In a number of states and in the American Congress, legislation is being advanced, usually under the deliberately misleading heading of the "consumer's right to know," to restrict the ability of companies and government agencies to use call centers abroad. The legislation is nothing less than the kind of non-tariff barrier so castigated by the same American legislators when one appears in another land. The legislation dangerously plays to the considerable xenophobia found in America.
John Kerry is a leading figure in this enlightened effort to close off opportunity to ambitious Third World countries. Were the same principles somehow to be applied to the products of American corporations, there wouldn't be any merchandise left on the country's shelves. Most domestic shipping would close down because American merchant ships are virtually all flagged in foreign ports to excuse them from taxes and regulations. Hollywood would close since most of its films are shot anywhere but Hollywood. As the Internet becomes a truly international method for exchanging information and commerce, instead of one dominated by Americans who because of their wealth were first in with a large population of computers, you will unquestionably see politicians like Kerry seeking to limit it, too.
It is a globalized world, and that is not a slogan. Since Elizabethan times at least a remarkable economic process has been underway, changing society and its institutions throughout the advanced world. The scale of economic production and its associated trade has grown from craftsmen in the homes of tiny villages to specialized factories in growing cities; then to regional firms and to great national corporations and retail chains. Now these changes move inexorably to world-scale, bringing with them the benefits of economic growth to regions of the world long frozen in poverty and ancient custom. So long as this change is fairly administered by a parallel growth in international treaties, laws, and organizations, it will gradually and peacefully bring the same benefits to dark corners of the world that it brought to dark corners of America.
Narrow-minded American legislators bore considerable responsibility for the sustained nature of the Great Depression with the foolish Smoots-Hawley bill unilaterally limiting trade. Unenlightened American trade restrictions against the ambitions of Japan as it entered the modern era helped push that country eventually to attacking the United States. With globalization an important part of the world's economic landscape through this century, comparably selfish efforts by American legislators can produce comparably destructive results.
The call-center legislation will affect a number of countries, especially India, a country using its relatively high proportion of educated people and sizeable pool of English speakers as comparative advantages in new businesses like global call centers. Indian companies have adopted the practice of training their employees to speak with an American accent. Employees also typically adopt simple American names rather than spend several minutes of each call trying to explain names like Chandrascar or Gojsumal.
Under the legislation, those calling from outside the United States will not only have to identify themselves accurately but to offer the person being called an opportunity to transfer to an American call center. This is particularly interesting coming, as it does, in a country where felons are often the people handling your business on the telephone and whose legislators generously tolerate a huge home-grown population of con artists and chiselers. One can just imagine some of the calls that will hum across the planet under the legislation.
In a call center in Bangalore, India, an attractive young man speaks into his headset. Above him in his tiny cube is a framed copy of his degree in engineering, opportunities in a developing country like India fully to use your education being very limited. He speaks American-style English with a reasonably good accent, having been trained in it.
"Hello, Mrs. Jones, I am calling you about an important new opportunity."
"I'm calling about a new opportunity…"
"Could a swore ya said ya was callin' 'bout some damn community. I ain't interested in no communities, that's fur sure."
"That's fine, Mrs. Jones, in a minute I'll be glad to explain about the opportunity. First, though, I have to inform you, in keeping with new legislation in America, that I'm calling from Bangalore, India…"
"Huh? Ya callin' 'bout bingo in Indiana?"
"Sorry, Mrs. Jones, no, that's Bangalore, B-A-N-G-A-L-O-R-E, in India."
"Never heard of it."
"That's okay, Mrs. Jones, as I was saying, in keeping with new legislation in America, my name is Yogesh…"
"I ain't got time ta be guessin' no names."
"Yo-gesh, Mrs. Jones, Yogesh Vajpayee is my name, Mrs. Jones."
"Hold on there. What the hell kinda name is that? You ain't no 'merican are ya?"
"That's right, Mrs. Jones, I'm calling from India, and I am obliged to ask you if you would prefer that I transfer this call to an American call center?"
"Well, a course, why'd ya think I wanna be talkin' to some guy with a weird name like yours callin' from some damn place I never hearda?"
"Okay, Mrs. Jones, I am now transferring you. This may take a few minutes. So you hang on. Very nice speaking with you."
Mrs. Jones waits, holding the phone, muttering about foreigners.
In a large, dingy room of a privately-run Texas medium-security prison, one of dozens of prisoners working for a subcontractor of the company running the prison, a man with a long purplish scar on one side of his face and cigarette dangling between chubby, yellowed fingers, receives the call and grunts into his headset. On the computer screen in front of him, Mrs. Jones credit rating comes up along with her address and other personal information.
"That Mrs. Jones? The name's Jake."
"God, it's nice hearin' a real 'merican."
"Yeah, I know jus' what ya mean there, Mrs. Jones. T'aint much fun tryin' ta figure out what some monkey from Iraq is yakkin' 'bout."
Jake takes a long drag on his cigarette, smiles at a grotesquely-pornographic photograph taped to his keyboard, and scratches his shaved head.
"I'm callin' ya for Jerry Franklin."
"Jerry Franklin? Why God bless, what a fine Christian man!"
Jake takes another big drag on his cigarette and scratches the crotch of his orange prison jump suit, war-on-terror surplus the private prison contractor obtained from the Pentagon.
"Sure 'nuff is. Well, M'am, they all got somethin' for ya"
"Somethin' fur me?"
"Yup. Jerry's askin' folks like you if they got themselves focused on Eternity?"
"Oh, you jus' tell Jerry, I sure am."
"Yes'am. Jerry figures good Christian folk got special needs."
"Well, I s'pose they do."
"Jerry's thinkin' what with the End a comin'…"
"Oh, he's right 'bout that, ya can sure tell when yer gettin' foreigners botherin' ya at home an' all."
"Well, he jus' thought maybe ya was interested in some in-surance. Ya know, ta leave somethin' fur those lef' behind after the Battle of Armageddon an' the Rapture an' all."
"In-surance? I ain't interested in no damn in-surance."
There's a loud click, and Jake's left with a hum on the line, but it only lasts a second or two, as another call is transferred from Bangalore.
John Chuckman lives in Canada and is former chief economist for a large Canadian oil company.
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