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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 24/10/2005 Some ideas just make so much sense. Take the natural evolution of the workplace: people are being put into smaller and smaller spaces, constrained by cubicles and ever-weightier rulebooks.

Monday 24/10/2005

Some ideas just make so much sense. Take the natural evolution of the workplace: people are being put into smaller and smaller spaces, constrained by cubicles and ever-weightier rulebooks. One of the highest expressions of this concept is the call centre, where people can be anywhere on the planet provided they've got access to a computer and a headset. They could be half-way up a mountain in a monastic cell, or in an igloo on one of the remaining bits of ice cap. It's a closed, inflexible and inhumane existence. Why, they could almost be in prison.

Prison — where the wages are low and the workers compliant. Where days off rarely trouble the schedule, and you don't lose your best people for four weeks a year. Maternity and paternity leave? No problem. In fact, all the things that make outsourced call centres so attractive are doubly true for prisons — together with a lot of extra advantages.

It's no great surprise to find that the US has already got in on the act — "Domestic outsourcing at offshore prices", as Federal Prison Industries advertises its call centres. The Dutch are tempted too, although there's some concern that it would ruin the local call centre industry. You can see how that might work: depressed at losing his job, Piet takes to drink and drugs, gradually running out of friends and options until one day he's apprehended trying to hold up an off-licence. Sentenced to six months inside and bang — he's back on the phones but costing a fraction of his old wage. And who better to sell security services and insurance than the experts?

The options for working behind bars have been limited in the past, but new technology can change all that. Why stop at call centres? Lots of developers lead lives with a degree of naughtiness involved: a swoop of their homes looking for illicit binary will net hundreds. That alone could make the UK coding industry more globally competitive.

Why stop there? Any work that takes place on a computer would qualify for the porridge discount — and with the UK prison population inexorably rising, we should have enough bods to compete anywhere with anyone.

Good thing I lead a blameless life.