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Indian workers balk at unions

Offshore information-age staffers say they are well-paid, respected

BANGALORE, India -- From Europe and North America, India's offshore workers -- call center operators, data entry clerks, and telemarketers -- may seem like the sweatshop laborers of the information age, toiling long hours for meager pay.

But an international alliance of unions that wants to organize them is finding a very different reality in India: Many think of themselves as members of a relatively well-paid, respected professional elite in no need of a union's protection.

''I know these young people have a negative image about unions," says Narayan Ram Hegde of Union Network International, a global alliance of 900 unions.

But ''these professionals are more like cyber coolies," he said. ''We hope we will be able to convince them over time."

Hegde is leading the alliance's drive to unionize workers in India's back-office outsourcing industry -- a sector that employs about 350,000 people and is expected to add 80,000 jobs this year.

The alliance has been quietly setting up the union for the past year -- its formal launch date was Sunday. But it has so far only managed to attract about 500 recruits, underscoring workers' hostility to unions and the enormity of the task faced by organizers. ''A union would make sense if there was no job security," said K.V. Sudhakar, who does technical support work in IBM's offshore outsourcing center in the western city of Pune. ''Here jobs are more, people are less -- companies are trying all means possible to keep employees happy so that they won't leave."

It's not the first time the union group has encountered such sentiments. A previous effort to start a union for Indian software programmers -- the highly skilled elite of the business -- flopped in 2000 after the programmers balked at joining, offering similar reasons.

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