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INDIA: Outsourcing outrage: Indian call-center workers suffer abuse

by Mike McPhateSan Francisco Chronicle
November 17th, 2005

Noida, India -- While irate calls are a mainstay of customer service work in any country, many Indian call-center workers say they regularly face particular abuse from Americans, whose tantrums are sometimes racist and often inspired by anger over outsourcing.

This vitriol has fueled a "searing anger" among the Indian employees, says Vinod Shetty, a Bombay lawyer who has formed a collective for call-center workers. "A lot of trauma is caused."

Debalina Das, 22, a computer help-line agent in the city of Hyderabad in south India, punched the button last winter for a call from the United States.

The caller greeted her with a torrent of racial and sexual slurs, accused her of "roaming about naked without food and clothes" and asked, "What do you know about computers?"

The diatribe ended with the comment:"This company is just saving money by outsourcing to Third World countries like yours."

Such telephone tirades are fueled by outrage over outsourcing, which is expected to move 3.4 million U.S. service-sector jobs overseas by 2015, according to the consultancy Forrester. Most of the work comes to India, where young, low-cost employees now handle a range of American tasks -- they draw cartoons, interpret heart scans, adjudicate insurance claims, reserve flights and chase debtors.

Das, who quit the job after four months, said she learned to dislike Americans. "Rarely, there are people who are good," she said by e-mail, "but then others remind me that all they believe in is cursing, and they don't have respect for others."

Her opinion is not uncommon among many workers in India's burgeoning call-center industry.

Relations between India and the United States have grown closer in recent years. India now sends more students to American colleges than any other country.

Indians form the wealthiest and one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States. And in the last decade, American companies have increasingly sought Indian customers and employees.

Not everyone is happy about the growing ties between the two nations. An anti-outsourcing movement has drawn wide support as layoffs continue to mount at such U.S. companies as IBM, which is cutting 13,000 jobs in Europe and the United States and adding 14,000 in India, according to the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers.

In the first three months of this year, state legislators proposed 112 bills to stanch the exodus of American jobs, according to the National Foundation for American Policy.

Some opponents of outsourcing, often fired workers themselves, have rechanneled their rage at job-slashing CEOs toward India. On the Web forum Is Your Job Going Offshore? (isyourjobgoingoffshore.com/forums/) contributors variously describe India as depraved, as a haven for terrorists, a "giant leech" and a nation of "back-stabbing cowards."

It is this kind of commentary that has shaped a perception among India's customer-care workers that Americans are intolerant. "Everybody thinks like that," said Samik Chowdhury, assistant manager at an IBM office in northern India. "Every time, it's racism only."

This attitude is not typical of most urban Indians, who tend to admire the United States for its strength and entrepreneurial spirit. In a recent 16-country Pew poll, India had the highest percentage of citizens with a favorable opinion of the United States, 71 percent.

The less favorable view, though, is beginning to seep into Indian popular culture. The scripts for a new sitcom called "The Call Center," scheduled to air this winter on the leading channel NDTV, depict Westerners as arrogant, immoral and comically rude.

The show's villain, the Indian manager of a call center, is an India-bashing blowhard, a disposition he picked up at an Ivy League business school in the United States.

One of the episodes recreates a real-life exchange that occurred in January between an American and an Indian agent that has become notorious among the call center crowd here. On the Philadelphia radio show "Star and Buc Wild," host Troi Terrain phoned an Indian call center pretending to order hair beads for his daughter. The call quickly turned vicious.

"Listen to me, you dirty rat eater," Terrain growled, to muffled laughter in the studio. "I'll come out there and choke the -- out of you. You're a filthy rat eater. I'm calling about my American 6-year-old white girl. How dare you outsource my call?"

Indian offices have taken measures to thwart such attacks: Agents typically adopt anglicized names, undergo "accent neutralization" and U.S. cultural training, and sometimes claim to be located in the United States. They are taught to suffer attacks politely and try to calm customers. Failing that, many offices now offer callers the option to be transferred to agents in the United States.

These humiliations, say observers, are tolerated by a labor force that savors the opportunity to join India's growing middle class. With monthly incomes of about $200, call-center employees live well in a country where many are poverty-stricken.

"They feel like it is their duty" to swallow insults, says labor researcher Babu Remesh.

Sumit Bhasin, a 25-year-old call-center worker for HCL BPO Technologies in the northern Indian city of Noida, says American customers tend to have an "egoistic, bossy kind of attitude." When he was young, he said, he used to dream of traveling to the United States, as many Indians do, but after working in call centers for several years, he is not so sure anymore.

However, he loves his job, because he makes $440 a month and gets to learn about high technology like routers, modems and concepts of networking.

But for others, the abuse is taking its toll.

A group of SBC call-center workers, also in Noida, sat recently on the clipped grass in front of the silver-glassed office building where they field Americans' Web connection problems. Callers often dismiss them the moment they detect their Indian accents, they say.

A whole lot of the time, people are yelling," says Kapil Chawla, 23. "They just want to talk to an American."

Saurabh Jha, a 22-year-old in blue jeans, says a woman phoned from Texas recently and told him that, thanks to outsourcing, "You are getting money, food, shelter. You should be starving."

She berated him for 12 minutes before she finally allowed him to offer advice that promptly fixed her problem: to unplug her computer and plug it back in.

"I was speechless," he says. "She didn't even give me a chance."





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