The controversy over a National Labour Institute paper on call centres could provide an opportunity to analyse objectively the situation of workers in the new economy.
IN the third week of October, a statement from the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) that employee satisfaction rates in Indian outsourcing firms were among the highest for any industry took many people by surprise, as did the assertion that Indian Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms were not sweatshops.
The immediate context of the statement was the critical findings of a paper titled "Labour in Business Process Outsourcing: A case study of call centre agents", prepared by Babu P. Remesh, an associate fellow at the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute (NLI), which is an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Labour. But what ruffled the feathers of the Information Technology sector was the comparison of the degree of surveillance required at work in the sector with the situation of Roman slave ships or 19th century prisons in the study. Quotations from the study have been selectively blown out of proportion resulting in the deflection of the larger objective of the research, which was to understand the labour market implications of this sector. The survey for the study, part of a larger research paper, was conducted in 2003, and the findings were published in 2004.
Surprisingly, there has been no response from the Centre to the report even as the imposition of labour laws and the right to strike in the Information Technology industry are being considered seriously. The Left parties have said that the IT sector be categorised as essential services and that the right to strike was an inalienable right of IT employees. With the IT-enabled services sector and the IT industry defending its turf, the government's silence is inexplicable. In fact, the NLI study, which was accessible earlier, has now gone out of circulation. Apparently the NLI, which is at the epicentre of the debate, does not want to drag the issue any further, at least for the moment.
But what has mostly been ignored is that the study is the first of its kind to explore in depth the factors that have attracted young people to BPO-generated employment.
While its objective was to understand and explore the insecurities and vulnerabilities often veiled in the "organisational logic", the study is far from being subjectively critical. In fact, it sums it up by stating that it is important not to characterise call centres as entirely "careerless", considering the growing numbers of educated youth seeking employment in them. Nevertheless, the study, is a critical one, focussing on the main players - the workforce in the ITES sector.
BPO is, according to the study, India's new sunshine sector and the country is one of the most sought after electronic housekeepers of the world, taking care of a range of chores for multinational firms. Policy-makers and planners view this sector as having the potential to absorb a great deal of the educated unemployed. But what the study reveals is that the bulk of those who are employed come from urban, public school educated and upper-middle class backgrounds. Additionally, most of them were children of those in secure jobs, such as government employees. With increasing awareness of what constitutes "decent work", a term coined by the International Labour Organisation, one of the primary objectives of the study was to look at the sustainability and credibility of the sector not only in terms of job creation but also in terms of the superior work conditions supposedly provided to the employees.
The researchers interviewed 277 employees working in six call centres located in Noida, an electronic hub in the National Capital Region. They focussed on Business Process Outsourcers or call centres, which according to the NASSCOM-McKinsey Report, 2002, was the fastest growing industry, expanding at the rate of 70 per cent in the year 2001-02. It was also estimated that the sector would account for 30 per cent of Indian foreign exchange flows by 2008. There are around 1,71,100 workers currently employed in the outsourcing centres.
While there is information and understanding as to why the BPO sector found India an attractive destination, not much attention has been paid to the transformation undergone by labour. Random media reports of work conditions or employee stress have appeared but nothing that tried to understand the link between the "atypical" nature of the workplace and the work with the industry at large.
The study does not state that BPO employees are underpaid or get low wages. In fact, one of the reasons that the sector attracts hundreds of aspirants is because of the money involved. Work is portrayed as "fun" and the workplace as "yet another campus". It is these basic notions, along with the superior technology in the workplace, that attract potential workers. The firms, in their job advertisements, showcase the bright ambience of the workplace, including facilities such as cafeteria, Internet kiosks, recreation centres, gymnasiums and clinics, which go a long way in attracting what the study calls the "urban creamy layer".
The study has reviewed BPO advertisements, which specify that call centre agents need to be young, fresh, English-speaking graduates with comprehension ability. Thus, a lot of potential non-English speaking and non-public school candidates get excluded. The nature of the employment, concurs the study, is definitely "superior" in terms of better work environment and higher salaries and perks but there are anxieties on its long-term implications in the labour market. Coupled with the shiny side of this industry, there is the high attrition rate, the increased stress at work, and the eroding collectivity of workers. And there is no denying that this is a new "genre of workers" distinctly different from other workers.
Hence, the distinctiveness involves features and differently conceived identities that result in what the study calls a "productively docile" workforce, which is also the outcome of a changed framework of the notion of human resource management. This is perhaps one of the most important descriptions that emerge in the study, not so much the comparison of the workforce with 19th century prisons or Roman slave galleys.
This docile workforce is managed effectively so that the scope of collective organisation, for purposes other than what fits in the interests of the firm, gets negated completely. There are attractive designations offered such as Customer Care Officer, Customer Care Executive, Contact Centre Representative, Customer Support Executive, or Call Centre Executive that lead to favourable supply conditions in the labour market.
ONE of the most interesting features of the study is the class profile of the employees interviewed. The bulk, 94 per cent, had parents who were graduates with the fathers mostly in government jobs (56 per cent), businesses (27 per cent) or professional services (13 per cent). In 28.5 per cent of the cases studied, the mothers were also found to be employed, mostly again in government sector jobs. It was not coincidental that in the caste-wise segregation of the respondents revealed the majority of them (96 per cent) belonged to forward castes.
The study also demolishes the notion that the majority of the agents are fresh graduates. Ninety-seven per cent of the 277 respondents were in the 20-30 age group and the mean and the median ages of the workforce were 25. This meant that most of them had been into some kind of BPO-related or other jobs before they joined as agents. Almost all of them had completed their education from urban centres, and 84 per cent had studied in English-medium public or convent schools and 94 per cent had completed their last academic course with either first class or distinction. Here it is pertinent to link another important finding of the study, that there does not seem to be much of skill or talent upgradation for these relatively bright individuals even as they work in the "superior" work environments of the call centres.
Recruitment is not random; it is directed at cost-minimisation through reduced training costs, as aptly qualified personnel are preferred through a carefully filtered process. Therefore, any further investment by the firm in added training of the employee gets overruled in the recruitment procedure itself. Hence, according to the study, Indian BPOs, unlike their developed country counterparts, were found diverting only limited resources to the in-service training of the professionals. The recruitment process has been explained in great detail in the study.
Some interesting aspects, hitherto undocumented, emerged in the study. For instance, the post-recruitment training normally included four to eight weeks of in-house orientation in voice/accent, soft skills and spoken English. Exposure to television shows and Hollywood blockbusters, reading fiction to familiarise the agents with Western culture and etiquette further enhanced this.
A significant aspect to emerge from this study has been the demystification of the notion that the BPO is largely a "women-friendly" sector. Images of greater flexibility in work organisation are far from the truth. There was clear labour market segregation by gender, with women engaged in more of the low-paid and less-skilled occupations, thereby reinforcing the prevalent gender inequities in the labour market. The NLI study corroborates the findings from some previous studies about the absence of a major transformation in aggregate employment patterns in the near future despite the proliferation of ICT-based jobs. Based on its survey of the six call centres, the study surmised that women comprised 38 per cent of the workforce in all the firms selected for the study.
As is the case with the export processing zones, single, young women are preferred though in the former, unlike the latter; education might not be a required qualification. Most of these young women in ICT-based work belong to relatively economically sound families. There are also macro trends to suggest from ILO studies that with the expansion of IT-based work, there is a larger likelihood of women workers to be concentrated in end-user, low-skilled IT jobs related to word processing or data entry. And the work in the call centres is equally, if not more, women-unfriendly as compared to the traditional manufacturing sector jobs.
Overall, the salary structures were found rather favourable with 53 per cent of the respondents receiving a monthly salary above Rs.10,000 and another 19 per cent earned a salary between Rs.8,000-Rs.10,000, which was comparable with the salaries of qualified personnel in manufacturing or service sectors. But on the flip side, the study talks of some other features that may not go down well with the IT and BPO sector.
The agents who come at the bottom-most layer of the call centre hierarchy revealed that there were situations where they found it very difficult to manage even a few days' leave. Unauthorised absence, without sanctioned leave, could lead to the termination of the services of the agent. In case of illness, an agent had to get the "team leader's" consent for absence four or six hours before the shift started. Probationers were only entitled for casual leave. Further, as the call centres functioned for international clients of the firm, the employees could not avail themselves of any national holidays.
It is a highly controlled work regime, comparable to assembly-line manufacturing associated with Fordism or Taylorism. Technological advancements such as the automatic call distribution system allowed the firms to keep the "free time" between calls to a bare minimum. Predictive dialling allows the automatic dialling of outbound calls and also the transferring of calls when they are answered to available members of the staff. This enables the firm, argues the study, to dump "a day's work in an hour" to the agent. Work was constantly monitored with the help of specially designed software, computer networks and closed circuit cameras.
The atmosphere is very competitive as performance is rated in terms of productivity (quantum of work done) and quality. There are "track cards" or "warning cards" that record the daily ratings of the agents. Aspects that are beyond the control of the agents, such as reaching the pick-up point late or taking longer than the stipulated time for a lunch break, are marked as "defects".
The constant evaluation subjected the agents to considerable stress. This is sought to be controlled by an illusion of flexibility provided by the human resource managers. The health toll was considerable. The respondents in the study reported several symptoms of mental and physical ill-health such as nervousness, chronic fatigue, body ache, insomnia, nausea, anxiety and depression. Frequent gastrointestinal problems and digestive problems were also reported.
The design of the work and the workplace is such that agents work continuously, running after targets, that they do not find the time for thinking collectively or trade unionism. One of the reasons for the apathy towards unionism unlike in the case of conventional manufacturing or service sector workers is that the majority of the respondents were not the bread-winners of their families - their better-off economic status acted as a bulwark to ideas of organising as a collective. The subjective aspect of the apathy was the philosophy of the work organisation itself, which was based on "individualisation". In fact, discussing salaries with fellow workers invites warnings and disciplinary action. In other words, it is clear to employees that vertical mobility had a lot to do with healthy relations with the management.
But stress-busting outlets are organised by the firms themselves in the form of get-togethers, parties and other forms of recreation. But this "controlled socialisation" is evidently linked to the larger interests of the organisation and not so much directed at the individual worker. According to the study, there is a growing paradox in the work organisation in the call centres. On the one hand, the BPOs are characterised with much innovation, flexibility and freedom but at the core, it is a relatively inflexible form of work organisation.
The Indian software industry has emerged in the course of the past decade as a Rs.60,000-crore industry and is supposed to have radically altered the country's image.
Understandably, representatives from the industry are upset over the study, which they feel has put the country in a poor light. There is also a section that feels that the views of the industry have not been reflected in the study. The study has been an objective undertaking based on a reasonable sample of call centre employees. In fact, the study concludes with the understanding that while delineating the insecurities and vulnerabilities in this sector, it is equally important to explore possible corrective measures or adjustment mechanisms that help in tapping the employment potential of the sector, with minimum adverse impacts in the overall economy.
Rather than attacking the study for highlighting some of the emerging practices in a new economy - in terms of the long-term implications for both the economy and the workforce (what worth is an economy without its workforce) - what is needed is an introspective and considered understanding of the work organisation in call centres by all those concerned, the government and the industry included.
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