BANGALORE Indian outsourcing companies are shifting some of their operations to China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Kenya in a bid to stay competitive as higher wages, expensive property prices and a rising rupee eat into profits.
Back-office services companies thrive on doing jobs such as taking customer calls, payroll management and accounting at a fraction of the cost for big multinational firms or governments.
But costs in India are climbing on the back of a robust economy that has lured skilled workers to other sectors, forcing companies to look elsewhere to stay in business.
"If I was only in India, probably I would have been worried to death," said Partha Sarkar, chief executive of HTMT Global Solutions Ltd.
The Bangalore-based back-office services provider used to generate all its revenue from India by providing services to its clients in the United States. But India now accounts for little over half the total, and rapid expansion in the Philippines and Mauritius has helped it offset the impact of a stronger rupee. It plans to enter China and Vietnam soon.
The company sees its 2008 revenue jumping to $150 million from $97 million in the last fiscal year.
"Three years back, I was completely exposed to rupee-dollar," Sarkar said. "Now it doesn't worry me. I have diversified my currency and country risk."
In July, Infosys Technologies, India's second-largest software services exporter, said it would buy three of Royal Philips Electronics' back-office services units in Thailand, Poland and India to expand market presence.
The back-office services unit of the third-largest software exporter Wipro Ltd plans to set up two facilities in China to tap growing business opportunities there, its chief executive T.K. Kurien said.
India's English-speaking workforce, a big factor in winning call-centre jobs, faces competition from countries like Kenya.
"When compared to India, we are better off in terms of salary and cost per seat, and we have a large pool of Kenyans with clear accents," said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in Kenya's Information Ministry.
India's share in the global back-office services pie will drop to 50 percent in the next 3-5 years from about 60 percent now, according to U.S.-based Tholons Inc, which offers management consultancy for offshoring.
India produces about 2.5 million graduates every year, versus 400,000 in the Philippines, but only about 15 percent are suitable for employment in the outsourcing sector.
U.S.-based outsourcer 24/7 Customer, which has multiple facilities in Asia's third-largest economy, interviews 5,000 candidates a month in India, but is able to recruit only about 250, Chief Marketing Officer V. Bharathwaj said.
This is pushing up wages rapidly as financial firms from Citigroup and HSBC to Standard Chartered Bank employ thousands at their back-office hubs in India.
Starting wages at 15,000 rupees ($366) a month are still about one-fifth of what their U.S. counterparts earn, but they are rising 10-15 percent a year.
Cost per employee for a back-office firm in Bangalore is almost similar to Manila, but is 20 percent lower in Guangzhou in China and 35 percent cheaper in Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, said Avinash Vashistha, chief executive of Tholons.
Analysts say that while Vietnam does not have a vast pool of English-speaking manpower, it is a prime destination for non-voice back-office services such as legal and medical transcription, claims processing, and finance and accounting.
Adding to the squeeze is the rupee, Asia's best performing currency this year, which climbed to a nine-year high of 40.20 against the dollar, up 10 percent since end-2006, while the Philippine peso has gained more than 5 percent.
First Global Securities last month downgraded India's IT services sector to "underperform", citing the rupee and wage inflation. Every 1 percent rise in the rupee impacts the services firms' margins by 30-50 basis points, analysts say.
"Everything is hitting us adversely," said Kiran Karnik, president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies. "Wages are going up, real estate costs are escalating and on top of that you have the dollar exchange rate going bad."
India's back-office services industry, which earned $8.4 billion in exports in the year to March, is also being lured by tax breaks, infrastructure improvements and investment perks offered by China and the Philippines, he said.
The industry is also anxiously watching for any ripple effect from the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, with some smaller firms feeling the pinch as U.S. companies trim spending on services.
However, Infosys' outsourcing unit sees an opportunity here, reckoning that the need to cut costs would be even more prevalent in an economic downturn, potentially boosting business.
(Additional reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura in NAIROBI and Rosemarie Francisco in MANILA)