BT hints at dividend boost amid call centre jobs row

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The Independent Online

BT hinted yesterday that higher dividends were on the cards from next year as the telecoms giant came in for criticism for opening call centres in India.

Using a giant, pink inflatable elephant as their mascot, members of the Communication Workers Union yesterday campaigned outside the company's AGM. The CWU urged BT to "stop the UK job stampede" to India. BT plans to employ 2,200 at call centres in Bangalore and New Delhi by early 2004.

Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland said he felt concerns about the call centres were "fundamentally misguided". Pierre Danon, head of the company's retail arm, also reiterated previous comments that BT would not cut jobs in the UK, only to recreate them in India.

Sir Christopher had some good news for shareholders, in the form of increased dividend payments. Last year, BT paid out 6.5p a share, or around 45 per cent of earnings.

"Next year, and in subsequent years, we believe it will be possible to pay out a greater proportion of earnings, moving further towards the 50 per cent mark," he said. That belief was based on the progress the company has made as well as confidence in its ability to generate cash and its commitment to deliver returns for shareholders.

Much of yesterday's AGM was taken up with questions from shareholders on other matters - many on the thorny subject of executive pay, with one shareholder demanding to know how the £2.17m payout to chief executive Ben Verwaayen had been calculated. Sir Christopher said the package represented an "outstandingly good reward for an outstandingly good performance".

Shareholders also expressed concerns about the company's pension deficit - which stood at £2.1bn at the end of last year. Sir Christopher reiterated that the pension fund was safe. BT shares, which stood at 1053p more than three years ago, are now trading around 200p.