Dark Side of Outsourcing

36 Comments

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 They have a cell phones, and their accents have been replaced by their adopted accents.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.

36 Comments

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

Mr. Malik, here’s a test of your promise…

Wipro’s call/contact center division has signed anti-‘poaching’ agreements with nine other firms. I am sure that you will find atleast one globally known name in the nine who have signed the agreement to keep salaries artifically below market-rates.

They had the nerve to publicly announce this because they know India has dysfunctional legal system and a corrupt labor-laws administration. As I mentioned earlier, they deny their ’employees’ collective bargaining rights.

NASSCOM pubicly disclosed last year that it was drafting an agreement which all its members will sign to prevent ‘poaching.’

Let us see your investigative reporting prowess:

http://alltheweb.com/search?cat=news&cs=utf8&q=poaching+spectramind&_sb_lang=pre

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

According to expedia.com the Marriott, New Delhi charges $105 for their cheapest room. The Marriott, New Delhi is a three-star property. A ‘fortune’ will buy a stay of less than a week there.

What were ‘call-centre kids’ upto in a ‘premium’ night-club ?

The links below describe Odyseyy as ‘premium’ :

http://www.financialexpress.com/print.php?content_id=57173

http://www.hindustantimes.com/2003/Dec/05/674_484453,00310001.htm

You can find how ‘cheap’ real-estate is in Delhi by visiting this link:

http://www.indiaproperties.com/research/rates/delhi_rates.asp

$500(a ‘fortune’) will buy 1 to 20 square feet in Gurgaon. $500(‘fortune’) will buy less than one square feet in most parts of Delhi.

If you are still unconvinced visit
fabmall.com and note the prices in the grocery section. Fabmall.com delivers groceries in less expensive Bangalore.

Regarding my email to you:

To begin, why don’t you visit Adobe’s India development centre and find out about healthcare benefits? It is near Delhi in Noida and it engineered the Acrobat Reader for the Palm OS.

http://www.adobeindia.com/jobsnew.htm

Om

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in you write: “I am pissed off at Mr. MalikÃŒs sloppy reporting. He regurgigated the drivel fed to him by the PR droids hired by those doing ÃŽoffshoring.ÃŒ”

By the way it was a piece based on conversations with real call center workers and they told me this. hey i did not make this up and if there is a problem with the system, then it should be worked out.

What do you say to the India today piece? drivel? And yes, $500 is a fortune, because when i started in india as a reporter it was about $50 in today’s dollars. I know how tough things are, how bad the healthcare system is, and how much the current boom has left my parents in the lurch with their retirements reduced to a few measely dollars.

I see that you are angry – but this is not the podium for you anger. you have expressed your points, and theories. you are getting personal and don’t have any right to call me names.

And by the way if the western companies are exploiting you, then send me an email with what you have and I promise to do a follow up.

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

J Sreekanth, Sep. 11 drove home a point in this country which I’ll try to explain.

When an unfortunate software-engineer kid’s father will meet with an accident on the lawless roads of Delhi, he certainly won’t have the money to pay for meaningful healthcare. He will not be consoled by the fact that the next generation will perhaps be better off. What he will understand is that he can either exploit or be exploited. He will become an easy prey for anti-US fundamentalists. They will explain that evil Americans(or the rich) are responsible for his father’s avoidable death. I won’t blame him for believing them.

If you think that this is just a theory then I have to point out that Mr. Sondhi didn’t ask his father to suffer a stroke so that he could spend spend $75k.I’ll also mention that the crime-rate in Delhi has risen exponentially since 1947 and the largest states in India:
Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Orissa among others are practically engulfed in civil wars. Do you think it is kids who play violent video-games who are at war or do you think it is the average Indian ?

The mess that India has been since 1947 has resulted in this exponential increase in violence and warfare.

Checkout these sentences from CIA’s factbook:

http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/in.html

“Fundamental concerns in India include the… ethnic and religious strife, all this despite impressive gains in economic investment and output.”

“Deep-rooted problems remain, notably conflicts among political and cultural groups.”

I am not asking for a raise for the call-centre kids or anyone else.

I am not saying cheap appliances and meaningful healthcare are rights.

I am pissed off at the fact that mega corporations who make a noise about being responsible citizens are getting away with saying that Indians are cheap labor. Misinformation such as this leads the American public to believe that terrorists are kids who have grown up playing violent video games or are congentinally evil.

India has changed much since satellite TV and the Internet. Kids today watch the images of the developed world where ambulances rush-in every now and then. It’ll be difficult to teach this generation to be happy because its lot is ‘better’ than the earlier one.

I’ll be more than happy to clarify my ‘theories.’

J Sreekanth

“kid”, I think the fallacy is in assuming that Indians in India, whether working for Indian companies or MNC’s, have any special entitlement to inexpensive appliances, health care, roads, etc. Without going into a rathole about colonialism and so on, and fixing firmly on the future, not the past, the fact is that any living standard improvements will only come through the efforts of interested parties, mostly Indians in India, and secondarily by Indians outside India, and maybe as an unexpected by-product, other people (such as MNCs with officers and shareholders in other countries). That’s just the reality of the situation. I think India is on a great trajectory, but we’ll see broad results only after about a generation of staying on track. Email me if you want, sreekanth-j@comcast.net

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

I am pissed off at Mr. Malik’s sloppy reporting. He regurgigated the drivel fed to him by the PR droids hired by those doing ‘offshoring.’

Healthcare may be an uneccessary evil heaped upon Indians.

$500 is not ‘great pay’ or ‘decent’ and certainly isn’t a ‘fortune’ in India because a refrigerator will cost that much.
Check out:
http://www.lgezbuy.com

LG is among the cheapest brands here. Find out how much a vaccum cleaner costs or a microwave oven or a cooking range or an air-conditioner.

Mr. Malik found $500 a ‘fortune’ because he is staying with his family here. If he was staying in a hotel he would have more perspective. Check out how much a hotel room costs in New Delhi on expedia.com .

Only ‘call-centre kids’ with very well-off parents can afford to visit an air-conditioned night-club. Rest of the kids are busy fetching water, filtering it, washing clothes by hand, washing dishes by hand or cleaning their small dwellings with a hand broom.
Why didn’t he mention that Gurgaon is not served by public-transport or whatever goes by that name in this part of the world?
The ‘kids’ visiting it certainly don’t have to pay for anything other than their drinks.

Cell-phones cost the same in India as they do elsewhere in the world. Check out Motorola’s prices on :
motozone.yahoo.co.in

Do US readers know these facts?

See CIA’s site for more perspective:
http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/in.html

The average Indian is uneducated and is at war for one cause or another.

The latter fact can be confirmed by reading any Indian newspaper for a month, some of them are:

timesofindia.com
hindustantimes.com
indianexpress.com

Healthcare is cheaper in India because of India’s weird patent laws and not because this an ultra-cheap heaven on earth.

Check out:
http://www.wired.com/news/conflict/0,2100,48153,00.html

http://www.wired.com/news/medtech/0,1286,47643,00.html

Mr. Malik himself found that NPR pays its American reporters a ‘hardship’ allowance here.

Atleast the Salon lady got some facts right; Mr. Malik is clueless about the Indian economy and the day-to-day life here, he is cutting beyond the hype by visiting night-clubs and talking to PR droids in air-conditioned rooms.

He should tell that practically no houses in India are centrally heated or cooled.

Mello:

Contact me at : shinekid1980@yahoo.co.in

I will be able to supply facts about day-to-day life in Delhi which you can supply to some Western reporter whose reporting is not based on drunken conversations in night-clubs.

MNCs make lots of noises about being responsible citizens, caring for the environment and valuing people.

I have to correct my previous post: Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are the two largest states in India.

As far as his point of
‘kids’ ‘never’ finding ‘jobs’:

The ‘kids’ can become masons if the call-centres close or wage-laborers. There is nothing demeaning about blue-collar work.

Ranjeet Sodhi

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in you really need to identify what your point is. Are you pissed off at India’s poor health care system, road development or the corruption of the government?? And how do any of these subjects have anything to do with a call center workers salary?

Om’s article was detailing how he perceived India’s changes from the perspective of a NRI, working as a reporter for a US based magazine. He is certainly entitled to his opinions, just as much as you are to yours; but you can’t blame an article for all the faults you identify in the Indian system.

Frankly, I grew up in India and know that based on the average income within India $500 (Rs 22,500) is a very decent salary. Just to bring things into perspective, I used to drive a Maruti Suzuki 800 car (self bought) and managed to do that in a salary of Rs 12,000 (~$240) per month. I seriously can’t understand what you are complaining about.

Everyone recognizes that a call center job is just a stepping stone to a better job in a different industry.

PS: As far as health care is concerned, itÃŒs by far the cheapest in the world. I had to pay $75,000 for treatment and medical costs in New York (Beth Israel hospital) when my dad had a stroke. I know that the same treatment in India costs a 10th of that amount.

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

J Sreekanth, is math in India different from math in the US ?

Why don’t journalists highlight the differences between the state of the workers here and in the US instead of rehashing press releases?

Do you know what the crime rate in Delhi is ? Do you know that practically the whole country is in a state of civil-war? If you think I am exaggerating why don’t you visit Bihar or UP, two of the largest states in India.

Just because we have been denied basic rights in the past doesn’t mean we should be, particularly when we are competing against the rest of the world.

Can’t you see what this ‘development’ is leading to?
When India becomes the next Afghansitan then perhaps something will be done.

I’ll add more later, my boss is on my head right now.

J Sreekanth

23. kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in (April 15, 2004)
J Sreekanth, do you mean that call-center workers should rely on faith healers?

Not clear what your point is. When my dad worked as a math. professor in Hyderabad, the “healthcare” was a university-owned clinic, with a couple of doctors and a dispensary, essentially “laal goli” medicine. Anything else, you were on your own : wait in line at a government hospital, or pay for a private doc.

MNC’s don’t have to offer higher wages than the prevailing norm, though in this case they seem to be offering much more. $500 = Rs 25000 per month for an entry level job is great money.

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

J Sreekanth, do you mean that call-center workers should rely on faith healers?

Twenty years hence things will be the same.

I understand assembly line workers should wait for twenty years for meaningful healthcare.

Why doesn’t Mr. Malik investigate what the billion dollar software companies such as Infosys, TCS & Wipro are offering their engineers in the name of health-care benefits?He should also investigate what benefits corps like Intel and IBM offer in India?

None of them offers anything decent.

Mr. Malik should publicize India’s ranking in the ranking of corrupt countries published by Transparency International.

Why doesn’t he tell us how many ambulances he has seen in Delhi?

Delhi has less than 40 decent ambulances?

He went to the ‘electronics market’ in Chandni Chowk, why didn’t he bother to go the Govt. hospital nearby?

Globalization is a name for the circumvention of the labor laws of developed countries and the denial of basic rights in developing ones.

Why doesn’t he tell us how many people die on the chaotic roads of Delhi everyday? (My guess is more than 10)

just john

Last year, here in America, $500 per month was $500 more per month than I had as income.

I’d been unemployed for two years.

And when I started being unable to pay my bills, that’s when I started getting calls from people who couldn’t pronounce my name and who wanted to be on first-name basis (“Hi, this is Chip!”) right off.

Imagine how pleasant that was for me. But I just hung up, then stopped answering the phone.

And the phone would ring once, then nothing for a minute, then another single ring … Various weird things like that.

Call center people are like those guys in the movie The Road Warrior who were bound to the front of the vehicles chasing the heroes. If/when the heroes stopped suddenly or shot at the pursuers, the hostages would get it first.

So call center workers are hostages of their employers. We over here have gotten so abused by corporations that we ignore talking machines, and are learning to behave the same way to the poor souls they find to front for them.

One might idly hope that the hostages break free and severely bite their captors.

(In case you’re wondering: I finally have a new job and can now afford to file for bankruptcy.)

mello

As an American, I watched some of your best and brightest come to the States under H1-B or L-1 visas, get exploited, and then be sent back to India when my telecom company off-shored its IT work. Sad to say, but when it gets too expensive for Dell and IBM and co. to retain Indians in India, they will off-shore their Bangalore call centers to Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. Don’t get fooled. By the way, most of us Americans hate the fact that US companies are exploiting Indians. Let’s stop these Multi-nationals together.

J Sreekanth

Fascinating story, I saw your column on the WSJ website. But on the whole, it’s a positive for India. I’m sure if you troll back 10 years, there were similar stories about south east Asian workers in multinational factories. Now that India’s turn has come, at least there are no horror stories of physical injuries, environmental pollution, etc.

I think the problem is one of expectations : people should think of a call center job as the white collar equivalent of an assembly line job. It is certainly not something to build a career on, and the model (even in the US) is probably a burn-out job with a high turnover.

So my sentiment is that the flow of investment and salary dollars is a great thing for the country. It’s only partly for the actual $ volume, but primarily for integrating Indians into the rest of the world economy and unlocking the “animal spirits” that will drive more internal enterprise and progress.

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.co.in

Josh, you hit the nail right on the head.

$16,500 isn’t a fortune in both India and America.

Atleast you drove a car…
Here, ‘call-centre kids’ can only dream of driving one…

Why don’t you read the Salon article and find out how computer programmers get to work in India.

America wasn’t responsible for Afghanistan’s sorry state until Sep. 11.

Why doesn’t Mr. Malik highlight how bluechips like IBM are exploiting the corrupt environment here, how they don’t allow unions and how they benifit from the corrupt regime.

How good will IBM look when it’ll be found out that their productive Indian workers don’t have access to decent healthcare and have no collective bargaining rights?

IBM and others of their ilk are living off the myths Mr. Malik propogates such as $500 being a fortune in India.

Regarding your question, if there weren’t call-centre/software jobs Indian kids would be asking their
rulers smart questions.

India like other Third world countries is ruled by corrupt rulers, has a semblance of law and order and is no better off than the past Afghanistan when it comes to breeding terrorists.

Can’t you see the ‘call-centre kid’ becoming an anti-US terrorist twenty years hence when he finds out that his ‘glorious’ employer won’t pay for meaningful healthcare.

OK, you might have found the Apollo tariffs cheaper than US ones. I have to mention that Indian has weird patent laws regarding pharmaceuticals which enable Indian pharma companies to copy and produce patented drugs for a fraction of their US price.

Josh

Just to add some perspective – most call centers, anywhere in the world, are “service sweat-shops”. My US call-center job (while several years ago) was 10-12 hours a day and I made $16,500 per year. I couldn’t afford to pay rent by myself or drive anything but a power-window-less car either.

US tech companies are not responsible for the state of India’s healthcare system. If you don’t want to work at the call center – don’t. How many annual salaries at another job would it take to pay for a 4 day hospital stay?

Christian

I don’t know, most of these ideas seem to stem from the same “you lose, I win “battle to the death..” mentality…which most human beings were never inherently happy about unless forced into it… and in which the particulars seem to change with each moon as opposed to appreciating human nature in the sense of trying to understand as opposed to finding fault…

kid@delhi.shining-software-co.in

Do you realise that $500 isn’t enough even in India to cover the costs of decent healthcare among other things.

Check out this link to tariffs on Apollo’s website :

http://www.apollohospdelhi.com/international-patient-tarriff.xls

I called them and found out that a ‘fortune($500)’ can buy four days of stay in the ICU.

I posted about Intel to highlight that a ‘kid’ would have to work for more than a month to buy a PC.

For any Americans/Japanese reading this: a Toyota Camry will cost 68 ‘fortunes’ in India. The cheapest car, Maruti 800, http://www.maruti.co.in, will cost 9 fortunes. Remember that a Maruti car is comparable to Kia’s cheapest models, and isn’t air-conditioned and doesn’t have power windows or a power steering among other things.

The kids will not be able to pay for a house of their own or have running tap water in their homes or be assured electricity supply.

The kids will stay with their parents for the foresable future leeching funds away.

Why doesn’t Mr. Malik post photographs of the homes (both from inside and outside) of the kids earning a ‘fortune’ a month?

Mr. Malik is not highlighting the rampant corruption and the poor state of essential services, but instead is propogating myths such as 500$ being a fortune.

The Peace Corps gentleman has forgotten that in 40 years Japan became a developed country.

The call-centres/software cos are service sweatshops. The operations of MNCs like IBM in India testify that they aren’t bothered about people either in India or anywhere else.

Rs 4 =$1 might hold true for something like agricultural produce but for things like healthcare, housing, utilities my guess is that Apollo’s Rs 45=$1 is accurate.

Mr. Sondhi, I guess you are one of the guys ‘consulting’ companies doing ‘offshore’, so you want to perpetuate $1= Rs 4.

Why don’t you partake of the care in any of India’s state run hospitals the next time you need such care?

Nitin

What we have missed in this discussion is that there are jobs available today when there were none. These problems are much more happy today than 15 years ago when the unemployment among educated youth was a major socio-economic headache.

No one has promised that progress will arrive without any problems. But the point is these are problems a person has after his basic needs (and much more) are met.

I dont understand why Om should be criticised for bringing out the negative aspects of the call centre boom. India should be confident enough to acknowledge that this is a price it is willing to pay for progress.

Nothing comes without a cost – the West industrialised at the cost of the environment, the rise of the US in the last 100 years has been at the cost of family values. Those who are unwilling to pay the price of progress will inevitably end up in the backwaters of globalisation.

Gopal-Don

I find this discussion fascinating.
35 years ago I served as an American Peace Corps Volunteer in a village 2 1/2 hours southwest of Calcutta. Returned for the first time to India two years ago and was highly impressed with many changes. India still has problems, (disparity between wealthy and poor, communal tensions, overwhelmed health and social service systems) but the minimal levels have been raised for literally millions, (cleaner water, more education for women, increased percentage in the “middle class”). You can argue whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, but given the perspective of an outsider seeing the country over two plus generations, I see the development of call centre jobs as a positive waystation, not a destination. This isn’t a permanent career; turnover is obviously expected. Those who work in the call centers learn many valuable lessons about life abroad and about themselves which will be useful later. India is a difficult place to make a living if that living is defined by external foreign standards. It’s a rich culture part rural, ancient, traditional and part urban, frenetic, identity-seeking affluent. Outsourcing jobs are very difficult–physically, psychologically and socially–BUT they are comparatively good, well paid jobs compared to many others available to those working them. Looking ahead, I think the transcontinental “outsourcing” of many jobs will improve the economy of India. Governmental intervention in the form of minimum wage/hour/working conditions/ benefits may be needed if the unregulated markets (and absence of labor unions) don’t lead to this. Good luck Bharat desh!

Ranjeet Sodhi

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, thatÃŒs 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.

cris

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.

kid@shining-software-co.co.in

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.:-)

Dawnsinger

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.

Om

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?

Amit W.

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.

AsteriX

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.

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