Posted on February 19, 2007

Looks Like We Got Us A Convoy . . . From India

Ashling O’Connor, London Times, February 16, 2007

Truckers on American highways will hear a new accent on their two-way radios when India exports its first batch of lorry drivers to the US to meet a severe manpower shortage.

For the past four months more than 200 “transportation specialists” have been put through their paces at a training school in the state of Andhra Pradesh where US conditions have been replicated—from the size of the trailers to Yankee truckers’ slang.

The first 25 truckers have been earmarked for a company in Pennsylvania and are waiting for their two-year visas to be processed, according to the Overseas Manpower Consultancy of Andhra Pradesh (OMCAP), the government-owned company that was set up to fill overseas job vacancies and reduce the exploitation of Indian workers.

They are just the latest in a line of exportable skills from India, home to one-sixth of the world’s population, as profit-driven enterprises and cash-strapped governments prove only too willing to tap into an English-speaking workforce eager to do the jobs rejected by others, often for a fraction of the salary.

As international companies continue to outsource thousands of jobs to India, they are also finding it economically attractive to import the labour to their own backyards.

OMCAP recently placed 150 Indians in a Macau casino to work as security guards and is recruiting construction workers for Malaysia, oil workers, masons and carpenters for Kuwait, welders for Qatar and faculty medical staff for Libya.

More truckers will be lured to the US with the prospect of earning in a month what would take a year to earn slogging across India on its notoriously dangerous roads.

Drivers in the US on average take home $5,000 (£2,500) a month plus good benefits but fewer Americans are interested in long-haul because of the amount of time they spend away from home.

Gagan Global, the US company recruiting the drivers, says that there are an estimated 20,000 vacancies that urgently need filling.

“Americans do not want to do this type of labour and as the population ages, drivers are retiring,” Philip Gagan, the chief executive, said. “The work ethic in India is phenomenal and an 80-hour week is just what they’re accustomed to. They won’t have to work those kinds of hours in the US, of course, but they’re willing.” The Indian drivers were trained at a state-of-the-art training facility in Ambapuram, a village near the coastal city of Vijayawada. The curriculum was devised according to US standards as those selected have to pass written and practical examinations to obtain local licences.

The course, costing 25,000 rupees (£290) per head, includes manoeuvring 18-wheel rather than 16-wheel trailers, understanding US traffic rules and different social customs.

“They learn left-hand driving as well as etiquette and culture,” R. Karikal Valaven, the managing director of OMCAP, said. “They also need to interact with Mr Gagan so that they can understand the American accent.” Trainees must already possess a heavy vehicle driving licence and at least five years’ experience. They also have to pass an HIV test. India’s 3.3 million truckers are among the highest risk groups because many pick up prostitutes and refuse to wear condoms.

The arrival of more foreign workers may upset trade unions. The $200 billion a year US trucking industry is heavily unionised. Plans by the Bush Administration to allow Mexican truckers beyond an agreed 20-mile border-hugging zone in Texas have encountered fierce resistance.

Mr Gagan defended his programme, saying that both the US and India would benefit. “They’re not taking away jobs [in the US]. There is a shortage. There are companies that have 5,000 trucks and 1,000 of them are sitting idle in their yards without anyone to work them,” he said. “The Indians are not going just as drivers. They will learn about the American system and bring their knowledge back home.”