Is It Racist To Prefer Australian Call Centres?

Is It Racist To Prefer Australian Call Centres?

The Ad Standards Board (ASB) has ruled that it’s not racist to criticise foreign call centres in advertisements that promote onshore services: the white actor can even throw in an exaggerated eye roll.

Support Staff picture from Shutterstock

Last month, the ASB received a complaint for Choosi insurance that featured a woman rolling her eyes during a reference to non-“Aussie” call centres.

In the offending segment, a woman praises the virtues of Choosi’s call centre before pausing, rolling her eyes and adding it’s “Aussie too”.

The complainant argued that the ‘Aussie’ remark utilised a racist stereotype that call centers are filled with foreigners and implicitly implies that Choosi excludes certain prospective employees on the basis of their race.

“[This] creates a subtext that a call centre that is not staffed by ‘Aussies’ would somehow provide a less rewarding/understanding experience for the customer,” the complaint claimed.

You can see the video below:

The ASB dismissed the complaint with the following statement:

“We acknowledge that the advertisement includes the statement that has been complained about. However, we disagree with the complainant’s view that this is a racist remark that contravenes the AANA Code of Ethics (the Code) either directly or by implication.

“…The phrase ‘Aussie call centre’ in the context with which it is used is clearly describing the location of the call centre and not the racial or ethnic make-up of the employees working within the call centre. We further argue that the word ‘Aussie’ is racially and ethnically neutral, and at any rate the statement made cannot accurately be described as vilifying.”

We’d argue that the ASB only got it half right. While we wouldn’t charge the advertisement with flat-out racism, it’s highly doubtful that the advertisers were referring to the physical location of their call centre. It is far more likely that the comment was directed at offshore support staff and their perceived inability to speak coherent English.

As the complainant puts it: “The choice of [white] actors for the testimonial make it quite clear who the advertisers are identifying as Australian. The argument is offensive to Australians who may not be white or speak with a non-standard Australian accent.”

We’d like to get your take on all this. Do you think its racist to make blanket statements about the superiority of localised call centres? Is the quality of service from overseas call centres really that bad? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

[Via Mumbrella]


  • Is It Racist To Prefer Australian Call Centres?
    When they can help me in an accent that I can understand and not have to continually and apologetically ask for them to repeat it slowly, Then I won’t have a problem with it! So in this situation, no, it’s not racist at all…!!

    • It’s not that hard, is it?

      I couldn’t care less where the person on the other end of the phone is sitting as long as I can have my issue dealt with quickly and easily. But when calling a foreign call centre, you often have to deal with extra hassles like:
      – Being unable to understand the operators accent (and perhaps their being unable to understand yours)
      – Stifled chain of escalation
      – Robot operators. In order to strip out cultural differences, operators tend are trained to act like robots with no personality, just formulaic responses that may or may not address your issue. (“I understand your problem sir but…”)

      Given Australian call centres are generally easier to deal with it’s hardly racist to prefer them.

    • What about an Australian in an Australian call centre with a minor speech impediment? My brother has a minor speech impediment and works at David Jones, and everyday there’s 1-2 people that go to the office and complain about him working. Sometimes you can’t understand and need to ask him to repeat. And he doesn’t sound Aussie. No one would think he is Australian. Most think he’s from the UK (although it’s not really a UK accent either)

  • Well, I reckon the initial add, whilst pushing it, is still fine — It’s almost like saying ‘australian made/owned’…. Almost.

    On another note though – The point of a call center is for someone on a phone to be able to handle your problem or other issues. Not only then does this mean that people in call centers should actually be able to handle issues, but to be able to get their point across legibly.

    I have no issues with *most* of the accents, etc, I speak to over the phone, it’s the appalling service around being passed up the line to some sort of mythical manager because call center staff either know SFA, or are allowed to do SFA,

  • I don’t think it’s racist to prefer Australian Call Centres. That’s just more jobs for Australians especially at a time when jobs are a bit tough.

    I think it’s racist for someone to say something like “I hate talking to foreign people” or something along those lines in an ad. In its current form it’s slightly… uncouth… but not really racist.

    • Please don’t think I’m having a dig.

      It is very difficult for a company to have a call centre here in Australia. Especially when wage standards are set so high, a team of maybe 10 people here could possible equate to 40-50 people overseas. This would lead from complaints being “I can’t understand them” to “Why the F— am I waiting so long, I’ve been waiting for F—ing an hour” *Click hang up which from a business stand point which is way worse.

      • Maybe. But my experience is that offshore call centres are so useless that I generally have to make multiple calls to get anything done. I wonder how much money they ultimately save.

        The very same companies that offshore ostensibly to save money will waste astronomical sums on ‘corporate hospitality’ (read: old boys giving each other gifts at our expense), unnecessarily lavish office buildings for the execs, etc. I know that in the two offshoring situations I’ve dealt with (both in software development), no money was saved, and it was a mystery to everyone below the CFO why the particular company involved was chosen.

        I wouldn’t over-estimate the rationality of Australian companies. Much of what they do is driven by fashion, or the personal interests of the execs, rather than any truly intelligent assessment of the company bottom-line.

          • The Commonwealth Bank the most profitable Bank in the country has local call centers, they are making more money than their competing banks with overseas call centers. Could it be through Customer Satisfaction?

        • If your goal in offshoring is merely to win a game of corporate buzzword bingo then yeah you’re definitely setting yourself up for failure. We’ve started offshoring recently, which had nothing to do with costs, and everything to do with skills. We advertised for 12 months Australia wide for good developers and didn’t find a single decent applicant, despite great salary and working conditions offered. Looking offshore, we found a brilliant company experienced in a wide range of technologies, who actively train their staff in areas like test driven development, agile project management etc. We put on a team of 3 in the space of a few weeks, and are now adding our fourth. These aren’t the kind of poorly trained DIY developers that learn everything through beginner web tutorials. They’re hard working, highly competent software engineers, that know their languages inside out. Just looking at their code I’ve learned things I didn’t know were possible with the given language. Some people go offshore to save money. We did it for talent.

          Some of these companies are really upping their game, actually spending money and time on in house training to improve worker skills (something rare to find in Australia). If we’re not careful Australia’s high standard of living and relatively high incomes could see us priced out of relevancy.

          • Right on the dot!

            We have already priced our selves out of a lot of manufacturing sectors already.

  • “Is it racist to prefer Australian call centres?”

    Depends who you ask. I bet there’s plenty of self-loathing Australia-haters who consider any remote form of patriotism to be racist, regardless of practicality.

    Without getting into the whole ‘support your local economy’ discussion, I always prefer an Australian-based call centre because to me it shows a company’s serious commitment to the local market. I find Australian based call centres resolve issues far faster without exception, and this is more to do with the attitudes, policies and overall support structure of the organisation rather than any perceived incompetence of the individual on the other end based on communication difficulties.

  • There’s no blanket answer to this.

    On the one hand: the move to more centralised call centres in general has been a disaster from a customer service point of view. Even within a country, I’d rather speak to someone near to the problem, and near to me, who actually understands something beyond set of a memorised scripts. Offshoring is just the most extreme version (yet) of this centralisation. Offshore call centres are crap, not because the staff are no good as individuals (let alone because of their “race”), but because they’re too remote from the problems being discussed. So it’s not racist to dislike offshore centres. It’s rational, because they’re useless.

    On the other hand, read any Aussie forum (whirlpool springs to mind), and a lot of the commentary is very thinly disguised racism. Some of those guys are pretty nasty from the safety of their dank bedrooms. Many of the accent and language complaints are, again, obviously racist, considering how incapable so many staff in Australian-based call centres are of comprehending or producing understandable English, even though it’s obviously their 1st language. Stupidity is a much harder barrier to get through than accent.

    It’s quite possible that choosi know all this, and are dog-whistling, but it’s hard to make that judgement based on the ad. The ASB probably got it (cautiously) right.

  • I’m not sure on the racism thing. But I think Aussies generally have a difficulty understanding alot of different accents and get frustrated (which can some times be considered racist).

    The funniest thing was I was watching an old Rally video with my brother-in-law and there was an interview with Colin McRae (who is Scottish), my brother-in-law couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

    So honestly I think most people would complain (which could lead to racist remarks) if the call centre was anywhere where there was an accent.

  • I couldn’t care less where the call centre is located or what background its employees come from as long as the staff are knowledgeable, I can understand them, they can understand me, and they can address my issues or questions to an acceptable standard with the minimum of fuss. It just so happens that when I do have issues with call centres on one or more of these criteria, that call centre is usually of the off-shore variety.

  • Having worked in a call Center and having been forced to deal with any number of low cost high throughput Call Centers i can honestly say i couldn’t care if it sounded racist. If i cant understand you, if you have no grasp of the subject that your supposed to be providing support for or if your just a douche expect me to be a painful customer.

  • Foreign call centres are never given as high a level of access to your account as local call centres. I’d prefer to call up, maybe get transferred to a higher area, and have far more chance of my issue being fixed.

    Every time I call a foreign call centre they have trouble grasping my issue, and it is never ever fixed on the spot. I’m lucky if it’s even recorded correctly so it can be followed up by the correct area later.

  • ‘..featured a woman rolling her eyes during a reference to non-”Aussie” call centres.’
    Where? She looks right down the barrel of the camera the whole time.
    If she *did*, then perhaps I’d agree that the tone of the statement is a bit iffy. But she doesn’t, and it makes this whole article pointless.

  • It’s probably on the same level of racism as when people get offended when someone speaking English (with a strong accent) is subtitled in interviews or such. It could be considered racist, but at the same time, people can’t be expected to understand all foreign (to them) accents.

    People living in Australia are more likely to adjust to an acceptable accent here. People in call centers overseas are likely dealing with other countries besides Australia, they’re never going to be as adjusted to what we’re used to hearing.

    It wouldn’t be considered racist to specify in a job ad here that you must be able to speak English. It’s the main language of Australia, and you’re almost useless as a worker if you don’t have some grasp of it as such. I think likewise, Australia has a vague range of accents we’re used to here, and I don’t think it’s racist to specify that you must have an accent understandable to Australians in order to fill certain roles.

  • No, its not “racist” to suggest that the quality of non-Australian call centres is sub-standard. While ALL call centres are a corporates way of saying “we literally don’t care, talk to the hand”, an off-shore call centre is their way of saying “you know what, I cant even lift my hand.” I will use ANY means of reaching Telstra rather than the step-by-step generic drones in Off-Shore Facility X. I get a faster and more qualified response from their Twitter.

  • I had about 15 calls with an overseas call centre trying to solve an issue with my landline. They just follow a script and want to close the call, even though they have to open another call. My issue was only solved when they finally agreed to pass me to a local person.

  • I’m not against off shore call centres – I am however against bottom-dollar customer service where the consultant has difficulty understanding you and vice versa, where there are no warm transfers or handovers between consultants (perhaps due to geolocation of the different departments, perhaps not) and where it feels like the consultant ultimately has no power to assist you if there’s a problem.

    Might I add: If you happen to be a customer of Vodafone, don’t bother with their phone customer service, it’s frustrating at best. Instead, make use of their email enquiry service. It’s really quite good, and I say that without a shred of irony

  • These companies frantically and blindly outsourcing to offshore call centres have failed to consider demographics.

    As the average age of the Australian population increases, partial deafness becomes an issue.

    It is hard enough to understand the tortured English of these foreign call centre staff with normal hearing. With even slight deafness it becomes impossible.

    • I’m 33 and I have industrial deafness, having spent the last few years asking friends right beside me what they are saying, they are finally realising I’m not joking.

      Now I need to try an explain that to a person who can barely understand me. With a familiar accent I can fill in the blanks about 80% of the time, with an unfamiliar accent with an incorrect pronunciation I’m screwed.

  • It’s not racist to prefer Australian call centres. It is to yell racist remarks on the phone, and it’s especially silly, considering that some of the people you’re speaking to have access to your personal information.

  • I call TPG yesterday and talked to two different Indian ladies the first was clear and easy to under stand. the second who was the “specialists” i had great difficulty understanding what she was saying and had to get almost every thing repeated. Also she did not understand my answers and constantly had to explain the same thing over and over. why because she keep following a script that i answered the the questions she keeper asking. i spend half the time say no i will not sign up to this or that that had nothing to do with what my call was about.

    • what it comes down to it the first lady was great and would be happy to call her up any time in the future. The second was so frustrating to deal with that i would more like hang up and try again on the call center lotto then go through that again. It because of the second lady that the call center would get a bad rap.

  • “[This] creates a subtext that a call centre that is not staffed by ‘Aussies’ would somehow provide a less rewarding/understanding experience for the customer,” the complaint claimed.

    This isn’t implied …. It’s not subtext…it’s what they are flatly saying and it’s true. Whoever doesn’t think that people of the same country and culture will have an easier time understanding each other is deluded.

  • Preferring services or products made by your own ethnic group cannot be racist in any shape or form.

    It’s only an issue because of our skin colour, white.

    An example of this train of thought is a Indian man preferring to eat at a local Indian restaurant and refusing to eat at the local pub. Because he identifies with the culture and they speak his first language in a accent he shares, and has a preference for the food does not make him a racist.

    Switch that around to a white man refusing to go to a Indian restaurant, and it gets called racist, which is more racist than the argument itself.

  • I find it difficult to understand the Filipino staff at Virgin and Kogan with their Americanised accents.
    Though the Indian accents at Optus I find alot easier to understand.

  • I didnt find that ad racist, even though Im not a white Australian. Also the ad does show a guy who the customer is speaking to that also doesnt look like the caucasian Australia person, so I dont believe there was any racial intention in the ad. Otherwise if they wanted to be racist about it, they would have used a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes speaking to a customer rather than a somewhat South American or Asian looking guy.

  • I don’t care where they are located, I just want us to be able to understand each other and to get my problem resolved – and unfortunately that is far less likely to happen if the call is sent overseas.

    To be fair, plenty of Australian call centres have messed me around too.

  • Honestly, I don’t care if the person at the other end of the phone is Aussie, as long as I can clearly understand what they say. Anything that impedes that (accents – including ‘ocka’, inadequate english-language skills, poor communication skills in general) is a nuisance. I don’t mind if the call centre is overseas, as long as they train the operators enough that I can converse with them fluently. And they know what they’re talking about.

    My experience has been that 3/Vodafone is the worst of anyone I’ve had to deal with by far. Optus is mostly bad (to be fair, language was less the issue than their customer service skills). Dell has been a real mixed bag. Bankwest and Suncorp are very good, as is iiNet (and the last person I spoke to there was based in South Africa).

    “The choice of [white] actors for the testimonial make it quite clear who the advertisers are identifying as Australian.

    That’s a relatively simple one. Using the most recent ABS data, here’s a couple of quick counters:

    1. 85.7% of Australians identify their ancestry as Australian, English, Scottish or Irish (37%, 32%, 9.1% & 7.6% respectively)
    2. 63% of Australians identify themselves as Christian
    3. The dominant sources of immigrants (i.e. “non-Aussies”) to Australia is England (19%), New Zealand (9%), China (5%), and Italy (5%)
    4. 22% of the population of Australia was born overseas – of which 2.1 million are from Europe (doing some very rough math, 22% of 22 million is 4.84 million, so 2.1 is almost half that figure)

    Pure and simple – the vast majority of the Australian population is White Anglo-Saxon, and will continue to be so for quite some time. The proportion of WA-S to non-WA-S is lowering, but even if we fixed the WA-S pop at current levels (~18.7 million) and all future immigration came from non-WA-S backgrounds, at current levels (~168,000 per year) it’d take 92 years for the population to even get to a 50/50 mix.

    So yes, the advertisers have identified and targeted a demographic that represents nearly 9/10 of the population as the source of testimonials – of which there are 4.

  • Having worked in a call center for a big telco, it was kind of funny to get the complaints that the last person that they spoke to was offshore. They were not. The office was split between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Just over half of the employees were probably Indian, that was just how it was. As a supervisor that had to take complaints we reassured that the call center was in Australia and that racism was not tolerated towards the CSR’s. So I know how it is from that side of it.

    Now in my current role I have to deal with a large hardware vendor who has recently moved their call centers from Australia over to the US. I have to say, give me an Indian in Calcutta or anyone anywhere else cause Americans are a pain to deal with. Their attitude is horrid and they obviously have no care for you as a customer.

    At the end of the day, if the service is good and the CSR is clear and understandable I don’t care where they are. Just as long as we can clearly communicate it’s all good.

  • For me, the issue (apart from the basic communication problems other people have mentioned above) is that I think if a company is doing business in a particular country then they should be employing people there. I don’t think they should be servicing customers in India or the Philippines with an Australian call centre, and the same applies the other way around, too. They should be employing customer service people in the community that they are servicing.

    The cost argument doesn’t hold a drop of water as far as I’m concerned. They keep telling us that the reason we pay so much for things over here is because of higher wages. But then they go and ship these jobs off to places with cheaper wages, but continue to charge the higher prices. You can’t have it both ways. If you want me to pay Australian prices, then hire Australians. If you’re going to offload your jobs to cheaper parts of the world then don’t tell me that it’s the wages that are the reason why I’m getting bent over and done dry on the Australian pricing.

  • I keep seeing this ad being discussed online, and everyone keeps making a big deal about her eye-rolling.

    She doesn’t roll her eyes!!!! Grrr!!!!

  • If people are willing to pay a premium just so that he/she can speak to some call center staff living in the next suburb, so be it.

    I am happy about my service providers finding the right people globally to get the job done with minimal cost.

    The Ad is is racist because there is a market for racism.

  • Understanding accents can be an issue. I do not have a drawl or a broad Australian accent yet talking to a US based Google call centre the other day was difficult. The lady on the other hand had great difficulty understanding my name ‘Ben’ even after spelling it out. I had to use the traditional name of Benjamin before she understood my ‘B’. It wasn’t a good start to the call.

    When I used to live in East London I’d often have to repeat myself twice or sometimes more when dealing with shop attendants. Simply because they simply were not use to my accent and it caught them off guard as they were expending a London or southern English accent.

    Like what has been mentioned here previously, the location of a centre is not the issue, it’s the ability of both parties to comprehend each other.

  • As a war veteran with a severe hearing loss I don’t consider it racist, it’s a fact, I can’t understand a thick accent combined with high background noise that so often is the case with call centres. I also find it offensive when the operator says “let me educate you”. (syntax error or not), it is offensive. Product knowledge is also pretty poor with some operators, the whole business experiment is an absolute failure.

  • For me, it is important that I know who I am talking to. For instance, I need assistance regarding my phone and internet connection. It matters to me that the customer service representative I am speaking with can truly help me and provide me the service I need at that moment. I don’t care if the representative who took my call is from Australia or the Philippines. But honestly, I prefer having my call answered by a Filipino. They are humble, smart and accommodating in my opinion.

  • I sometimes have issues with accents; usually if I am in a high noise environment, or the accent is especially thick. My issue comes down to the script. I have never once called a call centre with a problem that could be easily solved with a script. The inability to go off script is what never fails to irritate me because if my problem could have been solved by a script, I would have solved it already. I need to talk to someone who is not shackled to a script, be the Asian, Aussie, American, Pakistani, or where ever. That and be able to both understand and communicate.

  • “… call centre before pausing, rolling her eyes and adding it’s “Aussie too”. ”
    The fact that I do not see that she rolled her eyes in this add suggests to me that your argument, Sir, is invalid. The statement also does not suggest that the call centre is not multi-cultural but that the Call Centre is on shore hence Aussie. But the real issue here is the fact that Australia is one of the most racists countries when it comes to accents. An Australian citizen with an accent will be treated quite similar to someone who is off-shore.

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