INDIA: White Collar Jobs Outsourced to South Asia

Whiff of Profits in the Monsoon Air as Western Companies Send Jobs East
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Delhi -- Picture this. You are a self-employed entrepreneur working from your villa on the Pacific ocean in Newport Beach, California, one of the richer places on the planet. For years, you have thrown your annual tax return at your local accountant who, for a large fee, charts a course through your lavish business lunches and contact-forging games of golf. Not any more - at least, not necessarily.

The same documents may now be up-loaded on to a US data bank to be scrutinised by an accountant on another continent far removed from the yachts and sushi restaurants of your own environs, but hooked up to it by a 24-hour broadband internet connection.

Processing tax returns filed in the United States is gradually becoming the latest service to be dispatched to India as the "outsourcing" of work from the First World to the Third - to the alarm of some Western trade unionists and politicians - moves increasingly into higher-skilled areas.

The trend is encompassing a widening range of work, shifting to whiter hues of collar. Farming out back office work to India is no longer just about palming off low-paid tele-marketing work to batteries of Indian youngsters who, with painfully studied English and US accents, pound the phones from call centres.

The field embraces financial and legal research, employee recruitment, analysing balance sheets, processing insurance claims, programming software, producing technical drawings for architects and engineers, and more.

And it is moving into more complex areas - from securities research to project management - offering higher savings. Complex number-crunching for Wall Street banks is today being performed by analysts sitting in the south Indian city of Chennai; computer-generated animation for Western film makers is being created by programmers in New Delhi.

As it grows from a trickle into what is expected to be a tide, India is well positioned to cash in because of its large pool of English-speaking, internet-savvy, graduates and its low-wage economy. Its dismal infrastructure has been the bane of business for years, but there have been some crucial recent advances - for instance, cheap broadband connections.

"History and geography both favour us," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies in India (Nasscom), "There are lots of people who not only speak in English, they actually think in it.

"And the time difference with parts of the United States is 12 hours, which means someone in the US can hand research work over at the end of his day and find it completed on his desk by the following morning."

Nasscomestimates that the amount of back-office business coming to India should grow by about tenfold over the next six years, from $2.3bn to 20bn.

ServCare, a company of 100 employees on an industrial complex in Bangalore, offers back-office services including transaction processing, accounts and data management, and handling employee application forms.

According to the chief executive, B D Mahesh, chartered accountants in the US have begun channelling work to his team of about 35 qualified accountants, including bundles of tax returns. As an experienced Indian accountant can expect to earn around 17,000 rupees (237) a month - less than one- tenth of the salary of his or her American counterpart - the savings for the out-sourcers promise to be very large.

Analysts predict a boom. According to a survey by the consultants Deloitte & Touche, the First World will move two million jobs in the financial sector to low-wage countries in the next five years. Half of this is expected to go to India, which has already grabbed 60 per cent of the $16bn off-shore information technology service markets.

By 2008, the finance industry will be moving $356bn worth of work off-shore every year, producing 40 per cent cost savings, says Deloitte. Another consultancy, McKinsey & Co, has predicted that US finance service firms are planning to shift half a million jobs - 8 per cent of the total - off-shore in the next five years.

The process is at an early stage. But it has been quietly evolving for a while. In April, the investment bank JP Morgan Chase and Co announced plans to set up an off-shore equities research unit in Bombay (Mumbai). It expects to recruit 40 junior analysts and support staff in the city, where top business school graduates can be hired for as little as 5,000 a year.

General Electric is also in on the act. The bulk of its 11,000 Indian employees are agents in call centres, but it has established a core of about 400 people who analyse credit card data and market trends. The financial information and media group Reuters has plans to open a production centre in India for preparing and analysing financial data. And the list goes on.

A backlash is sure to follow. India's expanding call centre business has already lit the fuse. This month, MPs announced an inquiry by the Commons Trade and Industry select committee into the loss of call centre and IT jobs to India.

Among those whom the committee is threatening to call is the telecoms giant BT, to explain why it is planning 2,200 new call centre jobs in India - a decision that prompted the Communications Workers Union to parade a giant inflatable pink elephant outside company's headquarters as a protest over the "jobs stampede".

A report into the insurance industry from the US investment bank JP Morgan this week spelt out some of the advantages. It said that a worker's average monthly earnings in India are 89 - a mere 5 per cent of the equivalent in Britain. It predicted an increase which, if successful, could mean Indian staff being used to fill "more senior positions".

But it also sounded a note of caution, warning that insurers moving jobs to India "may face increasing pressure from the Government, not to mention the unions", and said that high domestic redundancies can damage a brand name. "We believe that in future the UK insurers will make more subdued announcements with regard to the transfers of operations to India, so as to reduce publicity," it said.

There have been stirrings, too, in the US. New Jersey has introduced laws banning the outsourcing of government work abroad; four other states are considering the same move.

Other misgivings have also emerged. Concerns have been raised in the US about the lack of data privacy legislation in India, and the risk of data theft - ranging from individual social security numbers to confidential company accounts. But operators appear to be taking this into consideration.

Strict rules apply, for instance, at Office Tiger in Chennai, which has emerged as a virtual research facility and back office for Wall Street (and others). The staff - who include financial analysts and business planners - are unable to print out material from their screens; the floppy disc slots on their computers have been disabled; the premises are monitored by security cameras; and workers have their bags searched as they leave. The co-chief executive, Joseph Sigelman, says such controls are tighter than you will find in New York or London. His clients appear satisfied. Office Tiger, founded four years ago, now has 1,000 employees and annual revenues of 20m.

So where will it all end? So far there is little to dampen the spirits of the out-sourcing pioneers. The whiff of profits is in the monsoon air, luring both Western companies and Indian entrepreneurs. Call centre operators - facing increasing internal competition - are cottoning on, and widening the scope of their activities.

ICICI OneSource has three centres in Bangalore and one in Bombay, which together employ about 3,500 people. It, too, now offers back-office services. The worries about jobs in the West reflect a "natural concern", said Matthew Vallance, its European regional director.

But he added: "This is what free trade is all about. You have to take the long term view that economies will adapt to these types of shifts and changes. We have already seen it in manufacturing in the UK, and the economy has proved terribly flexible."

AMP Section Name:Globalization