- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

BANGALORE, India - From Europe and North America, India’s offshore workers — call-center operators, data entry clerks and telemarketers — may seem like the sweatshop laborers of the information age, toiling long hours for meager pay.

But an international alliance of unions that wants to organize them is finding a different reality in India: Many think of themselves as members of a relatively well-paid, respected professional elite in no need of a union’s protection.

“I know these young people have a negative image about unions,” says Narayan Ram Hegde of Union Network International (UNI), a global alliance of 900 unions.

But “these professionals are more like cyber-coolies,” he said. “We hope we will be able to convince them over time.”

Mr. Hegde is leading the UNI drive to unionize workers in India’s back-office outsourcing industry — a sector that employs about 350,000 people and is expected to add 80,000 jobs this year.

UNI has been setting up the union quietly for the past year. It formally debuted a week ago, but has managed to attract only about 500 recruits, underscoring workers’ hostility to unions and the enormity of the task that organizers face.

“A union would make sense if there was no job security,” said K.V. Sudhakar, who performs technical support work in IBM Corp.’s offshore outsourcing center in the western city of Pune. “Here jobs are more, people are less. Companies are trying all means possible to keep employees happy so that they won’t leave.”

It’s not the first time UNI has encountered such sentiments. Previous efforts to start a union for Indian software programmers — the highly skilled elite of the business — flopped in 2000 after the programmers balked at joining, offering similar reasons.

A similar situation is playing out in the United States where, with manufacturing jobs disappearing, many union leaders say they must organize high-tech workers and academics to survive. But the Communications Workers of America has had a tough job trying to organize white-collar workers at companies such as IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp.

Global companies increasingly are farming out tasks that can be performed over a computer network to low-wage countries. India is the undisputed king of the business with 44 percent of the global market and an industry that earned revenues of $17.2 billion in 2004.

For UNI, the union drive is critical because jobs outsourced to India cut into the unions’ traditional pool of members in Europe and North America.

“We lose members [in the West] because of outsourcing,” Mr. Hedge says. Setting up new ones in India “will help us have the same negotiating power.”

He says the new union can help the industry’s workers win better conditions.

The work can be monotonous and grinding: fielding calls from irate Americans whose computers are crashing; spending eight hours plugging numbers into a Dutch bank’s database; deciphering hundreds of X-rays of sick Europeans in a single shift. Burnout is common, and three out every 10 workers change jobs each year.

Among those who decided to join the union is Raghavan Iyengar, a call-center supervisor in Bangalore. He said companies give incentives for those who work extra time, and young workers often ignored health problems, such as insomnia and back pain, to earn that extra money.

“The industry’s motto is, ‘Shut your mouth and take your money.’” he said. “We want to change that.”

But the money can be a powerful lure in India, where per capita income hovers near $500 a year and most people make much less toiling in dusty fields or on steaming city streets.

Call-center rookies, in contrast, make about $2,400 a year — roughly twice the pay of first-year teachers, accountants or lawyers — and work in air-conditioned offices, many of which have health clubs and well-stocked cafeterias. With experience, the salaries multiply.

Back-office workers are typically college graduates in their 20s and early 30s and drawn from India’s urban middle and upper classes. Their parents are lawyers, doctors and small- and large-business owners.

Such a background does not make them fertile recruits for union organizers, said H. S. Sudarshan, a former call-center worker who is now a recruitment consultant.

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