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Outsourcing Identities

Outsourcing Identities

As vans with tinted windows creep at night into middle class, urban neighbourhoods in India, spiriting away young men and women to work until dawn at multinational call centres, identities are transfigured, the local making uneasy room for the lucrative global. Following the short-lived dotcom boom in India (2000-02), Information Technology Enabled Services- Business Process Outsourcing was first considered by many infotech industry watchers as a capricious venture, liable to crash due to poor infrastructure. The phenomenal success of BPOs, particularly call centres, continues in 2005, offering high-school and college English-speaking graduates quick employment with comparatively high wages. Through empirical research, this article addresses the transformation of Indian urban labour into a global proletariat. The paper focuses on the role call centres play in unmooring local identities to construct transnational labour identities for a neocolonialist workplace.

Outsourcing Identities

Call Centres and Cultural Transformation in India

As vans with tinted windows creep at night into middle class, urban neighbourhoods in India, spiriting away young men and women to work until dawn at multinational call centres, identities are transfigured, the local making uneasy room for the lucrative global. Following the short-lived dotcom boom in India (2000-02), Information Technology Enabled Services-Business Process Outsourcing was first considered by many infotech industry watchers as a capricious venture, liable to crash due to poor infrastructure. The phenomenal success of BPOs, particularly call centres, continues in 2005, offering high-school and college English-speaking graduates quick employment with comparatively high wages. Through empirical research, this article addresses the transformation of Indian urban labour into a global proletariat. The paper focuses on the role call centres play in unmooring local identities to construct transnational labour identities for a neocolonialist workplace.

DIVYA C MCMILLIN

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all centres in India and China have been triumphantly upheld by conservative journalists, as evidence of a brave new flat world, where the lucrative outsourcing of various information services from North America and Europe, translates into equal opportunities and prosperity to third world labourers [Friedman 2005]. The transnational media executives echo this euphoria, pointing to the programming on global channels such as BBC, Animal Planet and Discovery, hybridised for national audiences, as tangible proof that colonialism and cultural imperialism are damning processes of the past [Weil 2004]. What is at the heart of such liberal pluralist ruminations, is the notion of individual agency: that in a globalising world, new economic opportunities and media choices are available to those who take advantage of them. And evidence of such opportunism is widely available.

For example in India, while the national government decries, at various historic moments, the pollution of Indian culture through foreign products in the Indian marketplace (Midnight session of parliament, 1997) or through aggressively commercialoriented television programming [McMillin 2001], audience consumption of products and programmes remains high and the labour supply for various multinational enterprises – be they call centres, clothing and electronic sweat shops, ancillary factories, or even pyramid marketing schemes – stays plentiful. For lowskilled, assembly-line, sweat-shop workers; semi-skilled call centre employees, or even highly skilled doctors and information technology (IT) professionals, multinational corporations provide a wide variety of job opportunities that were simply unavailable before the nation’s economic liberalisation policy in 1991. The idea of individual agency is provocative to media scholars [Morley 1980; Brundson 1990], who have laboured under Frankfurt school theories of cultural imperialism and their depressing relevance in the context of transnational media networks [Schiller 1991; Mattelart 1994]. Audience studies from the social science and humanities traditions from around the world have shown, respectively, that viewers use the media to gratify various needs [Liebes and Katz 1990; Blumler, Guerevitch and Katz 1985] and draw varied meanings from the same texts [Ang 1985; Morley 1980]. However, we have to evaluate how far this autonomy can truly go in a system where the economic, social, and cultural power of those who have is exponentially higher than those who do not [Wallerstein 1990a]. As Wallerstein (1990b, p 65) writes:

The issue of agency is not a simple one. It plagues the social sciences. As those who denigrate generalisations in the name of ideographic uniqueness never tire of saying, any structural analysis implies that an individual, a group is caught in some web not of their making and out of their control... If one adds to this conundrum the fact that in virtually any social situation, the actors may be ranked in a hierarchy of power – some stronger, some weaker

– it follows logically that the stronger “get their way” more frequently than the weaker...

It is obvious that the jubilation over agency is premature first because agency cannot be equated with freedom [Ang 1996], and second, ample examples abound of the enduring structures of economic and political inequity. The call centres provide one such example.

To examine the intricate relationship between structure and agency in a globalising world, this article undertakes an empirical analysis of the experiences of call centre employees. The liberalised Indian call centre industry makes specific demands on its labour force, regardless of skill level: an ability to withstand long hours of monotonous work, respond quickly to orders, and undergo certain transformations to adapt to the workplace environment, which could mean a change in accent, diction, sleep cycle and workplace identity. As the relatively young (18-45 years), urban and semi-urban call centre proletariat pours its education, skills, time, and energy into the service of a remote bourgeoisie for comparatively lucrative local pay yet globally substandard work conditions, certain pertinent questions arise: how does the cultural transformation of this labour force take place? What local structures support this transformation? And, what implications does this process have for the long term?

To answer these questions, participant observation was conducted during summer 2004 in two call centres, and in-depth interviews were conducted with 40 employees from six call centres in Bangalore. The respondent pool was deliberately kept small to allow for in-depth interviews and other qualitative data. Newspaper, radio and television reporters associated with call centre stories were interviewed and extensive information was derived from media and public libraries in Bangalore. Through these components of ethnographic fieldwork, the study critically interrogates the cultural transformation of urban Indian labour into a global proletariat.

The call centres in Bangalore city are housed in multi-purpose buildings such as the gleaming International Tech Park (ITPL)1 complete with a granite-façade waterfall, gym, coffee shop, restaurants, and Thomas Cook and American Express currency exchange offices; in parent businesses such as Hewlett Packard (HP), Dell or HSBC, or in dedicated venues such as the MSourcE complex that also houses restaurants and a coffee shop for its employees. The tight security prevents casual visitors and armed guards clustering at entrances, interrogating anyone without an entry permit. While participant observation was carried out at the ITPL, interviews were conducted off campus because most employees were hesitant to converse about their jobs at their place of work. The respondents were contacted through social networking, a common technique in ethnographic fieldwork [Amadiume 1993; Mankekar 1999]. The access to the ITPL was easier because of the currency exchange offices and restaurants open to the public, but access to other venues was gained through inside contacts, with a visitor’s permit that strictly enforced a limited time for participant observation and interviews.

The respondents were first given a brief questionnaire soliciting demographic information (age, gender, income, marital status) and job details (qualification, job title, job description, tenure at the current position, hours of work, and time for lunch and coffee breaks). This was followed by in-depth interviews that addressed reasons for working at the call centre, likes and dislikes about the job, training and orientation procedures, transformations necessary for the job, views on the influence of these transformations on cultural and national identity, and plans for the future. The result was a wealth of information on the call centre industry and personal and anecdotal accounts of the call centre experience.

The modern look and feel of the call centre, with neon-lit coffee shops and TV monitors playing Channel [V] or MTV stand as a stark contrast to the surrounding semi-urban villages and slums. Yet there is a cultural continuity between call centre structures and other symbols of hybridised globalisation in the city: KFC, Pizza Hut and Dominoes, for example, each with their trademark colours and architecture, serving local versions of global food. Through mall hybrids such as Fifth Avenue and Shopper’s Stop, and pubs and dance clubs such as 180 Proof and Purple Haze, and the city’s first FM radio station, FM91, that provides a hefty menu of Indian and western pop music and shows such as Sister Stella (P Ganapathy, personal communication, August 20, 2003), Bangalore is a global city, allowing the confluence of local youth culture and global images and icons of what it is to be cool in the global context. Writing about the global city, Zukin (1996) notes that culture becomes the economic base; it is commodified, privatised and marketed to consumers who consume as a ritual of identity development.

The analysis of the experiences of call centre employees identifies them not just as units of economic productivity, but as people who alter their routines and rhythms to partake of the benefits of the global market. It demonstrates how the limited agency awarded to them is structured within domination. Butler (1997) reminds us that it is possible to understand the dynamic between subject and agency by regarding the subject as constituted within structure, not as an autonomous, free individual. Resistance by such individuals then is part of the act of subjection, a reaffirmation of it. That is, “A power exerted on a subject, subjection is nevertheless a power assumed by the subject, an assumption that constitutes the instrument of that subject’s becoming” (p 11). As Ang (1996) pointedly remarks, romanticisation of the consumer or audience revives the linear transmission model of communication, as if audiences’ passivity or activity occurs in a vacuum. Connections to their social and historical contexts show easily how limited this agency really is, and how short-lived. The call centres provide a rich site for the analysis of the hybrid urban Indian landscape and the economic opportunities it awards in an era of globalisation. Analyses of the work environment and of worker experiences allow us to evaluate the perdurability of structures of power facilitated through such processes of colonialism and capitalist expansion.

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After economic liberalisation in 1991, the urban Indian landscape exploded with foreign and private investment in various areas of industry. To name a few, in the television industry, the early 1990s witnessed the phenomenal rise of private foreign and regional television networks, providing stiff competition to Doordarshan metro stations in urban areas [McMillin 2001]. In the mid-1990s, mobile phone connections rapidly replaced landline connections allowing urban Indians to access the internet, completely bypassing the cumbersome and inefficient methods offered by the DoT [Miller 2001]. In 2000, dotcoms appeared at the average rate of three per day and by the end of the year, there were an estimated 50,000 India-specific web sites, although most of these crashed soon after because they lacked cogent customeroriented business plans [Ahmad 2001]. Following the short-lived dotcom boom in India (2000-02), Information Technology Enabled Services-Business Process Outsourcing (ITES-BPO) was first considered by many infotech industry watchers as a capricious venture, liable to crash because of poor infrastructure. By 2001-02, in an environment where technological innovations raced ahead of government policy and regulation, call centres in the country emerged as a lucrative site for transnational transactions.

The phenomenal success of BPOs, particularly call centres, continues in 2005. India’s large population of urban, Englishspeaking, college-graduates makes it a particularly attractive venue for outsourcing a variety of customer services. New investment in the ITES-BPO industry reached US $ 800 million by the end of 2002 and customer care and administration, whether in captive centres (such as HSBC, Dell, AOL or Hewlett Packard) or third party providers (such as MSourcE, Wipro Spectramind or EXL) grew by 75 per cent. By 2008, the Indian ITES-BPO market is expected to reach US $ 20 billion, providing jobs for

1.1 million [NASSCOM 2003]. Bangalore, in particular has proven over time, its suitability for hi-tech industry. The establishment of a Texas Instruments subsidiary in 1985 was followed by Motorola soon after because of the basic infrastructure and the English-speaking, technologically qualified labour force available [Sahay, Nicholson and Krishna 2003].

Far from being homogenised by global cultural flows as has been posited by theorists who support technological determinism [Schiller 1991], third world cities are witnessing the creolisation of local culture, and the co-existence of local and global culture [Foster 1991]. Such creolisation or hybridity refers to the liminal space between global and local where, as Bhabha (1994:4) writes, this “interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy”. However, as critiqued

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

elsewhere in the context of television in India, [McMillin 2003], the hybrid is certainly hierarchical – it recognises the major players within a cultural context and manipulates representations of these players to provoke and appease its producers and consumers. The programme on private networks caricature the global to uphold local traditions (such as Adarsha Dampathigalu on the Kannada language Udaya TV) or caricature the local to uphold the global (such as the various music programmes on Channel [V]). The hybrid therefore always conveys a struggle for power between essentialised global and local, each edging out the other depending on the network sponsor or the gravity of state mandates.

To bring this back to the hybrid call centre environment, employees may maintain their local identities, yet recognise the superior economic value of the global persona. The ability to speak the English language in an accent that may not quite be American or British, but certainly not strongly ethnic Indian, becomes a crucial qualification in the service of a transnational clientele. The call centres then stand as strong symbols of a neocolonialist environment, where labourers need to enter into the cultural contexts of their employers and clientele based in the US, UK, Germany or the Netherlands, as the case may be, and using their knowledge of the range of customer services available to the client, converse fluently, stripping away as much as possible, indicators of their local Indian contexts. It is true that local indicators such as the Indian accent or name are more acceptable in contemporary call centre interactions, however, only insofar as it does not interfere with the provision of service. Just as call centres in the US are located in rural areas because of the high cost of real estate in highly populated areas [Sharp 2003], on a global scale, developing countries offer low real estate, labour and infrastructure costs, making them prime targets for call centre location. What differentiates a neocolonialist environment from a colonialist environment is the context of globalisation where the focus is not on overt force and imposition, but on interconnectivity.

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WhatisaCallCentre?

ITES involves the outsourcing of processes that can be enabled through information technology. This means ownership and management of the process is transferred from the customer to the service provider [NASSCOM 2003]. The call centres are synonyms for ITES, and are defined as departments that respond to all sorts of inbound and outbound business-to-customer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) communications. They have existed in some form or other since the evolution of the modern business structure. However, it is only within the past decade that call centres have become a primary way through which companies conduct their business particularly because of the significant role played by communication technologies [Sharp 2003]. BPO is defined simply as the movement of business processes from inside the organisation to external service providers. It has been described as a socio-technical phenomenon and must be examined according to the social and human impact of the business transformation process as well as the technical resources required [Click and Duening 2005]. Examples of services provided by call centres are: customer care, web sales/marketing, billing services, database marketing, accounting, transaction document management, transcription, telesales/telemarketing, benefits administration, tax processing, HR hiring/administration and biotech research [NASSCOM 2003].

In the call centre, the synergistic and integrated relationship between the computer and telephone (also called CTI for computer telephony integration), together with software technology facilitate such functions as customer, product, and sales information retrieval, queue management and back office interconnections. CTI may be defined as “‘a loose but complicated amalgamation of interlocking technologies’, a way of combining the two streams of information – voice and data – through open, standards-based systems” [Sharp 2003, p 15]. The most significant application of the CTI2 is the call centre, which consists of devices such as PCs, scanners and printers connected by a local area network (LAN). This client-server architecture allows sharing of files and databases and for mixing and matching machines from different vendors depending on the preferred graphical user interface (GUI). Joint industry standards (e g, TAPI and TSAPI by Microsoft and Novell, respectively) are followed by vendors to ensure interoperability of systems and data/voice applications.

Customers may reach call centres through a variety of media: email, web pages, phone, fax or VoIP (voice over internet protocol), and synergy among technologies3 is crucial for customer satisfaction before and after sales, for customer data management and for the planning of resources for customer retention. Only very large enterprises include a call centre within their business plans; more often, corporations (increasingly larger as well as smaller ones), outsource their customer service operations to call centre organisations already established in providing a wide range of customer services and equipped with the necessary hardware and software. Ramaswamy (2003) writes, “The outsourcing of production workers, services, final products and components reflects the distancing strategies, particularly in the presence of dual labour markets, on the part of industrial firms to gain new margins of flexibility in increasingly competitive markets” (p 155). Some benefits of outsourcing are: access to advance technologies, vertical expertise, and speed of service that can alleviate CSR turnover problems [Sharp 2003].

FromAshoktoBrad

For call centre employees, to live and breathe the cultural contexts of their clientele, names are changed from Indian to western ones (particularly for US-based clients) and fictional personal profiles are developed with residential roots in some prominent city in the US. Of the 40 call centre employees interviewed in this study, exactly 50 per cent was male and 50 per cent female. Sixtysix per cent (25) were CSRs, of whom 88 per cent (22) were between 21 and 25 years of age. This echoes Singh and Pandey’s (2005) study of 100 call centre women in Delhi where 67 per cent of their respondents were between 20 and 25 years of age. Of the CSRs, 56 per cent made between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,0004 (US $ 111-222) per month and 20 per cent made between Rs 11,000 and Rs 15,000 (US $ 244-333) per month.

CSRs form the bottom rung of the call centre structure and can be promoted to senior CSR based on their performance ratings. The team leaders form the next rung of the hierarchy, and, drawing a salary between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000 (US $ 333-777) supervise teams of around 15 CSRs. The process coaches, who supervise around 30 teams, also draw a salary between Rs 15,000 and Rs 35,000, and are usually compensated at the upper end of this scale. An operations manager oversees process coaches and teams and receives a salary of around Rs 50,000-Rs 1 lakh (US $ 1,111-2,222) per month. The operations manager reports directly to the vice or assistant president who is paid between Rs 1 and Rs 3 lakh (US $ 2,222-6,666) per month. The president of the call centre can make as much as Rs 5 lakh (US $ 11,111) per month.

Most of the CSRs in this analysis said they liked their jobs because of the interaction with people, challenges in sorting out client problems, young colleagues, comparatively good salary, free transport, opportunity to improve communication skills and English language and diction. The primary reasons for choosing call centre work was a desire to work with and interact with people, high salaries, opportunities for advancement and good fit for current qualifications. Many stressed that the playful work atmosphere and the modern “MNC looks” of their workplace made them feel they were stepping into a global environment, a space that was quite different from their homes. They particularly enjoyed talking to Americans and other foreigners across the world, learning the American accent and culture, and breaking cultural barriers through their interactions.

Ashok, a 24-year-old CSR whose call name was “Brad”, said that the frequent parties at the workplace made the environment fun. He said:

Each team has a name and there are lots of parties, lots of

gatherings. And we do the Indian and the American holidays. On

July 4th we decorate according to the American flag. We celebrate

that Americans achieved their independence and we learn about

George Bush, and we just celebrate – we wear red white and blue.

Ashok considered his name change to Brad as a necessary requirement of the job to get to know the clients and their culture. Although speaking in an American accent was part of his work, he could switch to his Indian accent when it was done and this did not interfere with his sense of Indianness. On the other hand, Harish, a 29-year-old assistant manager of operations said:

Our cultural identity is definitely affected. Although we do have

“India” days, there is a large influx of western and US culture.

That is not necessarily bad. But it depends on the individual. Some

call centre people continue this accent and mannerisms – I’ve seen

a lot of people who think and act American on the outside as well

and anybody can tell, “Oh, this person is working at a call centre”. On

the other hand, you can learn a lot of things; you learn to be polite on

the phone – it is actually a delightful experience. Pseudo names are

going away probably because a lot of customers in the US and

UK (sic) know the calls are going to India. Some crib; some are

happy speaking to an Indian and are impressed with the technology.

The respondents mentioned that in addition to their high salaries, they also could earn more through extra work. Singh and Pandey (2005) detail the remuneration schedule of the workplace. With a five-day work week, employees are allowed around two to three days of casual leave per month that can be accumulated to a total of 18 days over six months. In place of casual leave, the employee may choose extra points to be added to her or his performance to receive further incentives. Work on public holidays may result in more points so that in a month, the employee may earn up to Rs 3,000 (US $ 67) extra.

The selection process for CSRs typically includes phone and email screening, behavioural interviews, testing for keyboarding and written communication skills, evaluation of sales and customer service aptitude and screening of references. Mohan, a 30-year-old back office senior executive stated that applicants are short-listed based on experience and expertise. The selected employees then receive training for 1½ to 2 months on the product and software after which they, “‘Go Live’ and are on 90 days probation. Depending on the impression you make (and) your quality scores, you get the project for two to three years. It’s all about telemarketing.”

CSRs have to be highly trained not just in the technology, but also in voice, conversation, and troubleshooting to garner new customers and retain old ones. They need above average oral and written communication skills, ability to multitask in a fast paced environment, computer skills (such as familiarity with intranet, internet, email, use of headset), and pleasant voice and manner. CSR training typically includes workshops, seminars, call observation, product knowledge tests monitoring and coaching, online tutorials and tool kits5 [Sharp 2003]. Santosh, a 27year-old processing executive, discussed accent coaching as an integral part of the Indian call centre training process. The recruiters specifically seek those who have been exposed to US culture either through television or through their urban residence. Such priming is crucial for CSRs to learn the American accent and those with strong native accents are eliminated. Women proved better at picking up accents than men and were preferred in CSR positions. Besides voice coaching and accent training, CSRs should be able to learn quickly, work under stress and have good marketing skills. Non-US-based, global companies such as Bartley’s, Lloyd, and HSBC do not place as much priority on accent training as do US-based companies. As with Singh and Pandey’s (2005) study, this analysis showed that there was no discernible pattern of gender discrimination at the CSR level. Most of the mid-level management positions were held by women. Although no higher management executives were interviewed, the respondents in this study stated that men occupied the senior positions in their organisations.

College graduates are highly sought after for CSR positions for their eagerness to learn and their aggressiveness to sell. Of the CSRs in this study, at least 79 per cent (30) had bachelor’s degrees in either the arts and sciences (47 per cent) or commerce (32 per cent).

Apart from the CSRs, the rest of the respondents in this analysis (34 per cent) occupied various levels of middle management (assistant manager, 2; senior customer executive, 2; unit manager, 2; technical quality assistant, 1; operations manager, 1; customer care consultant, 1; team manager, 3; processing executive, 1; CSR training, 2). These executives had achieved their positions either by working their way up over the course of three years or more, or by virtue of their qualifications as engineers or MBAs. The team managers require CSR skills, call centre monitoring skills, proficiency in creating and analysing call centre performance criteria, experience in work force management tools, ability to coach and mentor, knowledge of call centre applications and proficiency in preparation of reports and charts. The managers obviously should be able to lead and manage the call centre, need a high level of communication skills, should be able to achieve key performance targets, manage resources and budget and have a high level of commitment to sustained improvement [Sharp 2003].

Shalini, a 27-year-old team manager, explained that her job was not just to meet call response targets, but to also enforce a clothing policy which required only closed footwear, no skirts above the knee, and generally formal wear on weekdays with casual wear on Fridays and Saturdays. The team managers also had to plan and conduct orientations and team activities such as pot-lucks at homes of the vice presidents or operations managers. The teams often went shopping, to the pubs, or on picnics together. For many young adults, particularly those who did not have families in the city, the call centre, said Shalini, “becomes a second support system. We stay on even after work and go out for idlis for breakfast in the morning after our night shifts.” She said call centre applicants and employees were encouraged to watch American programmes such as MTV countdowns, Friends,

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

King of Queens, and other sitcoms to familiarise themselves with family contexts and American accents. Interestingly, of the respondents who discussed their television watching (almost 50 per cent said they had no time to watch television), most listed American programmes such as Hot ‘n Wild, Friends, Oprah,and CSI, and foreign channels such as Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet and Cartoon Network as their favourites.

Television viewing, however meagre, together with globalised urban sites of consumption such as fast food Indian and western restaurants and clubs, provided an extension of the support system that facilitated the transnational work of the call centre employee. Such a support system is crucial in a job where the turnover rate, globally, is between 22 per cent and 50 per cent. The call centres allocate as much as 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their budgets on staffing and as high as 72 per cent of companies use external recruitment agencies to keep up staffing [Sharp 2003]. The retention strategies include health awareness workshops for employees, calorie charts to encourage healthy diets, exercise routines including yoga, mentoring and leadership programmes, vehicle loans, medical insurance, provident funds, and various investment opportunities. Yet the turnover rate continues to be high, providing a clue to the challenges of call centre work.

ChallengestotheCallCentreProfession

What makes the call centre an intriguing site for the study of transnational processes and identities, in addition to the transformations it requires in terms of accent and persona, is its nocturnal function. The fact that India is between 9-12 hours ahead of the United States and United Kingdom, and around 4-9 hours ahead of south-east Asia and Australia, necessitates call centre operations during the night. For middle and lower middle class conservative families to give up their young daughters, wives, sons and husbands to a night trade can only mean that such a trade is extremely lucrative. As Verma and Sharma (2003) explain from their study of 100 adolescents and their families in urban India, urban and rural girls learn, early on, that the public sphere is for the most part, a hostile, male dominated space. The authors note that for teen girls in India, two-thirds of their leisure time is spent indoors whereas for boys, half of this time is spent outdoors. The cultural transformation of call centre employees then occurs not just in individual appropriations of western accents, clothes, and interpersonal behaviour, but also in family structures and norms. Young females claiming the night as a time of work are no longer derogated but glorified.

Yet, the respondents in this study reported working during the night while their family routines continued during the day, as the most significant drawback of the job. A majority (53 per cent) worked a 9-hour shift while 29 per cent worked an 8-hour shift. Some (8 per cent and 3 per cent) reported working 10 and 12 hour shifts, respectively. Of those who responded to a question regarding the breaks they received (80 per cent), most (91 per cent) said they received a total of a 1-hour break. This was distributed over a 30-minute lunch break, and two 15-minute coffee breaks. Such a gruelling schedule is exactly the same provided to sweat-shop labourers who worked for MNC ancillary factories on the outskirts of Bangalore city [McMillin 2003].

The respondents were candid in their discussion of what they disliked about their jobs. Alphonse, a 24-year-old technical quality assistant said he was not able to be home with his family during important holidays. Anil, a 20-year-old CSR said, “When the call flow is high, group leaders do not let us take breaks. They do not ever let us keep the line busy for a while even to make notes on the calls.” Another, Anita, a 25-year-old CSR said she would quit very soon because the night shift was wearing her down. Goutham, a 30-year-old assistant manager said the shifts were particularly brutal for married people with young children. The stringent log in hours for team members added pressure to the job in that team scores went down if log in targets were not maintained. He said, “Most people coming in are not thinking of this as a career, only a stop gap. [However] they end up going to another call centre even if their plan is to get out of this.” Seema, a 25-year-old CSR added that a good team was not easy to maintain. The call abandon rate for every 1,000 calls should not be more than 3 per cent, a tall order if team members were not competent.

Anand, a 27-year-old married CSR, said he just could not get used to the changed rhythm. He listed several aspects of the job that caused him to seriously rethink this line of work. He said:

My shift is like night 9:00 pm to morning 10:00 am. By the time we come back it is afternoon or midday, so we can’t even go to sleep….Also we don’t have our own PCs or cabins, you can log into any computer and its hard to not have your own space. The food is from the company, it is not like home food. See, if [the job has] a day timing, my family can cook and give it to me. The odd times at night – they can’t get up at 11:00 or 12:00 in the night to cook for me and give it to me. And one more thing is the transportation. It (ITPL) is quite far off. This ITPL is out of town so there are a lot of problems – it [takes] me 2 hours to get to work and get back from work. I am losing sleep time. Totally four hours of transport apart from work.

Although various ring roads around the city provided easier navigation, many of these roads were either heavily congested with traffic or simply blocked because of further construction or deterioration. As gleaming call centres crop up on the outskirts of Bangalore, infrastructure in terms of roads and telecommunications struggles to keep up while rural populations suddenly find themselves part of an expanding urban environment. Many farmers have sold their land to urban developers, and bought tempos and Maruti vans to launch unlicensed transport services from the outlying rural areas to the city. The result is not just easier mobility for the labour population to and from the city but a significant increase in accidents and traffic jams along the outer ring roads as well.

Many respondents said they lacked any personal life and the job was maddeningly monotonous. The lack of physical contact with clients contributed to a sense of the surreal, where employees felt suspended between worlds, communicating only through voice and accent. The frequent changes in weekly work schedule made it difficult to plan personal events ahead. Besides, team managers such as Sneha, a 26-year-old, had to stay on for up to “Fifteen hours at a time if there is a shortage of staff, if there are unexpected calls to the assistant manager of operations, or if I have to fill in for someone else.”

The call centre employees were also targets of racism. Theresa, a 30-year-old CSR said she was unprepared for the hateful comments some of her clients made to her. Shailaja, a 25-yearold team manager, said that many of her CSRs reported that as soon as clients recognised the trace of an Indian accent, they would use the call to vent their frustrations at the outsourcing market. The clients in the United States who had lost their jobs to the industry would take it out on call centre employees and berate them for being opportunistic and greedy. Recounting a personal experience, she said, “There are times when people say ‘I want to speak to someone who speaks English,’ or, ‘I don’t want to speak to an Indian’. I am seething with anger but I have to continue the call. There are some who are so nasty, especially some guys from the US (sic).” These caustic interactions were a great source of stress in addition to other work-related ailments such as backaches, eyestrain and headaches, and indigestion [also see Singh and Pandey 2005]. Several team managers stated that stress in the workplace had resulted in more and more women smoking. Romantic and sexual relations between team members were increasingly common. While male respondents discussed their jobs as transient in that they would stay on as long as a better position came along, female respondents stated that they would work at the call centre until they got married, or, if married, until their husband’s income was stabilised.

From the discussion of employee experiences it is obvious that call centre work is complex, involving shifting identities, economic benefits, and physical strain. Analysis of “the ground” of the industry also requires a discussion of its relation to structure, to arrive at an understanding of the long-term implications of call centre transformations.

CallCentresandTransnationalIdentity

The United States accounts for 59 per cent of total global investment in the Indian ITES-BPO industry, targeting legal, logistics and customer care segments. Europe is the second largest market at 22 per cent, targeting HR, purchasing, finance, and accounting. Finally, the Asia/Pacific region follows at 15 per cent, with fastest growing areas including HR, engineering, finance, accounting, and purchasing. The industry remains strong at the beginning of 2005, with the stability of MNC captive units. The significant difference in costs, where overall operating, personnel, and property rental costs in India are just 20 per cent, 14 per cent, and 22 per cent, respectively, that of the United States, makes estimates of growth rates as high as 200-300 per cent per year not at all unlikely [NASSCOM 2003]. With such an optimisticfuture for the industry, and increasing job opportunities for Indian high school and college graduates, the situation seems a winner all around. Yet, we cannot ignore the great cost to the Indian labour force and the cultural implications of call centre transformations for a postcolonial population.

We have to recognise, drawing from postcolonial theory, that “the world is an integrated ensemble of historical and regional processes, and that particular times and places can rarely be separated out from larger patterns if we are to make interpretations capable of producing change” [Schwarz 2000, p 5]. Although Said’s (1979) Orientalism has been critiqued extensively for its dichotomic analysis of the west and the east, it offers a good framework to understand some contemporary transnational processes. The consensual and flexible superiority of Orientalism, “which puts the westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upperhand” (p 25), carries a depressing relevance for the current context. The call centres provide ample evidence of the meticulous gentrifying strategies where local natives are groomed to serve the MNCs and transnational bourgeoisie, many located in former imperial centres. Such grooming is facilitated by various “comprador intelligentsia” [Appiah 1996, p 62] who have been educated in Englishlanguage schools in mostly former British cantonment areas, perpetuating a structure of dominance and subordination set up centuries ago. The call centre labour is structured within an ideology of capitalist expansion and neocolonialism. Enduring structures of exploitation in the form of globalisation and neocolonialism ensure that development or modernisation, no matter how lucrative in the short term, continues to be uneven, as a colonial legacy, facilitating the continuation of cultural and media imperialism. The call centres may be regarded as another layer of an entrenched, transnational, colonial structure that mines cheap labour for the mobilisation of goods and services for a foreign centre. The transactions continue according to a wide range of possibilities, without the elites in this structure ever losing the upper hand.

This study has provided a view into the experiences of call centre employees who recognise the monetary benefits of their work, yet understand the toll it takes on their social and personal lives. Their statements on the social benefits of their work where they learn to speak and communicate in English better, has to be critiqued as components of a larger ideological system that places high economic value on the language, accent, and behaviour of the dominant class. For example, team leaders are keenly aware of the limits of their resistance because their very existence depends on complicity. As Butler (1997) points out, “how is survival to be maintained if the terms by which existence is guaranteed are precisely those that demand and institute subordination?” (p 27). Yet there is some room for change in that the health of the organisation depends to a certain extent on employee well-being. Despite plentiful supply, recruiting, hiring, and training procedures are expensive and high-turnover rates can spell doom for any organisation in the long term. Recognising these conditions, team leaders can, even though prevented from unionisation, demand a certain standard in their work conditions. Yet they accept the limits of these demands and in turn, impose the same on their teams, demanding long work hours, high call response and sales rates, and decreased customer complaints.

It would be naïve, therefore, to assume that agency is always in opposition to power. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as a system of domination that induces consent in its subjects through ideology is particularly relevant here. Strinati (1995) explains:

It can be argued that Gramsci’s theory suggests that subordinated

groups accept the ideas, values and leadership of the dominant

group not because they are physically or mentally induced to do

so, nor because they are ideologically indoctrinated, but because

they have reason of their own (p 166).

The call centre employees work within this ideology, accepting their cultural subordination as part of the job. Do we conclude then, as Ang (1996) does, that capitalism is chaotic and leave it at that? That chaos is a normal and in fact crucial component of such a system that thrives on the uncertainty of its subjects, appeasing them through a limited supply of products for their seemingly limitless needs and wants? Rather than unfairly focus on the agency of call centre employees, we may pose Lenin’s classic question to the structure: What is to be done?

It is time to revive the role of the state, an entity often theorised to be submerged or even irrelevant in globalisation [Morley and Robbins 1995]. The national and state IT policies that enforce work and break schedules, medical and retirement benefits, and investment opportunities, are necessary to give call centre employees solid ground to stand on when making their arguments for better work conditions. A proportion of profits should be used for urban and rural development, not just the development of infrastructure around the call centre or MNC, a practice common in colonial times, leading to haphasard development. Although many MNC captive units and third party vendors enforce their own workplace regulations to maintain stability and pass scrutiny, these regulations are stringent in their performance standards and labour demands. Offshoots of the call centre industry such as local BPOs, voice training centres, and transcription services run by indigenous entrepreneurs are often the ones that ignore basic

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

standards.6 Greater state intervention and substantive partnerships with non-governmental organisations that actively engage in issues of equitable pay, just treatment of employees, and gender discrimination, would ensure accountability from the comprador class and lead to overall better work conditions. Workshops and seminars for employees that educate them on their rights, and their social and cultural adjustments will help them to cope with the demands of the workplace.

Ultimately, an environment that demands nocturnal labour for a remote clientele, and diminishes interpersonal familial and social interactions, may still seem attractive for the immediate material rewards it brings. As demonstrated in an earlier study of sweat shop labourers [McMillin 2003], workers are aware of the drawbacks of the system, but also recognise that equally lucrative alternatives are almost non-existent. So it is not a reductionist matter of the material base defining culture, but of complex micro negotiations within individual workers, willing to transform what they consider their outside material sphere to sustain their inner spiritual sphere. The outsourcing of labour is integrally connected to the outsourcing of identity, the latter as much a commodity as the former in transnational flows of culture and capital, leading to dynamic and protean combinations of global and local, always in construction, never complete.

m

Email: divya@u.washington.edu

NNNNN
otesotesotesotesotes

1 The actual names of the call centres and the names of all respondents are confidential. Aliases are used where respondent names are provided in this article.

2 Other applications of CTI are synchronised voice and data delivery, voice and data conferencing, automatic retrieval from callers, segmentation and prioritising callers, caller-specific messaging and routing, enhancedperformance reporting, on-line training tools, enhanced marketing research, automated switching between inbound and outbound calls, and desktop productivity tools. Enhanced CTI services include voice processing, interactive voice response (IVR), speech recognition, text-to-speech technology, fax processing, media conversion and optical character recognition (OCR) [see Sharp 2003].

3 Some technologies in call centres include computer telephony integration (CTI), networking hardware, automated call distribution (ACD) facilities, PBX phone switch and software (see Sharpe, D E (2003).

4 At the time of fieldwork, 1USD=Rs 45.

5 Sharp (2003) lists 12 characteristics of successful call centres: recognise people as the key to success, receive support from the corporate culturein terms of organisation, focus quality on customer expectations, establish a collaborative planning process, consider the call centre a total process where everyone is kept in the loop on the organisation’s goals and operations, establish an effective mix of technology and people, provide the correct mix of specifications and pooling where the latter refers to networking services through mix and match devices, leverage key statisticssuch as average call value, customer satisfaction and percentage of abandoned calls, receive budgets and support as needed, hurdle distance, time, and politics effectively, be prepared and willing to experiment and be capable of vision.

6 Participation observation in a medical transcription centre showed that around 60 employees worked in a small, darkened hall (with heavy curtainsdrawn across all windows) with minimum ventilation (two wall mounted fans and a couple of open windows). Discussions with employees (many with just a high-school education) revealed the workload was extremely heavy with only a 30-minute break for lunch.

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