Outlook: No place for Luddites as more service jobs head eastwards

Chelsfield steal; Network Rail
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The Independent Online

Rob O'Neill, the union official who has promised to fight HSBC's plans to switch 4,000 jobs to Asia "tooth and nail", is the modern day equivalent of General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers in attempting to hold back the march of time and innovation.

The Luddites of the early 19th century broke into factories and destroyed machines in a doomed attempt to stop the use of low cost, unapprenticed workmen that resulted from the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution.

Today's technological revolution is that of the information age, which by allowing vast amounts of data to be transported around the world at lightening speed, enables companies to locate their business processing in far away places where labour costs are a faction of what they are here.

HSBC's jobs switch is the biggest and boldest such move from a British company so far, but it is also just the beginning of a trend that over the years ahead will see hundreds of thousands of jobs relocated to low cost regions of India and the Far East. It's been happening in manufacturing for years. Financial services are only the next staging post in a process that will eventually engulf all companies of any size.

Mr O'Neill's concerns are therefore understandable. If service jobs are now to follow manufacturing overseas in the relentless competitive drive for ever lower costs of production, there will soon be nothing left for his members at all. Britain will become an employment desert of dole queues and inactivity.

It's a concern echoed by many of the business leaders who are taking these decisions. If the process is carried to its logical conclusion, eventually all jobs will be based offshore and there will be no market left for companies to sell to.

In socioeconomics, on the other hand, developments rarely do reach their logical endgame. If they did, then Karl Marx would have been right in predicting that capitalism was doomed to self destruction. What he failed to see was how adaptable it could be. Eventually it learned to regulate away its unacceptable excesses, and it began to deliver greater levels of prosperity right across the social spectrum.

The export of jobs to low cost countries such as China and India is just the flip side of the globalisation coin, which has so far delivered vast benefits to the affluent West. The scale of the phenomenon is undoubtedly alarming, with the strong possibility that anything up to 500,000 jobs could be lost to these shores over the next 10 years. In the US, the problem is more serious still, with perhaps as many as 4 million service jobs disappearing to the Far East on top of the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that have already gone that way.

Nor are these any longer the sort of jobs no one wants. The late 20th century's very own version of the dark satanic mill is the call centre, which few would work in unless they had to. Yet it is not just call centre jobs that are disappearing to Bangalore. Higher and higher up the value chain marches the export of jobs from accounting to tax returns and from legal documentation to investment analysis.

The process is bound to be disruptive, and occasionally painful, yet this is not something Britain should be resisting. Rather, we should embrace it as the next leap forward in free trade and economic progress. In fact, the export of service jobs to Asia is much more likely to be good for Britain than bad, and in any case to resist it is a morally indefensible form of protectionism. If China and India can do the job to the same standards at a fraction of the cost than we can, then so be it. We need to move on and do other things instead. That's the way free markets are supposed to work.

The inevitability of the process is one thing, but there are also big advantages in it too. One is that it helps increase productivity, which in turn means higher corporate profits and more money for innovation. Another is that by propagating the English language together with its cultural, legal and accounting conventions, it expands Britain's community of interest into a wider sphere of influence. That in turn helps create economic activity all round. By creating jobs and prosperity in previously deprived regions of the world, it also develops new markets for British companies to expand into.

Perhaps most important of all, it obviates the need for socially damaging and disruptive labour migration. In future, the jobs will go to where the people that can do them most cheaply are physically located, rather than as at present forcing people to uproot and move to the places where the jobs are based. Labour migration is often devastating for the regions it leaves behind, as well as causing all manner of social division in the regions it goes to.

For Europe and the US, with their ageing populations, the export of jobs neatly deals with the problem of developing labour shortages without the need for an influx of alien, immigrant labour. Of course, in practice, there will be a two-way pull, with jobs being both exported and imported, but the end result will be greater prosperity for all, at a faster pace and with less social and cultural disruption.

I doubt whether Mr O'Neill and his supporters will be descending on Sir John Bond, HSBC's chairman, and stringing him up from his Canary Wharf tower, as the Luddites did to William Horsfall, a Yorkshire mill owner, in 1812. Yet Mr O'Neill's protests are as futile, wrong headed and ultimately doomed to failure as those of the Luddites.

Chelsfield steal

Elliott Bernerd, chairman of Chelsfield, promised to announce an offer to take his company private by mid-October and so he has. Whether you can call the derisory 305p a share proposed yesterday a proper bid is another thing. The independent directors are umming and arring about whether they should recommend it. There should be no such fence sitting. They must reject it out of hand, for the veteran property tycoon is trying to buy the company on the cheap while the London property market is still depressed.

The independent directors point out that the offer is higher than the fully diluted net asset value per share of 299p, but this has been calculated after subtracting all potential tax liabilities. Stated under the conventional measure of NAV, the figure is quite a lot bigger. Mr Bernerd must play a mean game of poker, for he has formulated the rules of play in a manner which give the independent directors something of a dilemma.

He won't bid unless the independent directors recommend the offer. But as a quid pro quo, he and his partners have committed themselves to accept a higher offer on behalf of their 30 per cent shareholding should one emerge during the course of their bid. Mr Bernerd's gamble is that no such offer will emerge, but the prospect of sparking an auction might be enough to tempt the independent directors into a recommendation. Standard Life says it won't sell for less than £4 a share. On the basis that if Mr Bernerd bids 305p a share then he must think the company worth an awful lot more, Standard seems to have it about right.

Network Rail

Who's going to pay for the £22.7bn of spending Tom Winsor, the rail regulator has deemed necessary to maintain the rail network over the next five years. It's a lot lower than Network Rail had originally asked for, but it is also nearly £8bn more than the Government was budgeting for. Not us, says Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, nor us, say passengers, who will surely riot if they are charged any more for such an unreliable service. Which only leaves the mothballing of planned enhancements and/or borrowings.

Since nearly all Network Rail debt is guaranteed by the Government anyway, the difference between whether it is the City or the taxpayer that funds the extra spending may seem marginal. Mr Darling wants to ensure everyone gets value for money, but without the disciplines of the market, how's anyone to know?