Lawmakers try again to stop call center offshoring

Overseas call center workers would have to disclose location to U.S. customers

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and the House reintroduced legislation Thursday intended to impede the offshore outsourcing of call centers.

The bills, called the U.S. Call Center and Consumer Protection Act, if approved, would create a list of firms that shift work overseas. Firms on that list would be ineligible for federal grants and loans, and call center workers will be required to disclose their locations. U.S. customers would have the right to request that their calls are transferred to a call center agent physically based in the U.S.

"We believe now is the right time because the public is very much focused on the offshoring of good, U.S. jobs," said Shane Larson, Communications Workers of America legislative director, during a phone briefing for reporters. The CWA is backing the effort.

The election focus has been on the loss of manufacturing jobs, but "we also want to make sure that folks are talking about service-sector jobs," said Larson.

The lawmakers behind this effort are Senators Robert Casey (D-Penn), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mont.), and in the House, U.S. Reps Gene Green (D-Texas) and David McKinley (R-W.V.)

The CWA estimates that there are 3 million call-center jobs in the U.S., but about 200,000 of those jobs moved offshored between 2008 and 2014.

One firm that has moved jobs offshore is Sprint. This company has been cited repeatedly by President Donald Trump for its plan, announced late December, "to bring back to America 5,000 jobs" by the end of 2017.

Last year, Sprint closed a Blountville, Tenn., call center and cut 444 jobs. It was part of overall cut of 2,500. A Trade Adjustment Act filing by Tennessee state officials reported calls "were routed to a new vendor in the Philippines."

Lisa Belot, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said the Blountville positions "were absorbed by other call centers in the U.S. and abroad."

Belot said the 5,000 jobs are new U.S. "jobs that we will create or bring back to the U.S. The positions could be either at Sprint or at third-party vendors who support Sprint." Sprint now employs 30,000 in the U.S. The company claims it will "fulfill its commitment" by the end of 2017 fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2018.

The business model and wages of call centers are such that offshoring isn't as attractive as IT offshoring, said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Howard University,

"You can hire a call center person here in the U.S. at about $11 and hour. In India, that person might cost $2 an hour," said Hira. But the net wage of $45 for an IT worker in the U.S. might be $3 an hour in India. The bigger incentive -- and profit margin -- is to offshore IT work, he said.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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