Saturday, July 17, 2004

A Passage to India 

"The Best Job in Town," Katherine Boo's remarkable New Yorker article on outsourcing, is now available online:
Most of the workers had been born in Chennai and would, in all likelihood, die there. Still, from their workstations they could imagine, not unreasonably, that they were seeing a bit of the world. Their employer, a company named Office Tiger, did the work not just of an American copy-shop chain but of seven of the twelve biggest banks on Wall Street—confidential labor carried out in unmarked rooms with film-covered windows, closed-circuit cameras, and electronic security so unforgiving that as the typist finished the résumé from Plano three bankers, accidentally locked in a nearby room, were frantically pounding on a door. Office Tiger also performed work for a Big Four accounting agency, several white-shoe Northeastern law firms, an insurance conglomerate, two large publishing concerns, a Madison Avenue advertising agency, global management consultancies, and other enterprises whose identities were not divulged to workers of the résumé-typing rank . . . .

One false assumption had been that only the manufacture of goods, not the provision of services, could be exported. Another, supported most recently by the U.S. Department of Labor, is that the number of American jobs lost to outsourcing is minuscule. But Labor statisticians rely on the corporations to link their domestic downsizing to work they now send abroad—a connection that some corporate leaders are loath to make. Other analyses suggest that the number of American jobs lost to this phenomenon will soon reach a million, as the Indian and Chinese back-office sectors expand by thirty per cent a year. Indian analysts foresee outsourcing in biotech research, pharmaceuticals, architecture, and the law. Although many economists believe that this global transition is mutually beneficial—that an economy is better off specializing in areas where it is relatively more productive and importing in areas where it is not—a study by the University of California at Berkeley identifies fourteen million American jobs at risk in the near term. The latest consolation is that, since many outsourced jobs are low-end and mechanistic, Americans are now being liberated to use their exceptional skills as innovators and entrepreneurs. Being tactful, the Tigers pretend to agree. What is the advantage of pointing out that the country of Salman Rushdie and Amartya Sen may not, in fact, be creatively impaired? The résumés and credit-repair leaflets spewing into the copy shop from Texas are less diplomatic. They intimate that some Americans have been “freed up” to do nothing productive whatsoever.
(Thanks to Avedon Carol and Amblongus for the link.)

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