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tim rowland - 4/15/01

April 13, 2001

Does 'globalization' mean losing jobs to the Third World?



Travel around the globe, even in Third World countries, and you start to learn a life-saving trick. Whenever you run into trouble and need English-speaking assistance, forget about the adults - seek out a 15-year-old kid.

I've found this to be true from Greece to Peru, from Thailand to Mexico. Like our domestic teenagers are more likely to be computer literate than the average 50-year-old, foreign teenagers are more likely to be English literate than their parents.

In fact, I've had better luck finding English-speakers in Bangkok than in some immigrant-labor enclaves in Arizona and Colorado.

A 10-year-old boy in a bustling, frontier-like logging town near the Barracas del Cobre on the Chihuahua-Sonora border was able to give me directions after I'd struck out with a number of adults.

A 15-year-old teahouse maid in a hopelessly remote Nepalese village not served by any road, was conversant enough to explain that many children there learn English because, in a nation with an average annual income of $200, the language is seen as the only way out.

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Not out of Nepal, (the government will virtually never allow an educated person to come to America, because it knows that person will probably never return, and it doesn't want to lose its best and brightest) but out of poverty.

The way out, initially, is tourism. Take the case of 17-year-old Raju and his 15-year-old brother whom I found in a dusty stall selling Cokes and Kodak film outside the city of Pokarah.

They offered me a tour of a massive and truly magnificent cavern that could only be reached by a mile hike along a nettle-riddled cowpath. For their service in showing me this seldom-explored natural wonder, they asked $5. I gave them $20. In three hours they had each just earned more money than many Nepalese make in three weeks.

Now comes the curious story this week about Hagerstown woman Fay Shaffer, who tried to call a Montgomery Ward/Wal-Mart credit division and wound up talking to a customer service representative in Bombay, India.

"I thought I was in the Twilight Zone, Shaffer said.

Even a Wal-Mart spokesman wasn't entirely sure how Shaffer wound up in Bombay. He explained their credit services were handled by GE Capital (The real-world equivalent of the Very Very Big Corporation in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life") and to what lands GE farmed out its customer-service branches he hadn't a clue.

The Wal-Mart spokesman summed up the situation in two words: "That's globalization."

Indeed. And without being alarmist it may be instructive to do a little between-the-line reading. Credit card service centers? Overseas? Ahem.

Elected and economic officials should take note that the coming years will not be a good time to take Citicorp and FirstData credit-card processing centers for granted.

These operations are a tremendous asset to the community; Citicorp basically rescued the Washington County economy after the downfall of Fairchild and the downsizing of Mack.

Today they employ a combined 4,600 and, Kammerer House aside, they are great corporate members of our community.

We all know the stories about NAFTA and rudimentary assembly operations being moved South of the Border to take advantage of dirt-cheap wages. Just this week toymaker Mattel announced it was headed to Mexico.

Credit card processing centers obviously are highly labor-intensive, spelling the potential for tremendous savings in Third World nations.

What separates them from manufacturing is the language barrier. But the language barrier is slowly disappearing.

My little friends in Nepal acutely realized that tourism was not going to be the only advantage of learning English in the coming years and decades.

Again, this is not to raise fears or to suggest that we are imminently in danger of seeing companies such as Citicorp and First Data pull up stakes.

But what you take for granted, you are liable to lose.

We thought Fairchild would be here forever. The state was so convinced of this that it felt comfortable bullying the big company around - and we all know what happened.

As far as our credit-card processing centers are concerned, it is in our benefit in this time of a changing world to have both a mindful awareness of the past and a thoughtful eye to the future.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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