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Money for Nothing and Calls for Free

by Nidhi Kumar and Nidhi VergheseSpecial to CorpWatch
February 17th, 2004

Cartoonist: Khalil Bendib

The teacher lights a candle. The student whispers a thank you, gently blowing out the candle. The candle is relit. Once again the student says thank you the flame flickers and then glows steadily. The teacher smiles. Another day, another lesson learnt.

This is one of the exercises in an accent neutralization class in India. Many such training institutes have sprung up which prepare youngsters for working in call centers. Call centers are mushrooming around the country and youngsters are queuing up to join the "may I help you" brigade.

The Customer Service Executives (CSEs), or agents, keep in touch with foreign clients, sell products to prospective customers, offer after-sales services, handle queries, attend to complaints, etc. The CSEs assume different names and identities. They are trained to understand and speak with a neutral accent.

Growth Industry

Call centers provide employment on a large scale in India; currently, about 200,000 young men and women are working in call centers. They are mostly restricted to metropolitan cities and recruit youngsters from the upper middle class bracket.

According to a research done by callcentre.net, an Australian research and consulting firm, the Indian call center industry is expected to grow by 68 percent in the next twelve months, overtaking Australia to become the largest call center country across Asia by 2004. If one starts out as an agent in a call center, one can become the manager in just a few years. An entry-level worker earns about 100,000 rupees ($ 2,211) a year.

Learn More

The Dark Side of the Outsourcing Revolution

According to call center representatives, the pace at which wages are raised is exceptionally fast. An official from a call center recruitment and training center in Mumbai says, "There is room for both horizontal and vertical development. In five years one can go from a CSE to an Operations Manager, earning 50,000 rupees ($ 1,105) a month."

Elsy Thomas, Head of Economics Department, Sophia College, has a different point of view. She says, "Growth may be fast but what does one do after five years? There is stagnation and there is no new learning. However, Call centers have proved beneficial to India."

According to US State Legislation, all products that cost more than one dollar require customer service operations that are often relocated to developing countries like India. There is much hype about how India could become the global hub for outsourced businesses.

But the reality is that the current boom is based on a single premise -- cheap labor. But is cheap labor a virtue? Is it something to be proud of? The call center industry could move overnight to another country where the cost of labor would be lower. In the US, a CSE is paid eight dollars per hour whereas in India they are paid 72 cents for the same work.

Physical Costs

The job comes with all sorts of problems. The working hours at call centers are odd, due to the time difference in various countries. Centers offer pick-up and drop-back facilities but only at night. Sameer used to work at Wipro Spectramind at Powai, Mumbai during the graveyard shift from 2:30 am to 10:00 am. "Traveling by locals, at rush hour, after a sleepless night's work was extremely tiring", he says. Besides the odd working hours, repeating the same task over and over again can be very monotonous.

Mayur, who recently quit his job at Epicenter in Malad, Mumbai, says, "This is a kind of assembly line job that assures you a salary, but nothing more. There's not much skill or training required and people come in and go like they're working at McDonald's."

Dhaval works for an inbound call center where customers call in. He says that one cannot take a break even to go to the toilet in between calls. Cris works for an outbound call center E-serve in Malad, Mumbai, where an automatic dialer dials numbers. His work starts at 10:30 pm but there is no fixed ending time. He has to log out each time he takes a break. He has to complete six hours of log-in time, no matter how long it takes and is paid only for the log-in hours.

Many callers hang up or use foul language over the telephone. CSEs are trained to hit the mute button in order to be unheard and listen patiently without interruption. Girls sometimes get asked out over the telephone. Also the US has strict Telemarketing laws and one can be sued for calling unlisted numbers for sales.

Mayur, who works for Epicentre in Malad, Mumbai, states that he misses Indian holidays and that he, has to work even on Diwali and New Year's Eve. "One has no social life and one loses touch with friends", adds Darion, a CSE at Prudential (PPMS). Sameer and Nikita, both having worked the night shift from 2:30 to 10:00 am, complained about health problems due to lack of sleep. Sameer could not adjust his sleep cycle to sleep during the day. As a result he was always stressed. His nightmare was when he had 159 calls on hold to attend to. Nikita developed liver and eye infections.

Most of the youth working in call centers are aware that it is an interim two-year stint - wage labor rather than a career option. Reasons for joining a call center are varied. The biggest attraction is the money. Although call center employees in India are paid only 10-15 per cent of the salary of their American counterparts, it is considered adequate by Indian standards.

Outsourcing Elsewhere

With the increase in opposition against outsourcing several states in the US are planning regulations to ban government operations from being shifted abroad. Thus, this great Indian dream could soon come to an end.

Cadjetai Fernandes, economics teacher at Xavier's College says, "The employment benefits of Call centers are only for a short term and will not last for a long time. In such a scenario, thousands of graduates will be left in the lurch." Already countries like China and Philippines are gearing up to take India head-on. According to the Outlook Magazine, China has made English compulsory at all levels of education. Research reveals that Americans find it easier to understand Filipino English speakers than Indians.

Whether the call center industry moves elsewhere or not, the real beneficiary will always be the developed countries. While US based companies work during the day, their back offices in India and other developing countries continue their work even while they sleep. While developed countries reap the benefits, the fringe "benefits" are shared among the underdogs. The larger piece of the pie will go to the one who bids the lowest.

Nidhi Kumar and Nidhi Verghese write for Unequal Sphere, a project of the Social Communications Media Department at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, India.