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French Version

Tunisia attracts global IT outsourcing market - 'Any job that can be done on a computer is getting offshored'

There are over 1,000 Tunisians working for SR Teleperformance in two office buildings in the suburbs of Ben Arous and Charguia. Sitting behind a computer with a handset close at hand or wearing a communications helmet, operators answer calls from clients living in France. Paul, calling from Bordeaux, has no idea that Aline Martin, who is helping him solve his internet access code problem is in fact Aysha, 25, a Tunisian who has never set foot in France.

Tunisia's blend of Arab and French traditions meant that it caught the attention of French-based research and software companies. The words "offshoring" or "outsourcing" describe the migration of service-based industries, especially in the information technology sector, to low-cost countries.

This is especially true for call centers. The setup is designed to confuse the caller as to the geographical location of the customer service personnel: the name change, the flawless French accent and the local phone rates that appear on a caller's bill. This last detail is possible because SR Teleperformance has leased eight dedicated international lines from Tunisia Telecom.

The SR Teleperformance Group is considered an outsourcing pioneer in North Africa. Established in 1978 by a Frenchman, and currently ranked fourth worldwide in terms of turnover, SR Teleperformance is a world leader in sourcing customer services to over 22,800 workstations in 29 countries. The delocalized network includes English, Spanish and French-speaking sites in Argentina, Canada, the Dominican Republic, India, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia.

At the Ben Arous center the main activity is to manage tele-counseling operations that can include extending credit to GE Capital Bank customers or providing technical expertise to subscribers of French-based Wanadoo, a European Internet Service Provider. The Charguia center deals more with the telemarketing side of the business, covering the renewal of magazine subscriptions and managing customer relations with Noos, a cable company. Even correspondence services are processed via the center. The letters of clients are scanned or faxed to an operator in Tunisia that sorts out the mail, answers questions and e-mails them back to France where they are printed and mailed to the clients.

The staff at both centers is young and in many ways overqualified for the job description. Some 90 percent are below 30, two-thirds hold a college degree or more, and all have some post-high school education. Bertrand Derazey, director of SR Teleperformance operations said: "Our major concern is verbal etiquette, not a person's educational level. A longer education tends to imply more exposure to the French language."

The job is not easy, and one of the telemarketers said: "After several calls in which people vent their anger by a promotion or a solicitation for subscription renewal, sometimes you just snap."

Sudden bursts of tears are common at the center. The Tunisian human resources manager says that around 10 people per month just give up and leave.

It is true that SR Teleperformance is benefiting from a flexible labor market. There are no restrictions on numbers of overtime hours or limitations on night or holiday work. Most of the employees insist that the experience is enriching and that they would never leave a job that provides them with social security coverage and pays a basic salary of 360 dinars per month ($260), plus performance premiums and overtime. The call center employees interviewed agree that in Tunisia that type of wage can provide for an entire family.

In view of its high rate of customer satisfaction, SR Teleperformance is considering adding two new call centers to its Tunisian operation. The company sees Tunisia as a politically stable country with young demographics, low wages and a modern telecommunications infrastructure.

"These days any job that can be done on a computer is getting offshored," said Marione Dreux, a French systems developer that lost her job to Alcatel's Tunisia Research and Development Center - a success story since its inception in 1990.

The Alcatel center was first tasked with assisting its Paris and Milan centers in the development of products such as the PSX switch and special network managers. The high productivity and excellent performance achieved at its Tunisian research hub led Alcatel to contract the design and implementation of an entire line of network managers.

In the last decade, Tunisia has managed to recruit a number of multinational manufacturers, too. Rene Buschler of Siemens summarizes the reasons for choosing the North African country. "The Tunisian services industry offers ... a skilled work force at competitive prices, reliable communications and ideal working conditions."

Kaschcke's Herbert Baumgartner stresses the human resources side of the Tunisian success story: "Tunisian engineers represent a capable and motivated team that proved up to the task. Productivity growth and profits led to the opening of a second plant a few years later."

The investment in a modern infrastructure and a dynamic education system have paid off if one considers foreign direct investment inflows related to outsourced operations. The Tunisian state is keen on encouraging the relocation of foreign firms by offering investors tax exemptions and providing assistance to set up companies.

A government official said: "Tunisia is a small country with no oil, gas or any other natural resources. Human resources is our main source of wealth. Foreign companies benefit from a well-educated workforce. In return, the new work opportunities are contributing to limit the migration of young Tunisians."

Beirut 29-03-2004
Khaitoun Aidar
The Daily Star

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