U.S. industry watches as Mumbai call centre closes

Monday, 28 April 2003, 07:00 Hrs
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WASHINGTON: U.S. industry is keenly following the case of an American firm that has decided to move back its call centre from Mumbai to New Jersey following a media and government outcry.

Residents in New Jersey will no longer be routed to a customer service centre in India when they make phone calls seeking help with their electronic welfare and food stamp cards.

eFunds Corporation of Scottsdale, Arizona, which had opened a call centre in February last year in Mumbai, has decided to move it back to the U.S.

This follows an outcry in the media, in government circles and pending legislative measures against jobs moving out of the U.S. to India.

eFunds Corporation, which processes card systems for about 200,000 New Jersey residents, had outsourced operations to Mumbai in a cost-cutting bid.

Now it has closed down the centre after renegotiations with state officials and will open a new call centre by May 5 this year in Camden, New Jersey.

The new Camden office to be run by eFunds will have a dozen workers. They will serve 155,000 food stamp recipients and 45,000 welfare clients at an increased cost of 36.9 cents per client per month.

That is a price increase of about 20 percent over the cost of operating the customer centre in India, according to state officials.

Workers at the Wisconsin centre were paid $10 to $12 an hour, while their counterparts in Mumbai were paid the U.S. equivalent of $2 to $3 an hour.

Now the monthly cost of running the centre, whose 12 staffers will serve English-speaking customers, will be $340,000, or about $74,000 more than the current arrangement. The extra cost for running the customer service centres in Camden will be underwritten by the New Jersey state government in its bid to create jobs locally.

The move to bring back jobs to American shores was hailed by opponents of the overseas call centre, who were upset last year to learn that eFunds, which has a contract with the state through 2004, moved its English-speaking customer service centre from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Mumbai to save money.

New Jersey Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) commissioner Gwendolyn Harris, who too criticised the shifting of eFunds' operations to India, had revealed during the recent budget hearings that the department had renegotiated the contract to ensure the call centre would move back to New Jersey.

"We are a government agency that runs welfare. We were concerned about the message we were sending than the politics of it. For someone on welfare to move off welfare they need entry level jobs in the service industry and we didn't feel it right to move such jobs out of the country," said Andy Williams, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Department of Human Services that signed the deal with eFunds.

"It's great news that these jobs are returning to the U.S., and that they are coming to New Jersey is even better," said state Senator Shirley Turner who sponsored legislation to limit the future outsourcing of state-contracted work to overseas labour.

The New Jersey Senate has already passed a legislative measure, which is intended to ensure that state funds are used to employ people residing in the United States and to prevent the loss of jobs to foreign countries.

It is yet to be approved by the lower house. It can become a law only after both houses of the legislature pass it and it receives the assent of the state governor.

Turner said it was wrong to send the jobs overseas, especially when state residents were in need of work.

DHS commissioner Harris agreed, but said she was powerless to stop eFunds until its contract expired in 2004 because the firm did not violate any state laws.

Turner decided to create such a law and thought it was certain to be passed, especially after it zoomed through the Senate. But she said a great deal of industry pressure, especially from overseas, slowed it down, and her effort became hot news in Indian and Pakistani publications.

Industry officials lobbied heavily against the measure, which has had a ripple effect, with similar bills pending passage in seven other states.

Citing an increasingly global economy, the industry lobby says it could foster anti-international trade sentiments that could expand to other areas of government activities.
Source: IANS
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