Michel, Muhammed and Sarkozy: spot the foreign name

Should call-center operatives reveal their real offshore names? The issue has come up in a recent French ruling to ostensibly bring call center behavior in line with other consumer information requirements. Most data in English on call-centers naturally focus on outsourced call centers in India, and how well-educated English speaking locals are prepared to play Sandra or Roger for the likes of British bank account owners or U.S. insurance premium purchasers. And the language offer is widening. According to this report, some Indian operatives may soon be switching their names to Sabine or Reinhardt:

Courtesy a recent decision of the Electronics and Computer Software Export Promotion Council (ESC), even students studying information technology at engineering colleges can now learn German at ESC-recognized institutions by paying just 50 per cent of the course fee, subject to a ceiling of Rupees 12,000.

This scheme would be applicable at 11 German-training institutions in Bengal.

“The decision to extend the benefits of the language-related market access facilitation initiative to even students interested in German stems from our desire to help them become more employable,” a ESC official said.

In the French case, the new ruling (from Finance Minister Nicholas Sarkozy) was mooted in April and turned into a decree last week. The first two Articles say: “All goods and service suppliers who use a call center to issue or receive phone communications must inform callers of the geographical locale of the call center. This information must be provided at the beginning of the call and feature on all marketing collateral giving the coordinates of the center. Single calls to multiple call center geographies must also be declared.”

In other words, when you ring in France at night these days to change your mobile phone account, there is every likelihood that you will talk to Monique (aka Rim) in Casablanca, Morocco, Michel (or Hedi) in a suburb of Tunis, or Robert (or Mamadou) in Dakar, Senegal. Many call centers switch their night and weekend services to offshore locations in North or West Africa, where French is widely (and well) spoken and labor cheaper. If the Sarkozy ruling goes through, Rim, Hedi and Mamadou will have to identify themselves to each caller. Presumably the idea behind this is that French citizens will be so outraged that they are not speaking to real Monique & Co that they will switch to a service that promotes the authentic Gallicity of their call center. Which will in turn mean keeping or creating more jobs in France, and put the brakes on what the French call ‘délocalisations’ or offshoring.

As in India, call centers in Africa are considered a growth industry, providing job outlets for educated young adults who are hitting the glass ceiling of custom, under investment, and unfair work practices in oppressive regimes. Obviously these people are a source of cheaper labor for French firms (Moroccan women are often used by publishers and other companies needing large-scale text and data inputting jobs performed by French-speaking operatives), yet according to Le Monde, there are far more call centers in France (205,000 jobs and 3,300 call centers) than in Africa, which only gets 5% of France’s call center traffic. So the real effect of this new ruling is hard to guess at, beyond the consumer transparency issue. Especially when a France-located call center probably employs plenty of operatives whyose real names are Mohamed and Mounira already, call centers being one way for the ‘children of immigration’ as they are called to find a job in a country where unemployment is still stuck at around 9.5%.

Most of the comment in France and in North Africa (here, here and here) draws attention to the confused message this ruling gives the consumer – will my call cost more because I hear Habib say he’s in Tunis? – and the faint effluvium of racism implicit in the ‘identify yourself’ requirement.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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