Trip Puts Human Face On Global Outsourcing

Editor's Note: The following pieces were written by CWA members Steve Tisza and Beverly Hicks following a trip to three cities in India to visit call centers and their workers employed by U.S. businesses. The trip was funded with a grant from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.

By Steve Tisza, President

CWA Local 4250

Upon my arrival in Mumbai, better known as Bombay, I was immediately conscious of the poverty. It seemed to be everywhere. The main arteries are paved but the majority of roads are dirt. Electric power is erratic, even at the hotels where we stayed. It is rare to see heavy construction machinery; even concrete is mixed by hand. The minimum wage for construction labor is $1 a day.

As we traveled from Mumbai to Chennai and then to Bangalore, conditions improved somewhat, but the poverty was still highly visible.

We visited a BNSL Telecom work site. The core telecom industry of India is government-controlled and unionized, but wireless is totally unorganized. Although many Indian workers in the public sector, textile, transportation, manufacturing and construction are unionized, the IT industry and call center work is unorganized.

Over the course of our visit we had very open and frank discussions with Indian labor leaders, CEOs, Indian call center workers and the press. A common Indian concern was how American workers feel about outsourcing. Both Beverly and I explained that as CWA union representatives we must do whatever is necessary to protect our members' jobs and fight the outsourcing of middle-class American jobs to low-wage countries such as India, China and the Philippines.

Many expressed concern with restrictions on H-1/L-1 visas to the United States. I explained that many corporations require their American IT workers in the United States to train their visa replacement workers and that the H-1/L-1 visa program has resulted in unemployment and underemployment of qualified American IT workers. I also made clear that these same corporations exploit the visa workers by not paying the prevailing wage or benefits. The workers are completely dependent on these employers in order to stay in this country and must remain in their good graces.

I told them how AT&T's strike contingency plan in 2002 included using Indian workers from Tata Consultancy Services as replacement workers in the event of a walkout.

Human nature being what it is, most Indian IT workers do not seem overly concerned about workers in other countries who have been displaced by the outsourcing of jobs to India. Most IT workers are college graduates who cannot find a job in India in their field. As a stopgap they take jobs in call centers. Their wages, between $200-300 a month, allow these workers to move out on their own, buy a car or motor bike and occasionally have a night out on the town.

While visiting Infosys, a manager told us that they already have a subsidiary in Beijing. He explained that Indian and Chinese software industries are forging new alliances to become the favored software outsourcing destinations. The Infosys IT campus in India consists of 44 buildings with over 8,000 workers, 2,000 of whom work the midnight shift demanded by clients in the United States, such as Bank of America, because of the time difference.

I believe the shortsighted policies of the U.S. government and corporate America are dedicated to bottom-line profits, more CEO pay and perks at the expense of America's middle class. If and when a CEO job is outsourced, perhaps then government and corporations will come to their senses and finally address this critical issue.

By Beverly Hicks, CWA District 3

Assistant to the Vice President

I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) on Tuesday, Feb. 1, around midnight and could not believe the hundreds of people at the airport, or thousands of cars and motorcycles still on the roads, all seemingly blowing their horns. Mumbai is very crowded, very poor and yet, in its own way, very beautiful as the downtown is surrounded by the Arabian Sea.

The telephone company here is state-run and unionized. Dues average $5 a year. But I was amazed to learn that there are more than 200 call centers in Mumbai alone that are non-union and doing outsourced billing, customer service, operator services, medical transcription and many other jobs.

I ventured to India with expectations of helping workers realize how they are being abused by companies bringing work to them for one purpose alone - cheaper wages. It didn't take me long to realize that $1.70 to $3.20 an hour, American money, is white-collar work for them.

We spent the next three days in Chennai and visited several call centers, including a complex that houses 200 companies with 59,000 employees whose work stations are similar to our own. We also visited a nearby fishing village devastated by the December tsunami. To witness the loss of those who had so little to start with is more than I can describe.

On most of our company visits, we met with the CEO or another top manager, then were allowed to listen in and observe workers. The employees were so happy to be making a living a hundred times better than their parents that we heard few negative comments.

Our next stop was Bangalore, the silicon valley of India. We visited a complex on the outskirts of the city, going from an area of utter poverty to a 55-acre campus with grounds that could have belonged to an Hawaiian resort. Called Infosys, it was surrounded by fences and security comparable to that at any AT&T or Bell system complex. Once inside, I was startled to find 44 six-story buildings with another 16 being built. Presently, 8,000 workers are employed there, all doing call center work.

Infosys began in 1981 with 200 employees. The company, whose clients include Dell, Siemans and AT&T, handles outsourced business transactions, banking and collections, and is expanding to other ventures. Of India's 3.5 million students who graduate each year with an IT degree, 1 million apply to Infosys, which selects the top 1 percent. Employees get stock options, insurance, a 401(k) with employer contributions, free transportation to and from work and free meals. The complex has a swimming pool, exercise room, shopping on premises, a game room and hotel-type rooms for those working on projects.

During the trip, I learned that most Indian workers are a kind, welcoming people who, like us, want to better themselves and their families' standard of living. As Steve and I looked back, we realized we had witnessed American jobs slipping through our fingers; yet we felt for the Indian people who were being pulled from total poverty.

We were asked over and over if the American people are mad at Indian workers and I replied, "No, we are mad at the CEOs who are abusing American workers by outsourcing their work, and abusing Indian workers by paying them cheap wages, and we are mad at our elected officials who allow it to go on."