The Flight to India: "The ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."
George Monbiot writes for The Guardian and is the author of the best selling
book, The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order. During seven
years of investigative journeys in Indonesia, Brazil and East Africa, he was
shot at, beaten up by military police, shipwrecked and stung into a poisoned
coma by hornets. He came back to work in Britain after being pronounced
clinically dead in in north-western Kenya, having contracted cerebral
In this piece for the on-line magazine, ZNet, Manibot writes about the
effects of globalization and how the "labour forces of the poor nations are
also beginning to threaten the security of our (western) middle classes."
Referring to Indian workers who are being asked to sound British or western,
he writes that "The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to
abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."
Hmmm...No wonder bleaching creams and hydrogen peroxide are in such high
demand, as are names like Mo and Vicky.
October 28, 2003
The Flight to India
By George Monbiot
If you live in a rich nation in the English-speaking world, and most of your
work involves a computer or a telephone, don't expect to have a job in five
years' time. Almost every large company which relies upon remote
transactions is starting to dump its workers and hire a cheaper labour force
overseas. All those concerned about economic justice and the distribution of
wealth at home should despair. All those concerned about global justice and
the distribution of wealth around the world should rejoice. As we are, by
and large, the same people, we have a problem.
Britain's industrialisation was secured by destroying the manufacturing
capacity of India. In 1699, the British government banned the import of
woollen cloth from Ireland, and in 1700 the import of cotton cloth (or
calico) from India.1 Both products were forbidden because they were superior
to our own. As the industrial revolution was built on the textiles industry,
we could not have achieved our global economic dominance if we had let them
in. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, India was forced to supply raw
materials to Britain's manufacturers, but forbidden to produce competing
finished products.2 We are rich because the Indians are poor.
Now the jobs we stole 300 years ago are returning to India. Last week the
Guardian revealed that the National Rail Enquiries service is likely to move
to Bangalore, in south-west India. Two days later, the HSBC bank announced
that it is cutting 4000 customer service jobs in Britain, and shifting them
to Asia. BT, British Airways, Lloyds TSB, Prudential, Standard Chartered,
Norwich Union, BUPA, Reuters, Abbey National and Powergen have already begun
to move their call centres to India. The British workers at the end of the
line are approaching the end of the line.
There is a profound historical irony here. Indian workers can outcompete
British workers today because Britain smashed their ability to compete in
the past. Having destroyed India's own industries, the East India Company
and the colonial authorities obliged its people to speak our language, adopt
our working practices and surrender their labour to multinational
corporations. Workers in call centres in Germany and Holland are less
vulnerable than ours, as Germany and Holland were less successful colonists,
with the result that fewer people in the poor world now speak their
The impact on British workers will be devastating. Service jobs of the kind
now being exported were supposed to make up for the loss of employment in
the manufacturing industries which disappeared overseas in the 1980s and
1990s. The government handed out grants for cyber sweatshops in places whose
industrial workforce had been crushed by the closure of mines, shipyards and
steelworks. But the companies running the call centres appear to have been
testing their systems at government expense before exporting them somewhere
It is not hard to see why almost all of them have chosen India. The wages of
workers in the service and technology industries there are roughly one tenth
of those of workers in the same sectors over here. Standards of education
are high, and almost all educated Indians speak English. While British
workers will take call centre jobs only when they have no choice, Indian
workers see them as glamorous.3 One technical support company in Bangalore
recently advertised 800 jobs. It received 87,000 applications.4 British call
centres moving to India can choose the most charming, patient, biddable,
intelligent workers the labour market has to offer.
There is nothing new about multinational corporations forcing workers in
distant parts of the world to undercut each other. What is new is the extent
to which the labour forces of the poor nations are also beginning to
threaten the security of our middle classes.
In August, the Evening Standard came across some leaked consultancy
documents suggesting that at least 30,000 executive positions in Britain's
finance and insurance industries are likely to be transferred to India over
the next five years.5 In the same month, the American consultants Forrester
Research predicted that the US will lose 3.3 million white collar jobs
between now and 2015.6 Most of them will go to India. Just over half of
these are menial "back office" jobs, such as taking calls and typing up
data. The rest belong to managers, accountants, underwriters, computer
programmers, IT consultants, biotechnicians, architects, designers and
For the first time in history, the professional classes of Britain and
America find themselves in direct competition with the professional classes
of another nation. Over the next few years, we can expect to encounter a lot
less enthusiasm for free trade and globalisation in the parties and the
newspapers which represent them. Free trade is fine, as long as it affects
someone else's job.
So an historical restitution appears to be taking place, as hundreds of
thousands of jobs, many of them good ones, flee to the economy we ruined.
Low as the wages for these positions are by comparison to our own, they are
generally much higher than those offered by domestic employers. A new middle
class is developing in cities previously dominated by caste. Its spending
will stimulate the economy, which in turn may lead to higher wages and
improved conditions of employment. The corporations, of course, will then
flee to a cheaper country, but not before they have left some of their money
behind. According to the consultants Nasscom and McKinsey, India -- which is
always short of foreign exchange -- will be earning some $17 billion a year
from outsourced jobs by 2008.8
On the other hand, the most vulnerable communities in Britain are losing the
jobs which were supposed to have rescued them. Almost two-thirds of call
centre workers are women,9 so the disadvantaged sex will slip still further
behind. As jobs become less secure, multinational corporations will be able
to demand ever harsher conditions of employment in an industry which is
already one of the most exploitative in Britain.
At the same time, extending the practices of their colonial predecessors,
they will oblige their Indian workers to mimic not only our working methods,
but also our accents, our tastes and our enthusiasms, in order to persuade
customers in Britain that they are talking to someone down the road.10 The
most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your identity
and slip into someone else's.
So is the flight to India a good thing or a bad thing? The only reasonable
answer is both. The benefits do not cancel out the harm. They exist, and
have to exist, side by side. This is the reality of the world order Britain
established, and which is sustained by the heirs to the East India Company,
the multinational corporations. The corporations operate only in their own
interests. Sometimes these interests will coincide with those of a
disadvantaged group, but only by disadvantaging another.
For centuries, we have permitted ourselves to ignore the extent to which our
welfare is dependant on the denial of other people's. We begin to understand
the implications of the system we have created only when it turns against
1. Ha-Joon Chang, 2002. Kicking Away the Ladder: development strategy in
historical perspective. Anthem Press, London.
3. Eg Jake Lloyd-Smith, 11th September 2003. White-collar jobs under attack:
After call centres, middle management are next in line for India's
onslaught. Evening Standard; Simon Hinde, 20th February 2003. How we lose
out to call of the East. The Express.
4. Jake Lloyd-Smith, ibid.
5. Boyd Farrow, 11th August 2003. Senior jobs to go in rush to cheap Asia
outsourcing. Evening Standard.
6. Cited in: Amy Martinez, 31st August 2003 Sunday. Jobs that won't leave.
The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).
8. Cited in: http://www.blonnet.com/2002/08/28/stories/2002082800451700.htm
9. United Kingdom Office of National Statistics, 17th October 2003, pers
comm. Of 73,000 workers in "call-in" call centres, 46,000 are women.
10. Eg http://www.rediff.com/money/2003/aug/04sld2.htm; Luke Harding, 9th
March 2001. Delhi calling. The Guardian.