Saturday, 7 February 2009

Cultural imperialism, kiwi style

I once went to a lecture given by Dr Wendy Larner, a feminist academic who studies (amongst other things) the global call centre phenomenon. She showed her audience pictures of the pink collar workers who staff these call centres: third world women working long shifts, squashed into cramped cubicles like battery hens. So you'll forgive me if I don't feel much enthusiasm for Telecom's decision to relocate 250 call centre jobs to the Philippines.

There's just so much to dislike about moving jobs offshore. In the midst of a recession, Telecom - a highly profitable corporate giant - is needlessly laying off New Zealand workers. They've been very candid about their reason for this: Filipinos will work for less than a third of their kiwi counterparts' wages.

And while Telecom's spokesman noted that the Filipinos taking over these call centre jobs will be well paid by the standards of that nation, earning more than nurses, this too creates problems. In developing nations, comparatively high wages can be used to lure workers from socially productive and necessary jobs into essentially useless ones. For example, Indian doctors have been enticed into call centre work by better pay. Seeing trained professionals give up medicine so they can sort out credit card dilemmas for Westerners is a crass injustice, and certainly no victory for third world development, as advocates of globalisation claim.

But the icing on this particular xenophobic cake is the 'crash course in the kiwi experience' which Telecom's new Filipino workers are being given, and which Stuff lightheartedly reports. They're being taught to adopt a New Zealand accent, and even some kiwi slang words. Telecom claims the course has been very successful: 'You wouldn't know they are in Manila. You would think they are in an office somewhere in Auckland, that's how good they are'.

To me, this reflects a deep, unspoken contempt for the third world and its workers. It's not just their wages and working conditions that are at issue. They must conceal the very fact of who they are, hiding their inferior Filipino accents to keep we, the customers, happy. Telecom assumes, apparently, that New Zealand consumers don't want to be inconvenienced by the unpleasant experience of talking to foreigners (although we're quite happy to reap the advantages of cheap overseas labour). We'd prefer to be sold the narcissistic illusion of dealing with our own kind, eh mate?

This seems to me an attack on the dignity of these Filipino workers - and if there's a better metaphor for the relationship between the first and third worlds, I can't think of it.


Hugh said...

In developing nations, comparatively high wages can be used to lure workers from socially productive and necessary jobs into essentially useless ones

I realise that this statement needs to be read into context but it's still a bit strong for me. Would you really say that customer support for a telecommunications company is a useless job? It might be less vital to society than nursing, but I'm pretty grateful that support staff are there whenever my connection goes down

Anna said...

Yeah, that was a bit harsh.

The thing I was trying to say (and didn't particularly well) was that in the context of a developing nation, moving the medical workforce into low-skilled work is counterproductive. And it grates when the likes of Telecom sell this as beneficial to a developing nation.

No disrespect intended to call centre work itself, or the people who do it. It's actually quite challenging - you have to stay mentally alert all day, and you can wear quite a bit of abuse. (I did telemarketing once, and was utterly crap at it!)