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BT hits back at UK union over India move protests

Braden Reddall in London | March 20, 2003 13:03 IST

Former British telecom monopoly BT Group Plc on Thursday accused the industry union of distorting the truth over plans for two BT call centres in India that will eventually employ 2,200 people.


Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT's retail arm, spoke out against the Communication Workers Union as BT employees prepared to stage lunchtime protests on Thursday at 34 call centres around Britain, in what could be a precursor to strikes.


"While I fully respect the Communication Workers Union's role in representing their members' interests, some of their words are distorting the true situation and helping no one," Danon said in a statement.


"It is our policy to consult closely with the unions on any initiatives that affect our people and the India issue was no exception. We have been engaging with them for several months, but it was the union that walked away from the negotiating table," he added.


The union insisted that while it held talks with BT on the India plan in January, the two sides simply agreed to disagree.

"To say we walked away is very provocative and simply not true," a CWU spokesman said, rejecting Danon's distortion claim and accusing BT of 'spin.'


Many companies outsource back-office functions to Indian firms, or set up their own units to service global clients from a country with a skilled but relatively low-cost workforce.


The opening of the BT centres in India -- where salaries are around 1.25 pounds ($1.95) an hour compared with 5-10 pounds in Britain -- is part of BT's strategy to consolidate 104 UK locations into 33 centres and save 150 million pounds per year.


"It is in the best all-round interests of our shareholders, our customers and our people," Danon said.


Loss for home economy


But the CWU points out that BT Retail earns almost all its revenue from British people, and the Indian move amounts to taking 2,200 jobs out of its home economy.


The two centres in New Delhi and India's technology capital, Bangalore, will handle directories and phone conferencing. They will be owned by Indian firms HCL Technologies and Infosys Technologies.


Moving work to India is part of BT's plan to retain market share in UK directory inquiry services, a 700 million calls a year business that lost its monopoly four months ago. One firm entered the market this week offering directory calls for half the price of BT.


Danon repeated on Thursday a promise that no permanent BT staff would lose their jobs as a result of the move to India.


However, the issue for CWU's deputy general secretary, Jeannie Drake, is that call centre job losses would have a huge impact on some of the poorest parts of the UK.


"If BT gets away with this, the effects on local economies could be disastrous," Drake said, drumming up support for protests scheduled for 1130 to 1400 GMT on Thursday at call centres from Glasgow in Scotland to Bangor in Wales to Sunderland in northern England.


"This day of protest is only one part of what will be a long and determined campaign," she warned. "If BT does not take a more reasoned stance we will not hesitate to sanction industrial action."

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