A sitcom debuted on NBC in 2010 poking fun with the premise of an American executive running an Indian call center. The young exec fumbled along trying to explain quirky American customers and please his American bosses while learning a new culture himself. It lasted less than a season and never gained an audience which comes as no surprise considering the average American’s opinion on overseas call centers.
US companies large and small have been despised for sending away American jobs, providing low-grade customer service and exploiting desperate workers in poor countries. It’s a paradox of criticisms, since Americans don’t really want to deal with angry customers for the wages call centers pay and actually end up costing companies more through turnover. Plus, isn’t making money by cutting costs one of the basic tenets of free market capitalism, whose supporters have been some of the most vocal opponents of outsourcing?
And now those criticisms may be outdated anyway, as some overseas call centers – part of a larger industry catering to back office services – have grown into professionally run organizations. India and the Philippines have led the way in raising the bar on outsourcing thanks to the backing of local governments and enterprising companies who’ve organized around the need. A new article out in Bloomberg (News - Alert) looks at the changing perceptions of call center work and how it has matured from its sweatshop reputations.
The piece looks at the opportunities being provided to South African workers through a partnership between Amazon.com (News - Alert) and Mumbai based WNS Holdings, who now operate call centers in eleven countries. WNS moved into the South African market for government incentives, falling communications costs, and a willing workforce. The unemployment rate hovers around thirty-five percent in the 15-34 age group, the ones most likely to pursue call center jobs. Like many developing nations a good portion of the workforce has prior work experience or qualifications but can’t find sustainable work. This level of responsibility meshes well with the increasing demands of call centers. “The whole contact center world is changing,” said WNS’s Johann Kunz. “The less-complex stuff is handled through self-service, meaning the level of skill required from agents is far higher. We try not to operate on a minimum wage or benefit basis.” WNS has also worked to match the demands of first world customers with the skills of cheap-labor nations, choosing South Africa to service calls from the United Kingdom because of similar time zones and accents.
One Philippine agent summed it up well with her personal account for a local news blog. “So what’s a graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman doing in a call center? It’s the pay, of course. Where else can you get a starting salary of P25,000 a month [about $570 US dollars], plus performance bonuses that can easily double your salary if you meet the metrics?”
On many fronts both companies and workers are taking advantage of the jobs that American workers passed by.