This call might be monitored: Life as a tech worker in India
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.