Monday, December 11, 2006

Glorified sweat shops:

Last night I caught “Bombay Calling” on the passionate eye, which followed the lives of various employees in a call center.

Call centers are big business in Mumbai.

In the past the best job were airline steward/stewardess's positions. It got people out of their villages, paid well and they got to see the world. It worked particularly well for women, who usually work till they get married (majority but not all.) Thus once they found their suitable partner, they happily retired to a life of domestic-city and did not have to worry about progressing in their careers.

The documentary depicts the upside down lives of these call center employees, who work twelve hour night shifts, often at the expense of their personal lives. Yet the pay is so ludicrously good for Indian standards ($5000 to $10,000 a year vs the national standard of less than $500 a year) that it is a hard opportunity to pass up. India is slowly transforming into a society of choice. The streets are now lined with cafes, bars and clothing stores. People now have the power to purchase and call center jobs are assisting them on becoming more materialistic. Also as one employee points out, this way better educated Indians are able to stay in India close to their families, as opposed to looking elsewhere for work.

The only pre-requisite to working in a call center is that you have to speak English. This is particularly attractive in a society like Indian, where not only is education expensive, it is so ridiculously hard. My cousins often take four or five subject tuitions after school and this has been the norm for as long as I remember. It should be noted though, that a lot of call center staff are highly educated college graduates, some with MBA’s. Yet with the advent of call centers, more teens are dropping out of college, seduced by the promise of easy money. Thus call centers offer a ‘lazier’ alternative.

It’s also hilarious how they fake the accents and names. Rajesh becomes Ryan, Jaswinder, Janice and Santhan, becomes Sam.

There are many costs. There is no such thing as work/life balance. Labour is abundant and cheap, thus employers do not offer even the basic incentives afforded to North American workers, like sick days or benefits. The attractive pay by Indian standards, is supposed to be the end all drawing point. The only incentive offered that I could find were free private transportation to and from work, along with air-conditioning at work.

A lot of these employees are subject to what would be deemed harassment under western standards. In the documentary employees are told that they will have to stand until someone makes a sale.

My dilemma with call centers is it makes me wonder, can I compare call centers to sweat shops, where seven year olds make Nikes and get paid next to nothing. I am probably going to get into a lot of trouble here from people who work in these places and are happy. Call centers pay well, have great working conditions for the most part, and Indians are doing jobs that we in the west touch with the greatest of disdain. Yet one could argue that the Nike factories did the same, by keeping the seven years olds and their families fed, saving them from a life of begging on the streets. (For all you moralists out there, this is a real concern, every time I visit Mumbai, I am always appalled how little babies roam wild, begging and the rest of society is completely immune to their pleas.)

I wonder, Are Indian call center jobs just glorified sweat shops?


solitaire said...

YES to your question!!

And it is quite upsetting. I have a few friends who work in one of Canada's largest telecommunications business. Their jobs were taken away and were 'outsourced'.
I'm all for booming economies in places other than North America. But when it comes at a high price (or in this case, a low price for The Man) who really benefits?

This upsets me greatly.

Leon said...

Sounds a lot like sweat shops to me.

cool destiny said...

Everything is all about money these days. Interesting that you mentioned it in your post as I'm working on a post right now about work life balance so you can check it out.

regina said...

Visiting from GC and you are right on the mark! I remember a "skit" on a radio show where the host called a center just to degrade the employees. I'm embarrassed just remembering that I thought it was funny at the time...