WASHINGTON -- Saying they hope to stem the tide of jobs heading overseas, legislators introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday in the House that would punish American corporations for offshoring their telephone call centers, making such companies ineligible for grants or guaranteed loans from the federal government.
Introduced by Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), the protectionist legislation would also put some aggressive mandates on call-center operations. Not only would customer service representatives working overseas for U.S. corporations have to disclose their locations upon request, they would also have to offer callers the option of being transferred to call centers back in America.
"Outsourcing is one of the scourges of our economy and one of the reasons we are struggling to knock down the unemployment rate and reduce the number of Americans who are out of work," Bishop said in a conference call with reporters. "We can't prohibit it, but we can certainly discourage it."
Although some call-center jobs have trickled back into the U.S. in recent years, the long-term trend has shown thousands of American-based customer service positions being outsourced to India and the Philippines, where workers come considerably cheaper. The Philippines' call-center industry recently surpassed India's as the largest in the world, according to a report in USA Today.
The call-center bill has strong backing from the Communications Workers of America, a union representing 700,000 workers, more than 150,000 of whom are customer service reps. Ron Collins, CWA's chief of staff, said that Americans have been losing decent-paying call-center jobs so that large corporations can save on labor costs. He praised AT&T for its decision to bring 5,000 customer service jobs back to the U.S. as part of its merger with T-Mobile.
"When I talk about this, I talk about it from experience," said Collins, a former Verizon call-center worker. "This bill is a very important step forward -- for jobs, for workers and for customers."
In addition to scuttling any grants or guaranteed loans for a period of five years, the U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act would require that companies that are about to offshore call-center jobs notify the Labor Department 120 days before they do so. The companies would then be put on a public list. Bishop said the law would apply to businesses in all industries.
Such a bill is unlikely to garner strong support from anti-protectionist, free-trade GOP members of Congress, but the inclusion of the call-center rules adds an interesting wrinkle. Given the widespread frustration of customers who end up on long calls with agents overseas, plenty of constituents, Republican and Democrat alike, would probably appreciate the option of dealing more regularly with customer service reps based in America.
"With Rep. McKinley as my primary Republican co-sponsor, I'm very hopeful he can bring a good number of his colleagues to the table," Bishop said. "It's hard to defend the practice. It's hard to say we would rather employ someone in the Philippines than in the U.S."
To bolster their case, the CWA said it plans to release a report next week that shows that consumer fraud and identity theft is higher at call centers abroad than in the U.S.