Public not worked up over outsourcing of jobs

Consumers' main concern appears to be lower costs that result from trend

May 09, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Over the past three months, more than 12,000 people have voted to send Gina Hellegers' job offshore. She tries not to take it personally.

Hellegers is an underwriter at E-Loan Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif.-based mortgage company that has started offering online customers a choice: When they're taking cash out of their homes, do they want the paperwork processed in 10 days overseas or 12 days in the United States? Nearly nine out of 10 customers choose the overseas option, which means the work is done in Chennai, India.

"They just want their home equity loan as quickly as possible," Hellegers said.

The lopsided result helps explain why many companies continue to move jobs to low-cost areas around the world. Although public opinion polls show Americans are worried about the outsourcing of jobs, few appear willing to back that up if it means spending more money or more time.

Even those who have lost jobs sometimes express more resignation than outrage. The lack of widespread passion on the subject, some say, helps explain why dozens of measures in Congress and state legislatures for limiting outsourcing have failed to gain much traction.

Outsourcing opponents aren't sure how they were put on the defensive so quickly. "It was shocking to find a Democratic-controlled House in the liberal state of Washington could not pass a significant piece of legislation dealing with the offshore-outsourcing issue," said Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers. The bill would have required state contracts to be awarded to U.S. citizens.

Courtney blamed "a nationally coordinated lobbying effort by corporate America" for the fact that none of the 80 bills in legislatures and Congress has passed.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a report last month that legislative restrictions would encourage other countries to respond in kind, placing more U.S. jobs at risk.

Also, the report warned, "denying contracts to firms that source worldwide could prompt many to drop out of the bidding process." This would "create a special class of companies who don't source so that they can do business with government - leading to less competition, higher prices and lower standards of performance."

The politicians who introduced the bills said they weren't ready to concede. Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia is cosponsoring a bill that would prohibit federal assistance to companies that lay off a greater percentage of their workers in the United States than in foreign countries. He also is backing a measure that would require foreign call center workers to identify their country.

People tell pollsters that they feel deeply about the subject. In a Gallup Poll in March, 61 percent of respondents said they were worried that they or someone close to them would have their job transferred overseas. Nearly as many - 58 percent - said outsourcing would be "very important" when voting for president in November.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said he was finding significantly less support for free trade, the economic philosophy that underlies outsourcing.

Four years ago, support for international trade was split: 45 percent of those polled by Newhouse said it increased U.S. jobs, while 44 percent said it reduced them. In a poll this year, only 32 percent said trade created jobs here, while 58 percent said it decreased them.

But Newhouse said any demands for action were tempered by the complexity of the issue. This election year doesn't seem a replay of 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote by relentlessly equating free trade with the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico.

"There's a begrudging realization of the globalization of the world's economy and the U.S. economy that simply wasn't there in 1992," Newhouse said. "It's not as obvious who the `enemy' is."

Others have less trouble naming a villain.

"Voters are also consumers, and, unfortunately, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to preserving America's way of life," said Harold Hervey, who started an anti-outsourcing Web site, SaveUSjobs.biz, last winter. "We continue to race to the bottom by always looking for lowest-priced products and services."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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