Tonight, writer and actor, Mike Daisey, was supposed to bring his one-man show, “Teching in India,” to the Spoleto stage, at the Emmett Robinson Theater. In recounting his travels across the Indian subcontinent, he was supposed to shine a light on the little-understood and often-misrepresented world of curry houses, prop shops and call centers that is modern day India.
He may have changed his mind (he announced Sunday he would discuss other matters), but I cannot so easily abandon my Indian concerns, and so I shall do what Daisey won’t: talk shop.
As an Indian student in England, where I went to school, I was deluged with questions. Most of them had to do with snake-charmers and camels.
I was asked if I traveled by elephant. Whether my mother woke up early to draw water from a well. How it was that my grandmother spoke impeccable English. To that last question, the reply came in an instant: “We were a British colony, remember?”
It’s this British legacy — a large, low-cost, English-speaking population — that led to India becoming the No. 1 destination for outsourcing for Western companies, a trend that began in the 1980s. Soon, as international companies saw a rapid increase in efficiency and a corresponding drop in cost, outsourcing became the catch phrase of the day. India went from the land of the exotic to the community of tech support, a move that made many people very unhappy.
“Customers get angry when they realize they’re talking to India,” said Gaurav Aggarwal, an employee at IBM Daksh, a business process outsourcing provider based in Mumbai, India. “They ask to be transferred to someone in their own country. We have to convince them that we know how to help them.”
In India, working at a call center isn’t a gig that’s freely admitted to, much less flouted, especially among female employees. There is a large faction of the population that is still grappling with the concept of women working odd hours with strange men, in far-flung locations.
One woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was reluctant to tell of her experience, worried about what her relatives would say if they found out she worked at a call center.
In this field, entry-level positions are filled by fresh graduates, lured by the promise of quick, easy money and the assurance that all they need is to speak reasonably good English.
Most of these students work the graveyard shift, shuttling into work at 10 p.m. and staggering back home at sunrise. And women working these hours face grave dangers.
In December 2005, the body of a 24-year-old HP Globalsoft employee, Pratibha, was found in a grove on the outskirts of Bangalore. Her company, like all other call centers, arranges for professional cab drivers to transport its employees to and from work.
That night, a man pretending to be a company driver picked her up. She was raped and killed, her body dumped into a ditch. This incident is but one in a series of atrocities that has shaken the call center world.
Anand Sudarshan, vice chairman and managing director of Manipal Global Education, an education services company based in India, foresees the structure of the classical outsourcing model changing over the next few years.
“Outsourcing companies cannot just throw work over the wall to a cheaper location,” said Sudarshan in a conversation from his office in Bangalore. “They cannot be blind to social and cultural sensibilities.
Although their fundamental responsibility is economic — to their own employees, their shareholders, and customers — they still have to be alive and sensitive to those vital components in whichever country they operate.”
The vital components in this gargantuan, continent-spanning machine are people. American workers are fighting to keep their jobs in this country. Halfway across the globe, employees are battling social stigma and sketchy safety measures.
Players in this global economy are divided by time, distance, language, culture, and accents — differences that become evident as connections grow deeper. Connections that bridge the gap between two worlds that have thus far been mutually exclusive.
I grew up in Bangalore before it became India’s Silicon Valley. Back then, it was hailed as the “Garden City.” Today, it’s an integral cog in an increasingly integrated world economy, associated with IT companies, back offices and a tech-savvy workforce.
The global landscape is being redefined, and as Sudarshan says, “Outsourcing has two parts, the good and the bad. It is important to balance things out. As water finds its level, this will too.”
Aasimah Navlakhi is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.
“Honestly? I did it for the money. I had four months off in the summer, and it was easy money. The requirements were very basic — just that we communicate properly and speak good English. The most frustrating was when customers called to claim that they were victims of credit-card fraud. When we read out the last five transactions to them, they realized that they had made the purchases themselves. But first, they would just call and take off on you.”Gaurav Aggarwal,customer service representative, IBM DakshMumbai, India“One of the big problems is the timings, especially for those women who are married. Even single women stay with families, who don’t like them working these hours. Most of the employees we hire are from North India, who have no family in the city. They live as paying guests by themselves, and work these shifts to make money.”Srilakshmi SubramanyamHR intern, ConvergysBangalore, India“Working those hours sends your whole life for a toss. You start drinking a lot. And smoking becomes a part of it. After talking on the phones nonstop for eight hours, you get a 15-minute break, and all you want is a cigarette. You don’t eat right, you put on weight, and you get really frustrated. I’m glad it’s over. There was nothing I liked about that job.”Richard JohnManager (mortgages), Dhanalaxmi BankMumbai, India“One of the main challenges of companies with a multinational footprint is communication. There are cultural differences. We have a multilingual staff. We have people from nearly 25 different nationalities working for us — Americans, Canadians, Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indians. Our strategies are always evolving to facilitate better communication.”Anand SudarshanVice chairman and managing director, Manipal Global EducationBangalore, India