Sketches of Bombay: At the Call Centers

Note: In the summer of 2005 I was an intern at Focus on the Global South, India, working primarily on a report on call center working conditions and other industry issues. Much fieldwork, and conversation, ensued.

It's on fire! The industry's on fire! The newspapers carrying the stories are catching it too! It's localized now, but wait and the blaze will spread across the country. But here at Intelenet, it's a little cool, and the reception I get is positively frosty. Intelenet is one of the larger BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) centers in the Bombay area, and I'm waiting for an appointment made through a contact with a manager in the company. The place is quiet in that quiet office way. One receptionist relentlessly questions me, perhaps wary of my intentions, and attempts to trip me up—"You don't know what department she's in? Why do you want to talk with her?" Does past experience lead him to think I'm a journalist or affiliated with an anti-outsourcing group in the US? And so it goes. But I make it in.

The term Business Process Outsourcing, or BPO, refers to the outsourcing of business functions such as airline and hotel reservation systems, customer service lines, and data entry and processing tasks. Call centers are those BPOs that require telephone communication with mainly overseas customers. Roughly twenty percent of the estimated 250-300,000 BPO workers in India work in the Bombay area. This development, Mindspace, in the outer suburb of Malad, hosts the largest concentration of call centers in Bombay, including some familiar names such as JP Morgan Chase and IBM. My general modus operandi in meeting call center workers has been to stand in the open-air foyers and stairwells of several of these buildings and meet employees who are on their breaks or at the beginning or end of a shift. I talk to many employees on a range of issues affecting workers in the industry. I mostly talk with smokers, but then again, that might be everyone. Many here began to smoke after starting work in call centers. I wonder about the stress-relieving qualities of the cigarette, and if the cigarette is a sign of evolutionary adaptation, the extra appendage that enable these workers survival in the industry. This may be where the rumors of a booming India came from. Where there's smoke, there's fire! One worker offers me a joint that he will smoke before heading in for his shift. I think that might work well as a stress reliever.

Rivers of Blood?

The media has been rife with reports of the racial abuse endured by call center employees in India. One employee, who previously worked on a British customer service line, periodically handled customers who would call for no ostensible purpose other than to abuse him, to take out frustrations on the Indian call center employee, who can handle both their customer service problems and act as emotional foil (for free!). Another employee left the call center he was initially working at, which handled customer service for a major cellular phone company in the US, due to the amount of verbal abuse he experienced from the US customers: "They were going through all that shitty stuff in New York [a reference to 9/11], terming us as terrorists, especially the guys… from the point of time we started disclosing we were in India, callers would say "You guys are wrecking our country," "You're ruining my mental peace." He contrasts this response from US customers to that experience from the UK-based callers at his current call center. They aren't abusive, and are even apologetic: "Sorry, it's not you I'm abusing, it's the service."

In response to the verbal abuse of workers placing outbound, or unsolicited, calls, many companies have begun allowing employees to hang up on offending callers and adding their names to a "Do Not Call" list. This does not extend to customer service calls. Employees cannot hang up on these callers, however abusive, due to customer service agreements.

Monitoring and Performance Measures

Since the breaking of a major fraud case earlier this year, security has become the major issue in the industry. In April, several present and former employees of MphasiS, a call center based in Pune, used information acquired at work to take out over $350,000 from US bank accounts. NASSCOM, the major lobbying body on behalf of the IT and BPO industry, is focusing their attention on improving the regulatory framework of the industry in this area, although it is pointed out that MphasiS was not even in compliance with established legislation in India. To keep incidents like this from reoccurring, several security measures are in operation. Searches take place at the entrance to each call center for cell phones, laptops, PDAs and the like, anything capable of recording or transmitting information from the workplace. In addition, once inside, they are monitored. In one employee's workplace, cameras strategically positioned throughout the call center can see what any one person is doing at any time. On his office floor, five to six cameras monitor 500 workspaces. Surveillance is for monitoring performance as well as for security issues. In another employee's office, quality assurance inspectors located in Ohio randomly listen in on calls and rate them. There is no indication to the employees of which calls inspectors listen in on.

On my last day of fieldwork, as it turned out, I find myself at a cafe with a group of managerial-level employees who prove to be a wealth of information on performance measures for employees. As I am hesitant to generalize their information beyond their particular company, they assure me that the information they give me is common practice throughout the industry. For call center employees, having a break on a given day is uncertain. It depends on the number of people who make it to work. If not enough people show up for their shifts, the people who are working may have to forego their breaks. Employees are expected to answer a pre-determined number of calls during their shift. Successful handling of the allotted number of calls constitutes a portion of the performance evaluation of the worker. The other portion of the evaluation comes from the specifics of each handled call. One of these measures is the average handling time (AHT) of the call. The longer a call goes on, the lower your evaluation score in this area. In effect, the employees who are able to quickly get people off the phone will get higher scores in this area. Other measures revolve around the quality of the call, based on tone, asking the right questions, searching for accurate information, adherence to company procedures, and upselling if applicable, or attempting to sell an upgraded product or related item.

Attrition Rates Re-examined

I have come partly to gauge the viability of unionization of the sector, and have been distributing questionnaires for this purpose. Although responses indicate that workers have issues with their working conditions—stressful work conditions wrought by the above combination of surveillance and abusive callers, few work breaks, high work targets, the repetitive nature of the job—the attrition rates don't appear to be the correct metric to judge this.

Attrition rates, variously estimated as between twenty and eighty percent, are due primarily, from what I have gathered, to workers moving to other jobs within the industry itself. The manager I meet with at Intelenet gives me numbers obtained through exit interviews in her division. Roughly eight-five percent of those who leave go to another call center. Of the other fifteen percent, 80% percent are either students or relocating due to family. An employee I interview in middle management works for a US-based collection agency, and gets 2-3 calls per week from placement agencies who are looking recruit for other companies. These other companies are usually new, brimming with investment money and can offer higher wages to their initial recruits. This employee says they can maybe offer a twenty percent or higher increase in wages. He tires of the calls, especially receiving them in the morning after his night shift, but is reluctant to burn any bridges.

Employees I talk with have moved between companies for a host of reasons. Some move from night to day shifts because of the alienation they feel from family and friends. Others move as they search for a better package money, environment, and growth opportunities. Some employees are at the intersection of two trends: (1) The push for more labor as more work and more diversified work is outsourced from overseas, moving companies to recruit from a wider pool, including those who have only finished high school, and (2) Those who join the industry temporarily for the money. I meet a group of three people who began their call center jobs after finishing high school (the 12th standard in India). They worked for between two and twelve months in call centers and are all about to begin degrees in Public Administration. One spent his time in the industry attending one paid training after another, lasting from one to three months, finding a loophole of sorts in the system.

I also meet people who have switched over from other careers, in NGOs, as housewives. One in particular left a job in the hotel industry due to the irregularity of shift timings and the high pay of the call centers. He and his wife have both completed five years in the call center industry and advanced to management positions. He finds the work less stressful than in his previous career: "I get picked up from home, driven to work, turn on the com[puter], put on the headphones, dial the numbers, take my breaks, finish and get driven home. I don't have to wait for the bus or train and worry about being late if something happens." Most companies in the complex have cars to pick up workers from their home or from the nearby train station, and drop them off after work ends.

Interconnections and Priorities

By some estimates, the call center industry is expected to have a reasonably short life span. As wages increase in India's call centers, other low-wage destinations become more attractive, and competition is increasing from China and the Philippines. A study by DiamondCluster International, a global management-consulting firm, shows growth in the number of dissatisfied customers and an interest in China as an alternative destination. The "race to the bottom," to borrow a phrase from the anti-sweatshop movement, may be beginning. The analogy is apt, if we view manufacturing as the prior wave of "outsourcing." The industry is already moving to cut costs in areas that are available to them to do so. NASSCOM is currently lobbying the Indian government to modify the academic curriculum in colleges to incorporate training that meets industry needs, emphasizing voice accent training and BPO-specific computer systems training.

In general, the workers I speak with expect this type of work to last about a decade longer, although one thought differently. She sees India's advantage as transcending material conditions of labor costs and infrastructure to reside in the creativity of Indian call center employees. In her workplace, periodic meetings with clients from the UK and management allow ideas on improving services to circulate.

The typical benefits of the IT industry cited include the foreign exchange earnings that could be used to buy imported materials for infrastructure projects, the spillover effects of servicing the new industry. In fact, the cafe I'm sitting in is situated in the Mindspace complex itself, built for call center employees. The Pizza Hut next door as well. The builders for the complexes, the janitorial and maintenance staff, maybe even some tax revenues result. However, there is a larger point, that the industry does not exist in a vacuum and has external consequences. One touted benefit of the IT industry is the technological enabling of productive advances in other sectors, such as agriculture. The way this scenario may play is actually a cause for concern, as it tends to occur in connection with the consolidation of landholdings, the spread of factory farming methods, and growing inequality. Although production may increase, whose produce is it?

Or to give another example: As money flows into the pockets of those directly and indirectly affiliated with the IT and BPO industries, inequality increases and investment funds are used to cater to this section of the Indian population with a large disposable income, meaning less investment funds available for projects of public welfare. And there is still more to talk about as the WTO ministerial approaches.

As I sit inside a cafe in the Mindspace complex, I read the cover story of the new Outlook magazine, on the death of the farmer in India. Farmer suicides, not just in Andhra Pradesh, but also in Maharashtra, Punjab, and Kerala have resulted from the debt burdens of rural households in recent years. Farming has become a costly occupation, post-Green Revolution. Credit is needed for water, for fertilizers, for pesticides, even for seeds. Institutional credit at reasonable interest rates is not available. For example, while the total short-term credit required for crops is about 1 trillion rupees ($25 billion) a year, financial institutions provide only twelve to fourteen percent of this. I think about the reasons why an occupation that more than sixty percent of the population is dependent on is not the highest priority in government planning and expenditure. The list is long, and it's depressing.

In fact, in the current Doha Round of WTO negotiations, due to aggressive lobbying by industry groups in both India and the US, it appears that the Indian government is willing to lower trade barriers in agriculture and liberalize crucial sectors such as health, education, finance and energy, all areas that have an enormous developmental impact. All to get concessions by the US and the European Union (EU) in Mode 4 of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) negotiations, which covers the movement of labor across national borders. This is, of course, with skilled technical workers in mind, enabling the Oracles and Microsofts of the world to keep their channel of temporary overseas labor flowing. It is vital for people's organizations to pressure the Indian government not to sell out the majority of their people in the WTO. The next WTO ministerial is scheduled for December 13-18, 2005 in Hong Kong, where the elites in both the North and South will continue their process of pauperizing large swathes of the globe. Derail the Hong Kong Ministerial and the Doha Corporate Agenda!

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