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Outsource's In Source

An Indian American on the joy and pain of outsourcing.

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Most people are likely tired of the interminable debate over outsourcing. But for me - a government employee fending off the protests of an enraged public - there is no escape.

I work for the state of New Jersey, which has taken a serious hit from the mass outsourcing of American jobs.

Irate citizens of our state complain to our governor and his appointed officials, sometimes admonishing them for policies that allow businesses to take operations abroad, and often imploring them to punish offenders by levying punitive taxes and other measures.

My personal dilemma comes from the fact that I am Indian American. While it gives me joy to learn that my brethren in India are reaping the benefits of well-paying jobs and a newly-found source of income from outsourcing, it saddens me equally that my fellow Americans are paying a heavy price for it. The affected Americans include a large number of Indian American professionals as well, especially those in the information technology sector.

I am frustrated by the term "outsourcing," not just because it is the current buzz word in business circles, and not even because so many of my friends, relatives and acquaintances have been affected by it (both adversely and in rare cases favorably), but because I am caught in the outsourcing controversy in a rather unique way.

My Indian side gets defensive when I hear derogatory comments about India stealing jobs from the United States. But as I watch the morale of workers here plummeting, my patriotic American side begins to bristle. The guilt as well as the indignation hover just beneath the surface of my skin, each emotion equally compelling.

 

In one communication to the state, a woman complained that it was bad enough that Indians came here by the hordes and earned dollars, which they sent home to their families, but they're now adding insult to injury by taking the jobs to India. With such liberal trade laws they don't even have to travel to America anymore to exploit the country, she concluded.

Every time another inflamed letter arrives in our offices the standard joke resurfaces: "It's those damn Indians again." I take the ribbing good-naturedly, because my coworkers are genuinely decent professionals; they treat me with respect and kindness and their comments are not directed at me. I attempt to explain that outsourcing boils down to simple economics: companies will find the cheapest labor and the best services for their investments. If not India, it is some other place on earth with the necessary talent and lower costs that these companies will seek and solicit.

Occasionally, while I ride the elevator to my office, I overhear piqued comments about how India is robbing America blind. At this rate the country will become a land of paupers pandering to third world countries. "Some damn Indian chic pretending to be American with a fake name and phony accent tried to pull a fast one on me when I called for service," one man remarked in disgust to his coworker recently. 
 
I was the only Indian American in that crowded elevator and heard several supportive comments and observed a number of heads nodding in agreement with that sentiment. I was mortified. How could I respond to such comments? Getting on my soapbox to deliver a solemn lecture on the principles of economics and the pros and cons of global trade was not realistic. Quietly exiting the elevator at my floor was my only option.

"Punish them," "Hit the businesses where it hurts," "Do something to stop the outflow of jobs," are examples of sentiments I encounter frequently. I empathize with their authors, but I also know that punitive measures rarely work. Like the child that rebels against excessive discipline, chastisement can often backfire; instead of partial outsourcing, businesses may leave the state entirely and relocate to a more business-friendly state or country.

Although I do not belong to the upper echelons of the government bureaucracy, a small number of these angry missives from the public trickle down to my desk for a suitable reaction. The letters require tactful, delicate, inoffensive, non-confrontational responses. My job is to draft replies that smooth the writers' ruffled feathers and yet defend the administration's stance on global trade and outsourcing. Not an easy job, considering the validity of some of the public's concerns and the alarming statistics on outsourcing pumped forth every day. And certainly not a pleasant duty given the fact that it is India, my country of birth, that is under fire.

 
Millions of angry Americans think outsourcing is a satanic term. India, because it is the current Mecca of information technology and call center outsourcing, is considered akin to an evil empire by dislocated workers, a not so enviable appellation that Russia bore in the 1980s. Naturally, by association, some of the animosity gets redirected toward us - Indian Americans.

Japan experienced a similarly abhorrent reputation in the 1970s, when it challenged the American automobile and electronics industries. China and Korea, too, are currently on the receiving end of American hostility, but to a lesser degree than India, because it is mainly the manufacturing sector that has shifted there, an industry that has eroded gradually over the last 20 years.

As I sit at my computer and compose the response letters, a multitude of thoughts and images flash through my mind. I envision a group of dapper Indians in India dining out or partying, or sending their children to better schools, all courtesy of an American company that provided them jobs. At the same time, I breathe a regretful sigh at the anguish, the desperation and the rage hreflected in the letters I hold in my hand. My fellow Americans, the people who accepted me and took me into their hearts, are hurting, and in turn that hurts me.

But, as an optimist, I have immense faith in the American spirit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship, the capacity to rise to the occasion when necessary, the ability to heal and forge ahead, the belief in self-worth, and the need to discover and create. History proves that global commerce is good for the world. It is hard to predict where the next outsourcing destinations will be. The Middle East? South America? Africa?

I have no doubt that America will regroup and rise up with fresh ideas to survive and flourish. In a society that fosters independent thinking and rewards innovation, ambition and free enterprise, the emergence of a better "mousetrap" is inevitable. The selling of that mousetrap to "those damn Indians," who are making all that money, is predictable. Meanwhile, as a loyal American citizen as well as a staunch Indian, I try to do my part to keep the wheels turning.

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Business | Magazine | April 2004

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