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Ellen gets outsourced

December 23, 2006 10:20 IST

I looked around at the young, fashionably dressed women and men in the hip lounge bar at the W Hotel in Manhattan, where I was waiting for Ellen. The men were dressed in dark suits with light-blue shirts, the signature dress of the New York financial community. The women wore pant suits signalling their professional status.

Light powdery snow covered the streets outside and there was a slight chill in the air but that did not seem to deter the holiday season shoppers thronging the streets gawking at the lavish displays in store windows.

I had first met Ellen a few years ago when we were looking to rent an apartment in Manhattan. We struck up a friendship and after we moved in, she was helpful in many little ways that eased our stay.

It was Ellen who had introduced us to this bar at the "W" Hotel. She had a great knack for finding chic places that were also great value for money. Ellen had mastered the art of stretching the salary she earned from a middle-level information technology job at a Park Avenue publishing company.

"How's life been?" I asked Ellen as she settled in with her "Cosmo", the vodka plus cranberry juice drink that everyone in Manhattan was drinking that season.

"I got outsourced", she said quietly, looking into her drink, her blue eyes starting to mist over.

"How could that happen!" I exclaimed. "You've been in your company for so long, you know your job well and your boss is a good friend of yours. I remember meeting him and his wife at your place."

"All that did not help much. Our publishing company has not been doing too well. Libraries are cutting back their book purchases. Anyway, the upshot of it all is that six months ago, they decided to outsource the whole information technology department to an Indian company. My boss is the only person they have kept back."

"I am sorry to hear that," I said. It was my turn to stare into my drink and contemplate the irony of my feelings of sorrow at what had befallen Ellen.

Like other Indians, I have marvelled at the turn of events by which India had finally found its giant niche in world commerce: white-collar job outsourcing. It started first in information technology and in ever-widening circles, is spreading to every conceivable white-collar activity.

This outpouring of outsourced work to India is setting off a chain reaction: providing office space to outsourcing companies is triggering a construction boom; the construction boom is driving a boom in the steel, and cement industries.

Then, as the young men and women who work in these outsourcing units take out loans and buy apartments and cars and fridges and microwave ovens, a boom in the consumer banking industry is being triggered off.

Did economic development have to be such a zero sum game where India's moment of triumph has to be a moment of sorrow for western white- collar employees like Ellen?

"Don't worry," said Ellen as she saw the perplexed look on my face. "I have unemployment payments to tide me over. All I need to do is skimp on things like having expensive Cosmos at places like this."

"Don't you feel bitter? Don't you feel let down by your employer after all these years of faithful service? I've seen you work late nights with no overtime. Isn't there somebody you can protest to?"

Ellen shrugged her shoulders. "This thing happens to everyone here from time to time. By the time my unemployment payments run out, I'll get another job. Anyway, the Indian girl who took over from me from the outsourcing company is really good.

"She has a computer science degree, she is in her twenties and knows all the latest technologies. You know I don't have a computer science degree. I got this job in the boom ten years ago, when they were desperate for anyone ready to work in information technology."

Ellen was no economist but I could see that inside her was encoded the mantra that had driven western societies ahead of countries like India from the time of the Industrial Revolution - the understanding that technological change would cause pain in the short run but in the longer run would bring benefits to society as a whole.

Several months later I caught up again with Ellen. Her unemployment pay had run out and she had cut back almost completely from hip places like the one we had met at the last time. She was working at several part-time jobs.

How is it that Western society is willing to pay the short-term price for technological progress and we, in India, find it so tough?

Joel Mokyr, the economic historian, has spent a good part of his life looking at what makes some cultures accept technological innovation and what makes others averse to it.

He says in his 1990 book, The Lever of Riches, that "the stronger the aversion to the disruption of the existing economic order, the less likely it is that an economy would provide a climate favourable to technological progress."

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer, rediff.com.
Comments welcome at ajitb@rediffmail.com

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