36 Comments

Summary:

Saturday night, Delhi border… Odyssey night club… the music is clearly local – bollywood and bhangra hits mixed with some popular songs from the 80s and 90s. Beer is flowing, bodies writhing and people generally seem to be having fun. The night club which is in […]

Saturday night, Delhi border… Odyssey night club… the music is clearly local – bollywood and bhangra hits mixed with some popular songs from the 80s and 90s. Beer is flowing, bodies writhing and people generally seem to be having fun. The night club which is in one of the newer malls that have come up in Gurgaon, a dusty former cow patch, now a shiny suburban high tech haven, is one of the most popular destinations from those who work in the outsourcing/call center business. The place comes alive after midnight when apparently there is a shift change.

One thing which i saw was how young many of the call center workers are. They come from small towns which dot the landscape outside Delhi. If they lived at home, there would be no hope of ever finding a job. So they come to New Delhi. They live four to a house, sometimes more, and are driven to their subruban call centers in Toyota SUVs and most of the time eat there. They make about $500 a month, a fortune in local currency if you are young. They have a cell phones, and their accents have been replaced by their adopted accents. They wear expensive clothes, though they are not stylish. The dark circles under their eyes gives them away.

Here I got to talk to many who answer my phone calls whenever I have a question about my Amex Bill. Amid their sometimes drunken but polite arguments, you hear the cry for help. The constant pressure of trying to be someone else, faking accents and trying to deal with the abusive behavior of their customers, you find many are crumbling. The late nights, cooped up in cool but antiseptic halls, the call center workers are turning to drink, drugs and sex to find some meaning to their lives.

The next day I got to chat with one of the senior executives at a large outsourcing firm about this. Apparently this is not a problem being faced by the junior folks. Even executives are finding that their marriages are crumbling and many are having affairs. The whole thing is so dysfunctional, he pointed out and has been considering getting out of the business because the late night work shift does not allow him to spend any time with his wife and kids. And when I ask him when this call center bubble is going to burst – his response, not anytime, because economics are so good. He is getting out – as fast as he can.

By Om Malik

You're subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

Related stories

  1. I was forwarded this in an email a few days back. Its a tough life for these midnight’s children.
    One day when she can afford it, 21-year-old Aashna Khan will pursue what she always wanted to-photography. Right now she works away her nights at a Mumbai call centre. Khan never sleeps for more than five hours and eats very little. Health problems and mood swings notwithstanding, she is yet to see a doctor. “I am always too tired,” she says.
    In different versions, Khan’s lifescript is being played out in many Indian homes. Lakhs of Indian youth are opting out of colleges to queue up for jobs in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry-a collective term for a host of business processes that are being shifted from developed countries to countries such as India to save on costs. Call centres are the more popular face of this industry and account for 70 per cent of the Indian BPO industry. They dole out handsome salaries, as high as Rs 8,000-20,000 even to fresh graduates, and promotions are fast. Small wonder then that in numbers the BPO industry is currently doubling every two years with even qualified doctors joining call centres to make quick money. India currently accounts for 2 per cent of the global BPO industry, employing around two lakh people. According to a NASSCOM-Hewitt study, this number is expected to cross the one million-mark by 2006. Jobs range from receiving and making calls to conducting research for investment banks, studying radiology reports for hospitals and accounting work for companies.
    But it is hardly as smooth as it sounds. Youngsters who have ditched campuses soon realise that the fine print of prosperity disguises the parallel damage-both psychological and physical. Discontent simmers behind the glassy interiors. Most enter the industry thinking it will be one big party-fancy offices, swank cafeterias, colourful nights and fat salaries. But the illusion is ephemeral. Many call centres have gruelling 10-hour night shifts. This regimental white-collar job that involves working against the body clock and sleep deprivation soon triggers off a host of health problems. Employees need to be back in their seats not a minute later than the regulated breaks they are permitted to take. Otherwise, it could mean angry customers and lost business. The headsets only magnify the verbal assault on the employees. Contrary to popular perception, learning to roll their Rs, speaking with a Texan drawl and adopting a pseudonym are just a few things to be taken in the stride. Racial abuse from faceless customers is not uncommon. “The foreigners are rude, they start the conversation with ‘Are you an Indian?’ and disconnect calls if you say you are,” says 23-year-old Bangalore-based Ashwini Rao who quit her job in six months. “I couldn’t take it. I would rather be unemployed than be at a call centre,” says Rao, who was not allowed to take leave despite a sore throat.
    BPO HAZARDS
    Higher obesity and diabetes rates among night-shift workers.
    40 per cent higher heart disorder rates compared with other employees.
    Two-to-five times more susceptible to peptic ulcers.
    Prone to driving problems, 20 per cent more likely to meet with serious accidents.
    55 per cent of men in night-shift jobs smoke compared with the national average of 25 per cent; 51 per cent of women smoke (national average 21 per cent).
    Women suffer from high rates of miscarriages, hormonal problems.
    Constant headaches, irritability and acidity are common among night-shift workers.
    Discrimination is a bad deal. It is compounded by health problems like a bad throat, painful and dry eyes, insomnia, headaches, irritability and mental fatigue. Lack of exercise and unwholesome cafeteria food make things worse. A 2003 study conducted by Circadian Technologies, a US-based research firm, reiterated the susceptibility of those who work only night shifts to physical disorders. Then there are the social stresses of the graveyard shift that raises the ire of friends, lovers and family. Rajesh Nair, who says he cannot let go of his Rs 22,000 monthly pay cheque, laments how work translates into lack of intimacy in life. Ever since his honeymoon six months ago, Nair says he has not shared a private moment with his working wife. Life in a joint family disrupts the other leisure hours. Distasteful comments by prying neighbours add to the frustration, especially for women who comprise nearly 50 per cent of this industry.

    The boom has begun busting rather quickly. BPO employees are walking out in droves. The annual attrition rates are currently as high as 35-40 per cent. Bangalore-based Shiva Prasad, 21, barely managed two months whereas Ramesh Krishnan, 25, just worked for one month. Six months after quitting, he is still trying to get rid of the dark circles under his eyes. As Zarir Udwadia, consultant physician at Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, puts it, “A sleep-deprived worker is not a productive worker.” A sad observation to which Hemant Thacker, physician and cardiologist at Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital adds an irony. “The youth is ageing faster. Cardiovascular diseases will afflict them much earlier than their parents.”

    THE GOOD, THE BAD
    Current employment: Two lakh. Expected jobs: 10 lakh by 2006.
    BPO work in India is 70 per cent call-centre related and 30 per cent back-office or production of service.
    Likely to grow by about 54 per cent (to reach $3.6 billion) by the end of 2008.
    Attrition rates were as high as 200 per cent in 2002. Sixty per cent quit the industry in the first three months.

    But it is not the night shift alone that is the cause of all hassles. The career paths of call centre employees are obscure. They rarely talk to people outside their headphones. “They don’t get to see the rewards of their work-such as a smile on the face of a customer,” says psychiatrist Vihang Vahia. Stunted career growth is a big disappointment. This industry allows graduates, even undergraduates to join and dream big. But there is little scope to grow beyond the middle level. The initial growth is rapid, but only one in 10 agents becomes a manager. The roles of these employees hardly change, the team leader being the ultimate post; it means hitting a glass ceiling in barely three to four years. As a result, hopeful companies find themselves jolted out of their slumber, forced to tackle attrition rates. “These are causes of great concern,” admits NASSCOM chief Kiran Karnik, adding, “but we are trying to position this as a service industry. The skills they acquire here can be utilised in banking, hospitality or the airlines.” As many quit academics to join the BPO industry, there is an underutilisation of their intelligence.

    This trend is making foreign customers circumspect before investing, worried as they are about retention rates and compensation packages. While US Senator John Kerry is seeking political mileage out of India’s BPO boom, there are hundreds of stories in the US about citizens complaining about thick accent of Indian agents and their inability to resolve problems. White-collar workers in the UK and the US have now taken to wearing T-shirts screaming “My job went to India” and coining phrases like “I got New Delhied (euphemism for ‘I got sc****d’)”.
    In defence, companies are revising their appointment strategies. They do not encourage those who want to casually “try it out”, least of all the well-qualified applicants. A correspondent of a business daily who made an undercover attempt to find herself a job in a call centre found that it was easier said than done. She was repeatedly asked why she wanted to join. Later an appointment letter was shown but not given to her and she was told to think about it for a week and come back. To nip attrition rates, firms have started counselling employees and giving them health tips. Bangalore’s Aggarwal Eye Clinic is waging a crusade-treating call centre workers. Some firms have managed to lower attrition rates from 150-200 to 35-40 per cent by employing graduates with modest aspirations.
    Promotions are also routinely handed out. “This is the only industry where a capable agent gets the chance to manage a team of 12 in under two years,” says Susir Kumar, director, Intelenet, a TCS-HDFC joint venture. Agents are now being offered the chance to pursue correspondence courses while on the job. “There is also the opportunity for lateral movement within the organisation,” says Devashish Ghosh, COO, Wipro Spectramind. Last year, the lobby department of the CII even initiated talks with the UGC to see if a BPO-specific degree could be introduced in colleges. While in-house counsellors are able to do little to keep the turnover rate low, it is clear there will never be shortage of people because in a country where there are millions of jobless educated youth, family pressure and uncertain growth in careers are treated like the common cold.
    But despite financial benefits many employees are now asking themselves: where do we go from here? The answers unfortunately are not just a call away.

    Share
  2. They make about $500 a month, a fortune in local currency…

    Mr. Malik, if $500 is a fortune, why aren’t you planning to spend the rest of your life here?

    The dollars you must have saved will convert into an even larger fortune.

    Leave the green card and start living like the kids who fetch their own water, fan themselves when there’s no electricity and haven’t seen the inside of an airplane.

    Share
  3. amit

    thanks for the comments. well i don’t see the point of your rant. you were trying to say something but i don’t see it. where did my green card come into this?

    Share
  4. This April 1 story on outsourcing may interest you!

    Share
  5. Drink, drugs, sex, horrid hours, health woes. Good lord, they’re turning into American copy editors!

    Except that they get paid a fortune in local currency, of course.

    Share
  6. India’s youth in decay, because of outsourcing? I don’t think so.

    Salon has a series celebrating Indian outsourcing and call centres.

    Check them out at the following links
    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/04/01/collabnet/index.html

    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/04/12/inside_the_offshore/index.html

    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/04/01/collabnet/index.html

    Share
  7. kid@shining-software-co.co.in Sunday, April 11, 2004

    500 $ is 500 $.

    Intel charges Indians the same it charges Americans for its chips.

    Sony charges Indians the same amount it charges Japanese for its toys.

    How many PDA’s have you seen in Delhi?How many laptops? How many iBooks?How many iPods?

    $500 is enough for a hand-to-mouth existence.

    Why didn’t you visit the home of an unstylish kid?

    I know Indian kids don’t need iPods to play with and can manage things without a PDA.

    Bandwidth and electricity are costlier here than in the US.

    One of the differences between the kids in Gurgaon and the kids in a US call center is that the Indian kids don’t have health insurance and other benefits.

    If any Gurgaon co. offers health insurance, the kid will have to make do with a hospital with a standard of hygiene which cannot be compared with a US one.

    I know Indians don’t deserve anything better and it’s best if they keep trying to figure out the meaning of life.

    You got your green-card so it’s easy for you to write impersonally about ‘kids’, ‘SUVs’, ‘the meaning of life’ and ‘the call-center bubble.’

    $500 is $500, Delhi has only one hospital which in size is comparable to a US one, Appollo.
    Why don’t you find out how much they charge for a day?

    My guess : more than three fortunes.

    Where will the unstylish ‘kids’ go if they need to?

    Both Indians and Americans are getting screwed by globalization though the Indians may be dancing this instant.

    Why don’t you throw your green-card and start earning a ‘fortune’ in Gurgaon if things are so rosy?

    The healthcare industry in India is controlled by a mafia, find out how many MDs India graduates in a year?

    For a population of one billion India graduates 20 orthodontists per year.

    I think the US should occupy India like it has occupied Iraq and sort everything out.:-)

    Share
  8. i work at a call center and definately don’t agree with Mr Malik.
    It’s people like him in who spoil the image of India everywhere. But i guess the country is better off without people like him.
    He’s a coward who runs away from reality and also wouldn’t be able to survive in india’s competitive environment.

    Share
  9. This discussion is getting way too heated.

    The buying power of the Rupee vs. the Dollar is defined clearly by most economists at $1 = Rs 4. With that equation in mind, a call center worker working in the US would earn about $2000 per month, which is what most of them earn.

    From the perspective of the average Indian, thatÌs a lot of money going into the pockets of a 22 year old “kid”; especially when you compare this salary to the one earned by the average India (pegged at $ 100 per month).

    The point of this conversation being that regardless of what Intel or Sony charge, these kids are earning fortunes in the local currency.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post