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A delegation of European unions will tour Indian call centres next week to investigate an industry scheme to register the country's call centre employees in a biometric database.

Visiting under the umbrella of Union Network International (UNI), a workers' association, they will also be checking on working conditions and dropping in on fledgling professional associations that are being groomed by the international union movement.

Peter Skyte, national organiser for Amicus, a union in Britain and Ireland, said he was concerned a database would allow employers to keep tabs on employees.

Launched in January by an Indian trade body representing employers, the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), will store biometric, personal, professional and educational details of workers in IT and outsourcing industries.

"Unless you are on that [database], you won't get a job," Skyte said. " I want to talk this through with Nasscom."

"Employees could be struck off the register and lose their livelihoods on a whim," he said. "If you have an argument with your boss in Wipro or Tata, what's to stop them saying to Nasscom they want you struck off?" he added.

Skyte will be joined on tour by UNI representatives and unions LBC NVK from Belgium and HK from Denmark and will also be concerned to see that Indian call centre workers are being "treated fairly".

Yet their concern sits side by side with self-interest. The unions have loudly opposed the outsourcing boom that has seen so many of their members' jobs outsourced to India.

Indian call centre workers are cheap and poorly protected, which is why so much work has been given to them by European firms. The centres are reputedly characterised by high-pressure, long hours, and a high staff turnover.

Worse still, they have to put up with abuse and condescension from the customers they serve on telephone lines to countries in the northern hemisphere. Yet these call centre jobs are comparatively well paid and highly sought after.

By doing what it can to raise working conditions for middle-class Indian workers, the European unions movement can serve two demanding taskmasters at once - its fragile membership, which does not want its jobs outsourced to India, and its own conscience, which cannot directly betray the cause of international solidarity.

Pulling off that trick will oblige the unions to give up their anti-outsourcing rhetoric. That is, stop trying to scare European firms off outsourcing deals by slagging off Indian workers.

The Nasscom biometric database of workers was the Indian response to an international news storm initiated by Britain's Sun tabloid newspaper, which engineered a leak of British bank details from an Indian call centre last year.

Unions including Amicus shamelessly exploited the opportunity and helped whip the storm up to the point where Nasscom had to do something to protect its business interests. A biometric database seemed like the obvious solution*. Now this could be the single largest barrier to the unionisation of emerging Indian industries.

As for workers in Indian call centres, they have been lucky to land jobs that are considered luxurious, so telling them that their conditions are rubbish may not wash.

Unless their new-found wealth and power gives them the confidence to take on employers, the only way to help them unionise will be to encourage them to see their place in the global economy. That will mean treating them as comrades rather than enemies. ®

* The adoption of bureaucratic processes from the northern hemisphere has always been the clincher for most Nasscom members in deals for outsourcing business. They have signed up to anything they can, from data protection to formal methods of business.

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