Congressmen say U.S.-funded initiative to train call center workers in the Philippines puts American jobs at risk.
In response to a story published last week by InformationWeek, two U.S. Congressmen are calling on USAID to immediately terminate a program under which the agency is funding the training of Filipino students to work in the country's booming offshore call center industry.
"As you may know, over 500,000 call center jobs have been outsourced from the United States to foreign shores since 2007," Representatives Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) wrote, in a letter Friday to USAID director Rajiv Shah.
"To essentially underwrite our international competitors is short-sighted public policy and a direct threat to our economic competitiveness," the legislators wrote. "Call centers represent a substantial portion of the U.S. economy and currently provide economic stability and the promise of a middle-class income to over 4.5 million working families in the United States."
Bishop and Jones were reacting to InformationWeek's April 18 report on a USAID program that funds the training of call center workers in the Philippines. The program, known as Job Enabling English Proficiency (JEEP), is part of a larger economic aid campaign on which USAID is spending about $100 million annually. The campaign is called Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM). Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, is home to a large Muslim population that opposes the country's central government.
JEEP and GEM are designed to help bring stability to the region, a USAID spokesperson said. "The JEEP program was developed to promote peace and stability in Mindanao by teaching English to youth in conflict-prone areas to help them pursue gainful employment in tourism, nursing, and other locally based industries and to break the cycle of violence which had gripped that region of the Philippines," the spokesperson said, in an e-mail.
Among the other "locally based industries" for which students can receive training through JEEP is the offshore call center industry. AT&T, Expedia, and JPMorgan Chase are among the U.S. companies to have outsourced call center operations to the Philippines.
Bishop and Jones said such aid shouldn't come at the expense of American jobs. They noted that JEEP represents the second time in just the past couple of years that USAID has come under fire for funding foreign worker training. A program to educate offshore IT workers in Sri Lanka, also first reported by InformationWeek, was suspended after Bishop complained to the agency.
"These reports are extraordinarily distressing given the fragile state of the recovering American labor force," the lawmakers wrote.
The Congressmen said they found USAID's JEEP program particularly distressing in light of President Obama's recent call for American companies to "insource" work previously sent overseas. "We were shocked to learn that USAID is currently investing taxpayer dollars in outsourcing training programs in the Philippines at the expense of American workers," said Bishop and Jones.
A JEEP document published by USAID notes that the program "is classroom based, and focuses on the specialized English skills required by employers in areas such as: nursing and allied healthcare; maritime services; travel and tourism services; business process outsourcing (BPO); and other areas of international employment." Students--there are about 23,000 in the Philippines currently enrolled--commit to undertake 400 hours of training in two years of study.
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