The Politics Behind Offshore Outsourcing

By Christopher Koch
Mon, September 01, 2003

CIO — A CIO at a famous Fortune 100 manufacturer has a recurring nightmare: As he continues to lay off American IT workers and move their jobs offshore to places such as India, never to return, American public opinion suddenly swings violently against globalization. He and his company are demonized, and Americans boycott his company’s products. "Public perception isn’t always accurate, but it counts for a lot of things," he says, after insisting on anonymity. "We don’t want a situation where the public sees us as a malevolent force and takes it out on our products."

Other CIOs are becoming similarly cautious about publically endorsing offshore outsourcing. Of the dozen CIOs contacted for this article, only two agreed to talk completely on the record. Though all believe that the offshore outsourcing trend will continue, some are privately worrying about carrying out the inevitable in a sick economy and wondering if it isn’t happening too quickly.

It’s not hard to find reasons for CIOs to worry. "Do you want to do business with companies that take away jobs for U.S. citizens by outsourcing work to foreign countries?" asks The Organization for the Rights of American Workers (Toraw), a group of displaced, angry American workers laid off by Connecticut insurance and financial services companies. In June 2002, dozens from Toraw and similar groups from across the country held a two-day demonstration outside the Strategic Outsourcing Conference at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The same month, other laid-off workers demonstrated outside an outsourcing conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

Organized labor protests at IT conferences in the United States? Even two years ago the idea would have seemed absurd. But as IT employees see many of their jobs moving overseas in a bad economy, opposition to globalization in the United States, hidden during the good economic times of the ’90s, could reemerge more strongly than ever. IT companies—such as Accenture, IBM Global Services, Microsoft and Oracle—and mainstream Fortune 500 companies—such as American Express, Citibank, Bank of America, DaimlerChrysler, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Prudential and United Technologies—are outsourcing to offshore IT companies or expanding their own development centers out of the country.

Some CIOs, like Joe Drouin of TRW Automotive, have experienced backlash against outsourcing inside their own companies. TRW began moving IT development work offshore to India four years ago, mostly through attrition and shifting contract work overseas. Drouin, who became vice president and CIO after the move began, says he didn’t do enough to clarify which jobs were going to stay in the United States and which ones would go. "We talked around that issue, and we didn’t talk in black and white," he says. "I think it was because we anticipated a negative reaction." He got it. Morale plummeted, and there was a lot of grumbling and dissatisfaction among the staff. "It was like a dark cloud hanging over everything we did," Drouin says.

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