and more discounts on consumer goods and services, their jobs are being sent offshore so some college student can get new Nike shoes or a Gucci bag.

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