Hewitt orders jobs exodus inquiry

Call centres: Trade Secretary says it's a 'myth' that sector is in decline and sparks row with unions
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The government yesterday launched an inquiry into the exodus of call centre jobs to India and elsewhere in response to growing anger among trade unions, but triggered a fresh row by claiming it was a "myth" that the sector was in decline.

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said a new study would assess the ability of the UK's call centre industry to respond to overseas competition. She also unveiled plans for a joint seminar of business, unions and consumers in the new year.

But she dismissed any hope of a U-turn in her opposition to new laws to prevent jobs being exported overseas, insisting Britain could never compete for low-wage work.

She insisted the call centres were "thriving" and in this regard she was given a timely boost by a commitment from EDF Energy, which owns three UK electricity companies, to rule out moving its call centres outside the UK for the foreseeable future.

Ms Hewitt's announcement, which came during a visit to a call centre in Bristol, follows this week's news that almost 7,000 call centre and back office jobs are being moved overseas.

Ms Hewitt said she recognised decisions by businesses to move operations overseas were "painful". But she told workers at the Royal Bank of Scotland's call centre: "While any job loss is tough for the individual and communities affected, we must challenge the myth that our call centre sector is in terminal decline.

"We must also challenge the myth that protectionism offers any sort of solution. It's wrong to assume a job moved abroad means another worker's on the dole here."

Ms Hewitt published a report claiming that the UK benefited from the opportunities offered by the global market in services. "We already export goods and services worth £2.6bn a year to India alone. As India grows so will the trade," she said.

Trade unions welcomed the study but rejected accusations of myth-making in the wake of decisions by Aviva to move 2,350 jobs to India, by the rail inquiries service to relocate 600 posts and by HSBC to shift 4,000 jobs overseas.

Kevin Curran, the general secretary of the GMB union, said: "The impact of offshoring is not a myth - just ask the thousands who have already lost their jobs. There are actions we can take so that call centres and manufacturing don't go the way of the clothing and textile industry. It's not about protectionism. It's about promoting British jobs and workers here at home."

Billy Hayes, the general-secretary of the Communication Workers Union, said: "The UK has spent decades exporting manufacturing jobs - we now destroy ships in Hartlepool rather than build them on Merseyside.

"The emergence of call centres in these depressed areas offered the unemployed some chance of alternative work. Now that opportunity is taken away as call centres are moved abroad."

Dave Fleming, the national secretary of the finance workers' union Amicus, said Ms Hewitt had "missed the target" by launching an inquiry into call centre jobs. "The offshoring blight that is happening in the service sector does not only affect call centre jobs but thousands of IT, back office and administrative jobs as well."

Sir Bill Connor, the general secretary of Usdaw, said: "When people are losing their jobs in the UK and seeing them go abroad, dialogue and analysis is not much use to them. This is a sector that needs support now."

However, Ms Hewitt received the backing of the CBI, the UK's largest employers' organisation, which urged the Government to resist calls for protectionism.

Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said: "Politicians must never stop companies seeking out the most efficient way of doing things or pretend they can immunise people from the challenges of globalisation."