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From Wall Street to Chennai
Emily Gertz, 30 Jun 04

newyorkercover_jul404.jpgI never thought I'd be blogging an old-school publication like The New Yorker on WorldChanging; it's not exactly the title on the lips of the technorati, but steady WC readers will probably have guessed by now that I am a bit of a nostalgist.

I highly recommend a trip to the magazine stand or library for this week's issue, dated July 5, 2004, to read The Best Job in Town, a ground-level look at economic globalization. Writer Katherine Boo outstandingly documents the light and dark of it, revealing that it's not as simple as a few fat cat capitalists getting rich (although that happens) while workers alternately starve or slave.

Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was once economically propelled by local fishing, and then by production of Madras cloth. At the end of the twentieth century, globalization undercut the weaving industry and the weavers began selling their kidneys on the black market.

Now, Chennai is becoming a major locus of outsourced jobs from the Western world, from accounting to insurance underwriting to typing up resumes.

Boo's case study is Office Tiger, an outsourcing company founded by two American graduates of Princeton, who left behind successful financial sector jobs to incorporate on the other side of the globe:

The Indian government gave them a ten-year "tax holiday." American and British venture capitalists gave them seventeen million dollars for the startup, only a sliver of which they had to spend on labor...Six years later, the Manhattan banks that Randy and Joe abandoned still have odes to "thrift" in their marble lobbies, but those banks also have rows of capacious, upholstered, untenanted cubicles. Almost twenty per cent of the jobs on Wall Street have disappeared in the last three years. Office Tiger recently doubled its staff, to sixteen hundred and fifty workers, and will nearly double in size again by year's end, on the strength of "judgement-dependent services": equity analysis, legal research, and accounting jobs that pay an annual salary of up to a hundred thousand dollars in the United States and between ten and twenty per cent of that in Chennai.

What do these jobs represent to the Indians?

The document specialists [employees typing up the resume or fax that you dropped off at the counter of your nearby Home Depot], all college graduates, earned roughly a tenth of what they would have commanded for this work in the U.S., and less, too, than they would have been paid in some call centers. But it was the possibility that one could rise up from a lowly position that had made Office Tiger one of the city's status employers, a firm whose workers were so pleased by their affiliation that they put it on their wedding invitations, just below their fathers' names. A foreign notion—that jobs should be distributed on the basis of merit—was amending the rules of a society where employment had for millennia been allotted by caste, and great possibilities abounded. A clerk who today did a bang-up job of formatting the work history of a part-time handyman in Plano might be an adjunct investment banker by year's end.

Catch a whiff of the dot-boom frenzy in there?

The New Yorker doesn't put all its content online, but often has good web extras, such as this audio slideshow. Author Boo discusses her article over photographs of Chennai by Samantha Appleton.

I also strongly recommend the magazine's coverage of the Iraq war, if you are looking for relief from politico bombast and questionable journalism from other sources.

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The cartoons are also pretty funny.

Posted by: Jeremiah Blatz on 30 Jun 04



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