Five Surprising Examples of Extreme Outsourcing



If you call the customer service line of a major business or corporation these days, there’s a good chance you’ll end up talking to someone thousands of miles away (or to a computer, if the company is really trying to cut costs). If you go shopping for new clothes, it’s likely that some of shirts and dresses you try on were made by people who are also thousands of miles away, in shops far less glamorous than the ones in which the finished products end up.

Outsourcing is so commonplace in certain industries, we don’t even think twice about it anymore. But over the past few years, the trend has spread to practices far beyond call centers and apparel manufacturing. In fact, you might be surprised at the industries that rely on outsourcing now.

Running Errands

We could all use personal assistants to return calls and emails, pay the bills, and shop for presents, but how many of us can afford to hire them? That’s why India-based companies like GetFriday and Brickwork offer a team of assistants who take care of the little tasks you don’t have the time or energy for—and do it for a much lower fee than what you’d pay an in-person assistant. Writer A.J. Jacobs wrote about using Brickwork in a 2005 Esquire story and expressed much satisfaction with how his hired assistants, Honey and Asha, researched his stories, dealt with the phone company, and even honored bizarre requests, like emailing Michael Jackson jokes to him and intervening in a fight with his wife.

Drive-Through Order Taking

When you imagine the person taking your order at a fast-food drive-through, you probably assume he or she is behind the counter in the restaurant. But that’s no longer the case in some establishments; instead, the people who take your order might be located in call centers in entirely different states. For example, a 2006 New York Times story reporting on the new practice found that an employee at a California-based McDonald’s call center took orders from Hawaii, Mississippi, and Wyoming in just two minutes. The orders are then sent to the stores’ computers. Chains like Wendy’s and Jack in the Box also have been testing out this approach. The goal is to help other employees focus their attention on in-store matters and to keep the drive-through line moving as quickly as possible.

Drug Trial Testing

Drug makers have to host clinical trials for any new drugs they want to put out on the market to ensure that they’re safe. Increasingly, they’re moving these trials to lower-income countries and regions like India and parts of Eastern Europe. Researchers who published an article on the subject in a 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that the number of countries that are hosting trials outside of the United States doubled between 1995 and 2005, while the number of U.S.-based trials went down. Part of the reason for this has to do with decreased labor and testing-site costs at places outside of the United States; another factor might be a bigger pool of humans in these locales who are willing and able to be tested.

Unfortunately, it’s not always done with explicit permission. The BBC reported in 2006 about an experimental drug being tested in India on people with cancer without their consent. Because the tests are done abroad, language barriers and cultural differences might get in the way of the test subjects’ comprehending the risks or benefits. As S.P. Kalantri, a doctor who runs such trials in India, told Wired magazine’s Jennifer Kahn in 2006, “Ninety percent of patients being recruited in India are poor … Trials enroll very few patients who are rich, literate, and capable of asking awkward questions.”

Video Gaming

People generally fall into one of two opinion camps when it comes to video games: they either think they’re a waste of time and a contributor to childhood obesity, or they find them a fun and mentally stimulating way to spend one’s leisure time. But both camps would probably look down on the fact that you can pay someone to play the lower levels of games like World of Warcraft so that you can effortlessly ascend to the more challenging stuff. There are also players (known in some circles as “gold farmers”) in Chinese gaming factories whose sole purpose is to accrue points and game currency so that others can buy it off of them with real money. The buyers then use that game money to buy weapons and other items necessary to play the game as successfully and lazily as possible.


Ever wonder how some power bloggers manage to update their pages so frequently and post new content throughout the day and night? It’s possible they get a little help from organizations like Rent A Blogger, which hires people to do everything from set up blogs to research and write about new topics for them. Even Tweeters can pay others to send tweets throughout the day and find Twitter directories to join. There’s a lot of controversy in the online world as to whether this is ethical, since blogs and profiles are supposed to be personal, so many users keep the practice on the down-low. They’re more open about outsourcing for things like page redesigns and traffic generation, though.

Unfortunately, having everything done out of eyesight has also created a great deal of unethical situations beyond the blogosphere, like the drug trials in India or the apparel sweatshops in Asian countries. Even McDonald’s outsourcing was described as “bizarre” by one consumer interviewed in the 2006 New York Times story. What we gain in productivity and profit, we lose in personal touch and a feeling of connectedness. But as long as there are businesses interesting in saving money and potential employees willing to work for less, it will continue to be a major part of our economy and culture.

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