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U.S. companies calling on Caribbean for customer service

The islands, noted for their hospitality, attract companies in search of inexpensive call-center assistance.

Associated Press
Published September 23, 2007


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - In a global search for low-cost customer service, AOL considered call centers in India and other hot spots - then settled on the tiny island of St. Lucia.

In choosing the Caribbean island, AOL - a unit of Time Warner Inc. - joined other U.S. companies that have made the region a new global hub for call centers.

Plunging communication costs, workers who relate easily to American customers and the region's famed hospitality are attracting American corporations, boosting the work force in the "nearshore" service industry in the Caribbean.

Jamaica is one of the leaders, with about 14,000 employees in the sector. In the Dominican Republic, 18,000 agents, many of them bilingual, are handling calls in English and Spanish. Call centers dedicated to customer service have also opened in Barbados, Trinidad and Dominica.

"The islands all seem to be really positive as opposed to the surly attitudes you have in some of the other places. It's cheery weather, it's cheery people," said Robert Goodwin, the AOL manager who chose a call center in St. Lucia.

AOL still uses call centers in India and elsewhere for technical support and other services - taking advantage of those countries' large number of workers with technical and advanced degrees.

But the Caribbean is becoming increasingly competitive in the call center industry, with island governments offering tax and other incentives to lure companies to their shores. Jamaica, for example, granted call centers "free zone" status that allows owners to repatriate 100 percent of their earnings tax-free.

In Montego Bay, a resort area on Jamaica's north coast that accounts for about half the island's call center jobs, developers have rapidly built thousands of concrete, single-family homes to accommodate the workers.

The industry owes much of its success to a telecommunications liberalization that began sweeping former British colonies in the Caribbean about six years ago. As new suppliers have challenged the monopoly of Britain-based Cable & Wireless PLC, lower prices allowed the region to compete.

The collections and call center firm KM2, which holds the AOL contract in St. Lucia, has opened a site in Barbados, and owner David Kreiss said he is looking to expand again as new telecoms install fiber optic cable.

"Whichever island they go to, we follow," Kreiss said from his office in Atlanta.

The number of people working at Caribbean call centers has increased from 11,300 in 2002 to a current total of 55,000, with an annual economic impact of $2.5-billion, according to Philip Peters, chief executive of Coral Gables-based Zagada Markets.

Peters, whose company surveys the call center industry in regions around the world, said the Caribbean has set itself apart with high service, a quality he attributes to cultural similarities and the influence of the tourism industry.

"They have a history of troubleshooting with Americans without getting upset," he said.

Large American companies including Verizon, AT&T, Delta Air Lines, AIG and Nortel have used Caribbean call centers, while often keeping operations in Asia or elsewhere in case of a hurricane or other disaster, Peters said.

While much of the profits go to U.S.-owned operators, the islands welcome the business to diversify their economies and counter high unemployment.

In Jamaica, where the vast majority of 18 call centers are owned by people outside the island, the starting wage is $2.75 to $3.20 an hour, according to Christopher McNair of Jamaica's investment promotion agency. "In Jamaica it's quite an attractive salary," he said. In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory subject to the federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour, about 4,000 people work in call centers.

[Last modified September 23, 2007, 00:47:18]

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