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Debate over Conditions in India's Call Centers


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Many Americans object when jobs in the United States are outsourced to India. But it's generally assumed the people of India, a country with high unemployment and low wages, are happy to have the work. That view is now being challenged. A report emerged from an Indian think tank focusing on India's flourishing call centers. It says well-educated young people are wasting their most productive years working as--and this is a quote--"cybercoolies." As NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi, these findings have triggered a debate about whether India should be the electronic housekeeper for the West.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Sachim Thaka(ph) is 24 years old. He's an English literature graduate. When he finished his degree he was, like millions of other smart young Indians, eager to get a job and begin his career. The problem was that no one would hire him.

Ms. SACHIM THAKA (Call Center Worker): I have been trying to get a job for only--for last two years, and I didn't get any job in any government sector. So finally, with a graduation qualification, I decided to move to this industry.

REEVES: By `this industry,' he means call centers. Four months ago, he joined the multitude of other young English-speaking graduates in India who answer telephones night and day, patiently fielding calls from Western customers.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: Sachim came here to Gurgaon. India has many surreal sights, and this is one of them. Shopping malls, luxury apartment buildings and office blocks rise up on the dusty plains south of New Delhi, concrete and glass ships anchored in an older, bustling world of trash-covered streets, wandering cattle and rickshaws.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: More than 170,000 Indians work in call centers. Gurgaon's one of the main hubs. Young Indians from the urban middle class are drawn here, eager to earn enough to have a taste of Western consumerism. Sachim says he's happy, yet others are worrying on his behalf. A government-funded think tank, the V.V. Giri National Labor Institute, has published a study expressing dismay that Indian graduates are expending their talents doing what it portrays as stressful work in an industry wasteful of their skills and generally cavalier about workers rights and job security. It says employees are sometimes subjected to more surveillance than the inmates of a 19th-century prison or a Roman slave ship. The author declined to be interviewed by NPR. He's not alone, though, in expressing concern.

Mr. CHETAN BHAGAT (Author, "One Night at the Call Center"): The job in itself is something, I mean, any US graduate wouldn't want to do himself. And most of the people who are hired here are college graduates.

REEVES: That's Chetan Bhagat. He's author of a novel called "One Night at the Call Center," which has just been published in India. He says call center companies were reluctant to give him access to gather material for his novel, so he sneaked in with the help of friends. He emerged unimpressed.

Mr. BHAGAT: If it was a hundred kids, a thousand kids, OK, but it's becoming hundreds of thousands, maybe millions soon, and this is becoming a mainstream employment solution for the country. However, this is not giving people a future.

REEVES: Yet views on this differ sharply. The industry, known here as business process outsourcing, or BPO, vigorously defends its practices. When the Institute of Labor's report reached here, the New Delhi offices of the Financial Express newspaper, the editor, Mythili Bhusnurmath, fired off an article contradicting it.

Ms. MYTHILI BHUSNURMATH (Editor, Financial Express): So I think it's a very armchair kind of view of what is reality in India today, but the fact remains that all these people who are currently employed in call centers--what are the alternatives that they have before them? Because most of them are just graduates without any particular job skills. Earlier on before the BPO industry really came up, they would just have joined, you know, the unemployed. They would have been part of the huge mass of educated unemployed.

REEVES: She points out that call center employees can always leave if they don't like it. She also says they generally enjoy much better conditions than Indians in most workplaces.

Ms. BHUSNURMATH: You have an air-conditioned comfort. You have food. You have somebody picking you up in the morning and dropping you back. I mean, those are unimaginable luxuries for most of these students today in India.

REEVES: Ashu Tosh(ph) is 23 years old and holds a degree in hotel management. He, too, couldn't find a job in his field, so he now works for a center fielding calls from credit card applicants in the US. He disputes the claim that call center workers aren't developing their skills. He says he's learning the art of dealing with American customers, who discover their calls are being taken by people on the other side of the world.

Mr. ASHU TOSH (Call Center Worker): Some of them don't have any kind of problem, but the first thing we ask literally is I just listen to the customer, `Whatever you want to say,' just let him say whatever he has to.

REEVES: Cameras, recording devices and supervisors constantly monitor call center workers. Ashu Tosh says getting angry with customers could mean losing incentive pay, and swearing at one is a fireable offense. Although Ashu Tosh says working night shifts causes him stomach problems, he has no substantial complaints about his work.

M.K. Pandhe, president of the Center of Indian Trade Unions, says not all call centers are bad, and he acknowledges India needs the industry. But he says the centers should allow employees to join trade unions which would enforce India's labor laws.

Mr. M.K. PANDHE (President, Center of Indian Trade Unions): We tried to form unions, but every time the persons who were involved in the unions, they lost their job.

REEVES: For Sachim Thaka, these matters are peripheral. He's earning the equivalent of $200 a month. Soon that'll rise by almost another hundred. He thinks he might even stay for life.

Mr. THAKA: If I think that I'm doing well, then maybe I'll stick for as long as I work to the time I retire.

REEVES: As long, he adds, as he gets promoted regularly. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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