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London Calling... Where?

This morning I am going to order a nice new English shirt – pure cotton, double cuffs, and traditional boned collar. And no need to visit a tailor. I can do it by phone – toll free.

A man in Calcutta, India, will meticulously request my measurements and then arrange despatch. He is always polite and efficient. You wouldn't even know he was from Calcutta, no trace of an accent in his voice, no third-world crackling on the line.

And no mention of the fact that the price of a single shirt is probably more than his pay cheque for a whole month.

Cheap labour and cheap communications are creating a new industrial revolution in this country – and I gather it's happening in America too. Working in a British call center with a headset glued to your face all day dealing with idiots like me wasn't fun or well paid. But now it isn't paid at all. Because the companies who ran British call centers looked East, and reckoned that Indian workers could do the job better for less ten thousand miles away from the customers.

Is this exploitation? Of course it is. Do the exploited mind? No. I think they are rather grateful.

I get a regular call from a charming lady somewhere outside New Delhi, again in India, who wants me to change my domestic power supplier. She is very persistent. One evening I asked her two questions – how can your firm justify calling me up so often from India? Because it costs next to nothing, she replied. Alright then, which domestic power supplier do YOU use? There was a pause. In my family home, she said quietly, we don't have electricity yet – but now I have this job we may be able to pay for it.

So the export of British and American call centers has given an economic boost to people and places we have never heard of and are never likely to visit. But it is still a bizarre process.

Every morning hundreds of thousands of people travel into London on the railroad. Our commuter trains are often delayed or cancelled. The only way to ensure you know what's going on is to make a toll-free call to the railroad call center -- thousands of miles across the globe – to someone who probably couldn't even afford the train fare. Still, at least they never tell you to have a nice day!

By Ed Boyle

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