‘Consumer Protection, Please Hold the Line’

Romanian students answer the telephone for Austrian companies – for a quarter of the wage

News | Cristina Rotaru | December 2011 / January 2012

Imagine the scenario: Say you receive an unjustifiably high bill from your phone company. Say you’re having problems trying to convince your landlord to return your deposit, or you’ve bought a brand new kitchen utensil that turned out to be broken. Who will you ask for help?

If you believe that Google’s top-listed option is also the most reliable one, you will probably turn to the Konsumentenschutz (consumer protection service), located just a mouse click away  at www.konsumenten-schutz.at, and dial the helpdesk number listed on the website.

What the Austrian consumer does not know, however, is that the person at the other end of the line is most likely a 21-year-old Romanian student speaking from his home city of Sibiu.

"Are you in the office in Vienna?" I asked as I made my first call. "Precisely. We’re on Vivenotgasse 8, in the 12th District," said the voice without missing a beat. But I wasn’t fooled. First of all, I immediately recognised the accent. But more, I knew from a friend that the phone line was redirected to Romania through a server. I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation: Two Romanians on the phone, pretending to be Austrians.

But this is how it works at the Konsumentenschutz Österreich (KsföK – Consumer Protection Service for the Austrian Capital Market), a self-appointed private organisation financed by its members that has taken upon itself the task of "restoring the balance between information overflow and information deprivation". In exchange for a yearly membership fee of €92 and a one-time activation fee of €30, customers are assisted in resolving any issues they might be facing in commercial services in all domains regarding energy, insurance, promotion, and banking. And all of this, the website explains, is achieved with the assistance and support of various governmental institutions.

At first, it appeared as though this was a government agency requiring legitimate fees for services provided in the public interest. That is, until December 2009, when the Austrian Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK) and the Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection filed an official complaint and exposed KsföK as a fraud.

According to ministry officials, this organisation has no authority to proclaim itself a service in the public interest and has thereby "legally wronged the Republic’s emblem by misusing its name". In October 2010, the Commercial Court ruled in the state’s favour and issued an official warning about the association’s legitimacy.

"Linking the company with public institutions will clearly attract customers", said AK expert Ulrike Ginner. "We distance ourselves from everything that KsföK stands for."

Yet the power of Google seems to outweigh any government declaration. In 2010 alone, KsföK processed over 160,000 complaints at the initial price of €122, making a profit of nearly €20 million.

The public clearly does not know that the same kind of assistance is available for free at the Department for Consumer Services within the Austrian Chamber of Labour.

With so much revenue, a well-trained staff with the best technology should be a given. But then why outsource? Why jeopardise the company’s credibility by hiring unqualified Romanian students?

"Last summer I found an ad in the paper that the Konsumentenschutz Österreich was looking for people who could speak German, and I applied for a job," said a former employee of the association. As a four-year resident of Vienna, this Romanian economics student, who has asked to remain anonymous, saw it as an opportunity to earn some money while spending the holidays at home.

"The training consisted of periodic work assessment and was conducted by an assistant manager who spoke worse German than any of us," he explained. "I was the only one there who knew anything about Austria."

In fact, most people working for the call centre are young and have little, if any, knowledge of Austrian commercial law. But for €229 a month, working eight-hour days, they are instructed to fake it.

With the Austrian minimum wage set at €1,000 a month, cheaper labour makes outsourcing hard to resist. Whereas crossing cultural boundaries has long been used as a justification, the truth is that Eastern Europe has a large untapped workforce of university graduates who still long for the West, and will jump at the chance to work for a foreign company.

"I think our greatest opportunities lie outside this country, with European companies that truly recognise our potential and are willing to invest in us," one Romanian student explained.

And the company?  One can only guess: Lukas Bichl, the CEO of KsföK, did not respond to requests for comment.

The greatest irony, however, lies in the double standard here in Austria. Based on a bilateral agreement, Romanians and Bulgarians cannot be legally employed in Austria until the end of 2013 – unless they can prove that they are indispensible to their employer.

Meanwhile they work for Austrian firms in their home countries for a quarter of the pay they would receive here, while undermining the credibility of public services of which the Austrian government is justly proud.

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