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US firms farming out office work to places like Barbados

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National Demographics Ltd., a data marketing firm, maintains its executive suites in Denver - and most of its clerical staff in Barbados. Barbados?

Three times a week, boxes stuffed with multicolored questionnaires are loaded aboard jetliners in Denver and shipped to the sun-dappled Caribbean island. There, 75 local workers tap the data into computers. Then the information on magnetic tapes is flown back to Denver.

National Demographics is part of an increasingly common - and controversial - phenomenon: the ''offshore office.''

In a small way, this change parallels the manufacturing situation of the past two decades. During that time many United States companies have set up factories in low-wage, developing countries, particularly in Asia.

Now advances in telecommunications and computers make it possible to farm out office work - such as data entry and word processing - to remote corners of the globe.

As information becomes the raw material of the future, the number of companies enlisting overseas employees to handle routine clerical tasks could jump dramatically.

In fact, some advocates see offshore offices not only as tools to help companies trim mushrooming office costs but as ways to bridge the technology gap between developed and developing countries.

But with high unemployment in the United States, any shifting of clerical jobs overseas is bound to stir controversy. Already a number of unions and office worker advocacy groups are watching closely.

''We are at the beginning of what could be a major trend,'' says Harley Shaiken, a technology and labor analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ''Microelectronics is severing the geographic link between where the work is done and where the product ends up.''


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