Call centre operators fear anti-offshore U.S. laws

A Canadian organization that represents the thousands of call centres operating here is concerned that American legislation could one day shut them down.

The legislation, proposed at the state and federal level, would curb the offshore outsourcing of American jobs and skills, potentially including

those that end up in Canada.

“”There’s so much protectionist legislation being proposed in the U.S. One of (Democratic presidential nominee) John Kerry’s platforms is to keep jobs in the U.S.,”” said Elizabeth Winter, founder of the Contact Professionals Alliance Inc., located in Toronto. “”At the moment Canada is lumped into the same bunch of bad guys as India and China and the Philippines for outsourcing. We don’t feel that we should be in that bad guy bucket.””

Winter will plead her case Tuesday night at the Bristol Place Hotel in Toronto in front of an audience of more than 100 Canadian call centre executives. Also speaking will be representatives from the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and the American Teleservices Association (ATA).

In the months leading up to the U.S. federal election, offshore outsourcing has been a political bone of contention. In February, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced legislation seeking to ban the offshore outsourcing of government work, including privatizing federal work, the federal purchase of goods and services and state government procurements with federal funds.

Winter’s fear is that future legislation could apply to call centres operating in Canada that serve U.S. customers. There are 100 pieces of legislation being considered in 36 U.S. states, she said.

One bill would require that a Canadian call centre identify itself up front to an American customer and offer to transfer the call back to an American call centre. The training costs alone for call centre operators is “”an absolutely huge issue,”” said Winter.

According to the CPA, there are approximately 13,500 call centres operating in Canada — more than 2,500 in the Toronto area alone. American legislation that curbs their operation “”could kill us,”” said Winter.

“”Our role now is to raise the awareness in our community about this proposed legislation. It’s very difficult to get straight information on all this stuff, what it means and what the implications are.””

Winter hopes there is recourse through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by the governments of Canada, U.S. and Mexico.

International Trade Canada (formerly the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) has been following the issue, but will not act until such time as American legislation that affects Canadian call centres is a ratified reality.

“”The only thing we have been doing is monitoring the issue to make sure that as soon as draft legislation is in place, we can immediately assess its impact or its compliance with NAFTA,”” said trade policy officer Ricardo del Castillo.

“”There have been discussions between different states and the federal government in the U.S. They haven’t reached an agreement and for that reason they haven’t drafted any legislation,”” he explained.

If American legislation was deemed to be in conflict with NAFTA, the matter would be resolved internally or turned over a bilateral panel for review, said del Castillo.

Canada could actually benefit from such a turn of events, said Winter. Legislation may prevent call centres from moving overseas but American companies could still send call centre jobs to NAFTA countries.

Canadian call centres are already feeling the ripple effects of American legislation. For example, the Federal Trade Commission’s “”Do not call”” list — which was upheld by a federal court decision in February — is a registry for Americans that do not want to be solicited by phone.

Call centres in Canada that phone U.S. customers must also comply with the “”Do not call”” list. “”It’s your responsibility now to have all the technology and systems in place to keep track of the ‘Do not call’ list in the U.S.,”” said Winter, adding that the penalty per infraction is US$11,000.

The CRTC has considered instituting a national “”Do not call”” list in Canada, but ultimately rejected the proposal. “”We felt that we lacked certain elements that could make this work,”” said CRTC spokesperson Philippe Tousignant.

There is no mechanism to apply monetary penalties to call centres or resources to administer a federal list, he said. However, in the last month the CRTC has tightened up existing regulations that govern call centres. They are required to maintain their own “”Do not call”” lists. Failure to maintain such a list could result in the suspension of phone service to a call centre.

As of Oct. 1, 2004, call centres must provide each person that requests to be put on a “”do not call”” list with a unique registration number.

Adherence to American legislation could have a more profound effect on the way Canadian call centres operate, but del Castillo said that the upcoming American election may have given them a temporary reprieve.

“”We don’t really have any expectations in terms of time. My personal view is that they won’t be able to pass anything like that in the next year or so,”” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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