Fighting for the Down and Out(sourced)

One state legislator attempts to stanch the flow of jobs abroad.

State senator Shirley K. Turner's stolid storefront office in Ewing, New Jersey—with its photos of kittens taped to the wall and Dr. Seuss books piled in the waiting area—hardly resembles ground zero of a fast-moving political firestorm. Nor is the Democratic senator, dressed in a conservative blue-knit sweater set, the picture of a rabble-rouser. But in 2002, after learning that a company hired by the New Jersey Department of Human Services to field calls from welfare recipients about their benefits had itself subcontracted the job to a firm in India, she introduced a bill to prohibit the state from outsourcing jobs to other countries. "I was outraged. Here we are in New Jersey, as we are in every state, requiring welfare recipients to go to work," she says. "And yet, we were sending these jobs overseas…so that corporations can make more money."

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Fortune 500 companies from Amazon.com to American Express have already exported millions of jobs; and, by 2015, 3.3 million U.S. service-industry jobs and $136 billion in wages are expected to make the exodus abroad. Nor is the public sector immune. It is estimated that by 2008, cash-strapped state and local governments will outsource some $23 billion in information-technology work to foreign countries.

In the case that sparked Turner, eFunds Corp.—contracted to handle welfare-benefit calls in 19 states including New Jersey—moved its phone bank from Wisconsin, where workers earned $12 to $14 an hour, to Bombay, where the hourly wage is $2 to $3.

State governments' recent efforts to outsource are "just bad public policy," says Turner. When people are unemployed, she notes, they don't pay taxes, and the loss of that tax revenue contributes to already skyrocketing budget deficits. "It's like shooting yourself in the foot," she says. "We need revenue, and we get it from tax dollars when people work." Turner adds that whatever the savings to government, outsourcing has hidden costs, such as increased unemployment benefits. Government doesn't have the luxury that corporations do of walking away from those it has fired, she says. "Government has to be there to pick up the pieces."

Outsourcing is just the latest manifestation of the rush to privatize government jobs, which, she says, New Jersey has taken too far. "When this privatization thing started, we were told that we were going to get a better quality of performance for a cheaper price. We have found the exact opposite." As the service deteriorates and the costs escalate, Turner adds, the public pays the price. "They have taken it to a new level by chasing cheap labor overseas. It is really a race to the bottom and it is never going to end."

The Senate unanimously passed Turner's anti-outsourcing bill at the end of 2002; but it faced strong opposition from corporate lobbyists and never made it to the full Assembly. Business interests may have killed her bill, but they couldn't stop its momentum. Turner heard from more than 2,000 citizens nationwide, including workers whose own jobs had been outsourced. "The fax machines were literally going 24 hours a day," says Turner, who has been quoted in 90 different publications, hailed as a hero by CNN's Lou Dobbs, and approached by television programs from as far away as Japan.

Bowing to the negative publicity, eFunds relocated its Bombay call center last spring, not just back to the United States but to Camden, one of New Jersey's poorest cities. "Her effect has been to put the issue on the table," says Scott Kirwin, founder of Information Technology Professionals Association of America. Legislators in 15 other states have introduced similar bills, he says, "all because of Shirley Turner. Shirley Turner was the first, and I know she is not going to be the last."

Turner takes pride in the Camden deal and the wide ripple effect she's already had. Reintroducing her bill was her first order of business when the new session commenced in January. Sitting calmly between the U.S. and state flags, the senator declares that protecting American jobs should be a top national priority. But she's also realistic about the future of outsourcing. "You can't stop it, but it needs to be slowed," she says. That's why during her day job as a career adviser at Rider University in Lawrenceville, she urges students to "think ahead of the curve."

"You have to prepare yourself for multiple careers," Turner tells them. "There is no such thing anymore as job security."

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