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Bill proposing to ban overseas call centers heard in the committee

March 30, 2004
By: GAURAV GHOSE
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1497, HB 1474

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri legislators heard another plea Tuesday for the state to stop sending government-financed jobs overseas.

The measure presented to the House Communications Committee would block the state from contracting telemarketing or telephone center services overseas.

In 2001, Missouri's Department of Social Services contracted their Food Stamps Program to E-Funds, which was, at that time, operating their call center at Wisconsin.

But after a year, however, E-Funds closed its Wisconsin office and shifted to Bombay, India. Now about 243,000 people under the Food Stamps Program get their calls answered by an Indian.

"So you can imagine that if you have some personal questions, you want to talk to somebody that may be has some empathy or some body can relate to your issue, I think, that in many ways we are losing out because of that," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

The second part of the bill deals with call centers in general, not merely centers contracted by the state but also private businesses.

Under the bill, any person calling or receiving a call will have the right to know the city, the state, and the country where the call center is located.

The right extends to know the name and identity of the call center employee. Also, the person calling with questions should not be sent to a foreign call center without the person's written permission. Calls going over to the foreign call center shoud be redirected back to the United States on the customer's request.

Pearce said the more important issue is about keeping jobs in Missouri and keeping in the United States.

He also raised the concerns of the possibility of personal data and financial information being abused and nothing could possibly be done to prosecute the abusers thousands of miles away.

However Pearce agreed that his bill could raise the issue of possible trade barriers and the possibility of some other countries retaliating against the United States. Also he said that if the calls were transferred back to the United States it would be at a higher cost.

The committee's chair, Rep. Rex Rector, R-Harrisonville, said that such a measure would be like playing with the economy.

The state of Missouri, he said, "is pretty big business entity ... and $19 billion dollars worth of cash coming in from different places and there could be repercussions from these places," Rector said.

Also Rector said the state could face costs of more than $500,000 if the out-sourced services were moved back to higher-paying jobs in Missouri.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry general counsel, Michael Grote, testified in opposition to the bill. He expressed concern about the current contracts the state has.

"Missouri state has contracts with companies that look for efficiencies and they should be allowed where market factors are controlling those efficiencies to ensure that the state is saving money," Grote said.

Mark Franken, representative of Communication Workers Association, extending support to the bill said that tax payers dollars should be used to create jobs in Missouri.

"Currently we have an unemployment rate of approximately 4.7 percent," Franker pointed out. "And we should be using public money to create jobs, not send the jobs overseas."

Though supportive of the idea of the customer having the right to know where the call center is located and the employees' identities, Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, asked where does such a measure ultimately lead to.

"Are we now going to say that we are not going to buy any cars that come from overseas and that we are only going to buy American automobiles and American products?" Wilson asked Pearce.

No action was taken on the bill.