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The Flight to India: "The ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."

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  • Tarek Fatah
    Friends, 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2003

      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.

      Tarek Fatah

      October 28, 2003

      The Flight to India

      By George Monbiot
      ZNet Magazine

      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
      corporate lawyers.7

      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.

      2. ibid.

      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).

      7. ibid.

      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.
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