The offshoring irony

Oct 27 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Only a few months ago the term 'offshoring' didn't even exist. Now it seems to be in the media almost every day, with HSBC's announcement last week that it is moving 4,000 jobs to Asia and leaked plans to move the UK's National Rail Enquiries service to India unleashing a chorus of public outrage.

The TUC has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the outsourcing of work to Asia and has urged the Government to set up a commission to investigate the matter while warning darkly of a cataclysm set to engulf white-collar jobs in the UK and USA.

But as ever, there is more to the issue than the headlines would suggest Writing in last weekís Guardian, George Monbiot highlighted the rich irony of Western companies seeking to hire cheaper labour overseas, arguing that the foundation of Britain's textiles industry - and so of the industrial revolution - was secured by destroying the textile manufacturing capacity of India. Moreover, he says:

"For centuries, we have permitted ourselves to ignore the extent to which our welfare is dependent on the denial of other people's. We begin to understand the implications of the system we have created only when it turns against ourselves."

The extent to which 'our' welfare is dependent on the denial of other people's is an idea that our Indian correspondent Hillol K Nath has also raised in connection with another aspect of this latest wave of globalisation.

There was an outcry in the UK a few years back when a pensioner frustrated by the 18-month waiting list for a cataract operation on the National Health Service flew to India for eye surgery.

But as Hillol points out that people stuck on NHS waiting lists in the UK can get treatment in quality Indian hospitals at almost one-eighth of the cost. "Such medical tourism will definitely put Indian Healthcare on the world map," he says.

But at what cost? "India has a long way to go in its provision of decent healthcare amongst its masses," Hillol writes. "Yet our specialist hospitals are beginning to attract more and more patients from abroad thanks to an abundance of skilled and highly specialized Indian doctors and with state-of-art technology at cheaper costs."

Sounds familiar? Are we seeing the emergence of India and an offshore healthcare centre to prop up and patch over the failures of provision elsewhere? The trouble is, though, that while it would be politically unacceptable for the UK National Health Service to announce it was setting up treatment centres in India, it certainly isn't a problem to lure skilled staff from India to work in the UK.

"There is an increasing interest being shown by Britain and US in recruiting Indian Medical Registrars, Nurses and Consultants to run hospitals and treatment centres in the Britain & US to trim down the waiting time for patients," Hillol says.

This is a trend that is not just confined to India. The United States alone needs 10,000 new nurses annually. Europe needs perhaps twice that number. Many - very many - will come from the Philippines. And with the annual flow of nurses out of the country now several times greater than the number who are produced, the Philippines is now facing an acute nursing shortage, particularly in poorer rural areas.

The most bizarre effect of this healthcare "brain haemorrhage" is that some Filipino doctors have even 'downskilled' to train as nurses overseas, a unique and rather sad example of "reverse human resource development".

So when it suits us, we are more than happy to import professionals with valuable expertise from developing nations that can least afford to loose them in order to fill skills gaps at home as cheaply and quickly as possible. But when the boot is on the other foot and its 'us' who are loosing out to 'them', the reaction is very different.

Offshoring is an issue for Europe and the USA, sure, but let's not forget that the arguments - and the impacts - work both ways.

Do we have a point? Let us know below.