Detailed report written after three months of work as foreign call centre worker in Delhi and collective political intervention in the area.
The text looks at the composition of foreign workers in Indian call centres and documents interviews with workers from international companies such as HP or Citibank which relocated call centre work to the industrial outskirts of Delhi.
In prol-position newsletter no.3 we published a general overview on global relocation of call centre work. The main emphasis was on the fact that along with call centre work, capital also relocates its contradictions, thereby creating new aspirations within the emerging work force of the target country. From India we received various articles reporting about increasing wages and first labour conflicts within the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector. The following report adds some subjective impressions on the matter. It was written after three months employment as a foreign call centre agent in Gurgaon, a booming satellite town of Delhi, India (see more on Gurgaon: prol-position newsletter no.4 on strike at Honda). The text consists of five main parts:
1) Short introduction to employment of foreigners in Indian call centres
2) General description of the company and the work
3) Subjective story of a working day
4) General situation, workers interviews and leafleting in Gurgaon call centre cluster
5) Political conclusions and links to other related texts
Politically, the job itself was not too interesting but provided opportunities to talk to a lot of work mates who had been employed in various call centres in the area and to get contacts to people there. The political intervention of distributing reports on working conditions and strikes in European and US call centres to BPO-employees in Gurgaon and Delhi was a collective effort of “Workers Solidarity”, a small non-party group based in Delhi. If you want to get in touch with them or get hold of the distributed brochure please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Employment of foreign work force in Indian call centres
We cannot talk of mass labour migration of European or US call centre work force to India. Although the Indian call centre companies complain about a shortage of labour force, migration from the western world will not solve the alleged problem. Compared to the thousands of relocated jobs only a small amount of students and back-packers make use of the recent employment opportunity in the Indian BPO sector. Their motivations vary from careerist aims of having a six months job reference from an Indian company in their CV to advent(o)urism and lack of financial resources for a longer trip abroad. Of course the western media is keen on reporting about these new “labour migrants”, the main German television news broadcast a feature on the “poor academics” who would not find a comparable job in Germany and nearly all bigger European newspapers published articles praising the young pioneers who make use of the new global labour market. Particularly in the UK the number of people who would work in Indian call centres seem big enough to set up agencies for recruiting them: “There's even a new group of service providers to help supply India's outsourcers with hires from overseas. In October 2004, Tim Bond set up Launch Offshore, a London recruitment firm that caters to Indian call centres. He has found jobs for 100 workers, and this year expects to place 200 more”. (BusinessWeek January 16, 2006)
I found the job advert in a normal German job centre. Evalueserve, a market research company based in India was looking for people with call centre experience and good English/French skills. The conditions were as follows: ten-hour late-shifts, five days per week; the monthly wage 27,000 rupees which is about 500 Euros (more on wages and wage comparison below); 5,000 rupees per month for shared room in company flat, 30 rupees for meal in canteen; after ten month of employment the company pays for a flight back (as it turned out later on they would only pay after eleven months); meaning that the initial costs (flight, employment visa, administrative costs) of about 1,000 Euros would have to be paid by the employee. The companies manager called twice, short conversations in English and French, one day spent at the Indian embassy for employment visa, another e-mail with a PDF-work-contract attached and the date to start working in one and a half months.
Company Evalueserve is a fairly new company with about 1,000 employees in Gurgaon, India and Shanghai, China. In Gurgaon Evalueserve employs about 800 people in two different buildings, a call centre and a “research unit”. About 80 of the 800 workers are foreigners. Evalueserve says that it belongs to the knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) industry: “Evalueserve offers fully customised, multi-lingual research solutions at affordable rates to North-American, European and Asian financial services institutions, Fortune 500 companies, SMEs, and consulting and research firms. It provides ‘customised knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) industry research’ in five synergistic streams: business research, investment research, market research, data analytics and intellectual property. Evalueserve's analysts cover a range of industries, including - Banking, Insurance, Hi-Tech, Telecommunications, Pharma & Bio-Tech, Chemicals, Energy, Consumer Goods, Discrete and Process Manufacturing. Our geographic reach is worldwide, including North America, Europe, and Asia. We have performed research in 192 countries. We utilize both primary and secondary sources to conduct our research and analysis. Our primary research capabilities are extensive, including the ability to conduct research in multiple languages”. (Quotation from company web site) They say that in the “research unit” real academics do real academic research work, mainly with the help of the Internet. I worked their for only two projects, for the first one I had to google Shampoo-websites and write down ingredients of Shampoos which are advertised to be organic and then phone up these companies and ask them questions about their market share. For the second one I had to google any information on privatising public housing and facility management in Germany. The work was done for a company that plans to buy up public property in Russia. Both projects were handled as important research work, so I cannot say how intellectually challenging the other work in the “research unit” actually is.
My main job was in the call centre, which officially was titled “research unit”, as well. Most of the people working there see “call centres” as something they hope to have left for good, therefore the re-titling of more or less basic outbound call centre work.
Nearly all foreign workers are students (business, international law, finance etc.) on intern-ships in their early and late twenties. They get about 5,000 rupees less than the two foreign people with proper employment contracts. The company uses the students for all kind of tasks. Most of them have to work for at least one or two months in the call centre. Then some are allowed to do internet research in the research unit, do translations etc.. Some of them organise the human resource management for the foreign employees, e.g. calling embassies, sending invitation letters, doing job interviews over the phone, arranging the housing for the employees etc.. This is seen as the best position to achieve and the company gets cheap dedicated young managers. The students/workers come from various countries: Czech Republic, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, England and others. Because they are prone to leave the intern-ship after six months, and because they would not do the rather boring call centre job for too long, the company started recruiting ex-call centre workers. When I arrived I was the only foreigner with a normal employment contract, another woman arrived later on, but she was an academic and left the call centre for the personnel department. Actually the young future-managers reported that they had difficulties finding 'normal' workers to do a call centre job in India.
All foreign students/workers were lodged in flats organised by the company. For Indian conditions rather splendid, for European standards fairly normal three room apartments for six people. There were various troubles because of too many parties and some students being discontented with the living standards. The group meetings to solve these problems were kind of training sessions for the human resource managing and diplomatic skills of the young managers. The German personnel department leader encouraged them to argue their points and negotiate. Some of the foreign workers expressed the boredom which they feel during their job and that they had expected more. For others being in India itself was interesting enough, although most of them stayed in the safe world of foreign community parties, shopping malls and organised tourist trips. In a way the mixture of back-packers life, international shared flats and communities, some hard-ships and improvisations and the quite formal world of Indian offices might be a good school for future “flexible” managers.
One job the company gave to a group of four students/workers is a good example of how the company used their academic ambitions and internal competition in order to get a cheap and usable result: the company wants to open another unit in Latin America, so each student had to write an investment assessment report on Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic respectively, advocating one of the countries. Another job the foreign workers and locals with foreign language skills have to do are translations. For example an Indian worker with German knowledge had to translate a document written by the German machine manufacturer Liebherr concerning the quality management in its Indian part-suppliers. The document contained quite difficult technical bits; a professional translator in Germany might have been able to ask for 100 Euro an hour remuneration. The call centre worker did the job for about 1,70 Euro. A more evil task was the translation order Evalueserve got from the local Deutsche Bank call centre. We were supposed to translate the private e-mails of foreign call centre workers sent from the company e-mail account. Some people refused to do this, but most of the foreign workers actually translated love letters, holiday greetings and other private mails.
Nearly all local workers in the call centre are young a-level students or (ex-) students in their twenties, half of them men. Nearly all have previously worked in call centres in the area, they see the company as the top level of the call centre ladder, not only in terms of wages, but also in terms of stress levels. Most of them had to sell things on the phone as part of their previous jobs and having to do silly interviews now seems a relief. Some of them want to continue their studies; most of them say that they do not find time to do so. A lot of them come from other states in India, so they speak for example Bengali or Tamil, then Hindi and English. Some of them learned additional foreign languages because they expect higher wages and job security. Apart from English Indian workers called in Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, though more than half of them have never visited the respective countries. For Indian conditions the language courses are very expensive. If in general only middle-class people actually speak English, only upper-middle class people will be able to afford to go to these courses. Being middle-class in India could mean that you are from a relatively poorer rural family which still holds land and is able to send some kids for education to towns, it could mean that you belong to the property or business owning urban middle-class, which often has additional income from relatives abroad, or it could mean that your parents have better governmental jobs which might be less well paid but provide access to formal education.
Depending on seniority and language skills the local workers were paid 12,000 to 25,000 rupees, a project or team leader could expect up to 50,000 rupees The cleaners and canteen staff who mainly come from Calcutta and Bihar had to work longer hours, up to 60 to 70 hours per week and only received 2,000 rupees per month. Previously they had been small farmers, carpenters, workshop-workers. In general the cleaners were smaller and darker than the call centre workers, due to regional origin, their class background and caste. I arrived in India without too much pre-knowledge of the caste system, also wanting to see how caste would reveal itself. After staying for some time it became obvious that certain surnames indicating upper-caste belonging were more frequent amongst call centre workers, but caste itself was never mentioned. Also religion or regional origin was not much of a topic.
The team- and project-leaders are male, in their early thirties and seem burnt-out. They frequently spent 15 hours in the office (the monthly working hours bill displays the individual working hours of all the staff), complain about health effects and family crisis. The general experience is that managers who worked in the call centre industry for a while will not find a job in other sectors any more, they are seen as marked, spoilt, worn out.
In general the local workers are quite “western”, they consume western products, most of them have been abroad, they are more or less aware of what is happening in Europe or the US. Most of them have boy- or girlfriends, although some still seem to have to face “non-love” marriages. Politically, they are fairly liberal and indifferent towards the general poverty around them. Like most of the call centre workers they feel unsure of how long the industry will provide jobs, particularly market research or sales over the phone seem to become increasingly difficult tasks. The company itself started two projects of setting up internet-questionnaires.
We had to perform telephone interviews with companies or administrations in various countries. The clients who pay for the interviews are other companies and administrations. For example for a pay-TV provider we had to call four and five star hotels in Germany, France and England and ask about their pay-TV systems. Or mobile phones, swimming pool pumps, anti-virus software. None of the interviews or projects required particular knowledge, apart from language skills. The job organisation and technology was not much different from call centres in Europe. We had to perform about 100 calls per ten-hour shift. Depending on the project we were supposed to perform four to ten interviews per day. A difficult task given the general saturation and level of nuisance that market tele-research has reached. You could try different strategies, not knowing whether the person at the other end of the line would feel intrigued or conned if you would tell that you phone from India.
We were organised in teams of about ten people, sometimes, depending on composition, we agreed not to make more than 80 calls. In general the team leaders were ok, not too pushy, but once the project dead-line is in danger they get jumpy and ask for 150 calls or more, threatening “You will not want to be in the first Evalueserve team which had to postpone the dead-line, you just will not want to be”. The management style was quite picture-book like, team-meetings and competitions, general assemblies with motivating speeches and general applause for people who receive little gadgets or money for extra-performance, bill-boards with statistics concerning performance. The company is doing fine, for example the US water pumps manufacturer paid 70 US-Dollars per interview performed in Germany, they demanded 90 interviews in eight days by ten people. This would be 6,300 Dollars for the company of which they would have to pay about 1,000 Dollars on wages. Other project targets were 1,000 interviews in five weeks by 18 people. But this is the ideal. I calculated that my really productive work (translating, interview time) was ten per cent of the total time; the rest of the time is spent in waiting queues or smoking at the back entrance with the cleaners. In comparison to the general conditions in a very similar market research call centre in London I can say that my living standard and relative wage was higher in India and there was less strict control and targets, which might be due to the general status of call centre work in India and of the company in particular.
Glass-marble building with dust and dung and shoe-shiners at the front and wood fire smoke and drumming from a building workers plastic tarpaulin camp-site at the back entrance: very much an Indian call centre. Ten hours on the phone, calling German secretaries and their managers sitting in glass-marble buildings 6,500 kilometres away, asking questions.
Poona sits next to me, it is her first job apart from being daughter of the owner of a construction company. She speaks good enough language school German and is more successful than me. She can really play the Indian card and the managers on the other end of the line like to ask her whether the weather is not too hot or the Indian food too spicy. Some IT-department executives get all teary remembering their good old days in Goa back then.
Today we are supposed to call for a software company, asking IT managers of bigger companies if they know the various slogans the company uses. There is no way to translate “Veritas provides resilient infrastructures” with the help of the bable-fish website, but Poona does not care and is successful. The IT department of the hospital in Mannheim is on strike, at least.
I get lost in the automatic voice response program of the Südfleisch AG, a Bavarian slaughterhouse and have to go to the toilet afterwards. Gopal cleans the toilet floor, as usual, which is his daily twelve-hour duty. He is a skilled carpenter with family in Calcutta, but he is ignored. Next to me pisses my quality manager, he is in his mid-twenties from Assam and speaks four European languages without having been there. His father owns a plantation in Assam, he finds it difficult to adjust to the impersonal life in Delhi and continues trying to invite me for drinks in the nearby shopping-malls clubs.
Back to software market research, my project manager has just sent me an email saying that they know that I could do better. A worldwide phenomena, like young proletarians with pre-paid mobile phone contracts without credit. At least I do not have to call the pay-tv survey anymore. Saying hello to the receptionist asking whether their hotel provides pay-tv featuring movies with adult content made me feel indecent. Though not as indecent as while listening to the five star hotel waiting queues advertising the brunch deluxe and the visit of the hotel own beauty farm when you have spent the day before in a slum hut in old Gurgaon. Or writing down shampoo ingredients, e.g. of “The Bioestethique” by Contier, 10ml for 77.50 Euro, knowing that most of the people around you would have to run machines, clean floors or cycle rickshaws for two months in order to have a hair-wash.
Priti on my left likes to practice her French with the French foreigners. At the moment she tells everyone who asks about her current work project: “Ca me fait chier”. Priti takes a risk, because officially the only language allowed for internal communication in the call centre is English. Hindi is for the masses. Priti is cool, she came all alone from Bhopal to Delhi, worked in fourteen call centres already, she loves to talk about the fact that she has a boyfriend and that they go partying and she writes a homework about the current riots in the Parisian suburbs for her pricey language class. I would like to send her some French Situationist links but the management blocked all internet email-websites, allegedly for security reasons. To secure that we keep on dialling, I guess. Poona in the other cubicle wishes the submissive German respondent “a very nice rest of your life”, and gets a chocolate biscuit from the team-leader. Pravesh is twenty-eight and tired, while smoking at the back-entrance he confesses that he has not seen his two year old boy for thirteen days, because he spends two much time in the call centre or that he had fever for the last five working days. He ponders about the sense of modern life, creates some ideal original Indian way of natural living, when cars were unknown end everyone was self-contained. From over the fence the drums of malnourished building workers. But he has to pay his house and the credit for his Maruti and for the future of his son.
Back at my desk. Did you know that union-busting Wal-Marts Headquarter in Germany is located in the Friedrich Engels Allee in Wuppertal or were you aware of the fact that the immigrant deportation-airline Lufthansa uses the Nina Simon song “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” for their waiting queue intermission. They really try to fuck up your mind. I ask my German co-worker how things are in his flat, if the neighbours still keep on complaining about the parties, the half naked girls on the balcony and the booze. “No, that is all fine. But we sacked the cleaning woman, she was not doing her job properly”. Would they send you to an Indian prison if you would kick a German arsehole in an international research unit in an Indian special export zone in the face? I should evaluate that one first.
On the screen I can see that there is no use in dialling the next number. It belongs to the Gerresheimer Glashütte, a glass-manufacturing mill in Düsseldorf. The day before I left for India my flat-mate came back from the usual passive demonstrations against the final closure of the plant, priests praying for work and local politicians doing solidarity barbecue. I already had some similar loops back in time and space, e.g. phoning the admin building of a carpet factory from where I was kicked out through a side entrance after a minor leafleting action among fellow machinists. Twelve years later the managers secretary kicks me out of the telephone line, which leaves me alone in an Indian call centres open-plan office, but hey, I guess that's what they mean by globalization of the information society. Different shit, same outcome.
I like watching my Indian co-workers doing their phone job, being all flirty and smarmy and girlish and once the receiver is down spit out a spiteful manly “Bakvas!”, “Bullshit!”. Always makes me chuckle. Gunes, the Turkish student interrupts my voyeurism, she is upset because of the Brazilian wage level. She has to do an investment report for the possible opening of a companies call centre in Latin America and she has to advocate Brazil. And compared to Argentina the wages are way too high. I try to make her feel better by persuading her that President Lula has become a politician capable enough to sort this problem out. She is happy now and tells me about the latest episode of the reality-soap she is involved: As part of her daily work she translates private e-mails of Turkish call centre agents working in the nearby Deutsche Bank call centre and the Turkish employees seem to be the most bonding ones. I do not know if advising her not to undertake her hashish orders via company mail would make her question this spying job, but it confuses her and helps my conscience. And the questionnaire we use for the survey helps my consciousness, or at least it has a transcendent effect on it. Yesterday I found myself meditating an hour over the phrase “does the implementation lead to acceleration of the time/value relation”? What kind of influence does this acceleration have on the profit rate and the general time left over for the human kind? Anyway, the only time acceleration I wish for is for the time in-between breaks.
During the breaks we sometimes discuss in the canteen, some people still remember the police attack on the Honda workers in Gurgaon last year, when 800 workers were badly injured. They watched it on the news. Of course they dislike the event, some of them blame the Japanese management, question the effect of opening Indians markets for foreign capital, talking badly about US management styles in call centres. Although the Honda workers incident happened only five kilometres away, it seems much further away from their world of apartment blocks and company cabs.
Back on the phone. Another secretary who tells me “We are not interested”. “Me neither, isn’t that tragic”, I think. Poona receives an electronic Valentines card that flashes and makes corny music when opening the inbox. Apart from call centres Valentines Day is the other big US and British import good which is recuperated by the youth of the Indian middle-class in order to fight against arranged marriages and start dating. Some fanatic Hindu groups attack stalls with Valentine cards and last week the police had another go at couples in Lodhi Park in Delhi, where young men and women normally go to hold hands. If you tell normal male workers outside the call centre that you are employed in one they get eager eyes and want to know if working there makes it actually that easy to get laid. And how much an English course for beginners would be.
Another e-mail pops up. Five minutes silence for a young woman who was employed at the research unit and who died in a car crash yesterday on her way from work. We stand up behind our cubicles. There are actually a lot of accidents. I saw three dead people on the streets in two months. No wonder, cab drivers are tired after seventeen hours shifts, everyone is tired. Subod, the night guard of our apartment block works twelve hours night shifts without a day off since six months. The day-shift guy was ill last week so Subod worked the day-shift, as well. After having worked 24 hours non-stop I told him that I could do at least six hours of his night-shift, but he was to scared to loose his 2,000 rupees job, so he worked another 24 hours. Systemic insomnia and cars mutilate people, on the streets and before the cars are assembled. A friend told me that every day in the workshops supplying sheet metal for Maruti/Suzuki plant in Gurgaon about eighteen fingers are mutilated. Mainly during night-shifts.
Five minutes are over, back to formal opening questions for the expansion of the markets. I cannot bring myself to do it, have a quick cigarette with Gopal at the toilet window instead, asking him what he did last Sunday, an exceptional day off. “I was roaming”. He shares a room with five other Bengali artisans, now having jobs in the booming service sector of Gurgaon.
When I get back to my desk the team-leaders call for assembly in the canteen. The big boss from Switzerland is having a rant. The usual motivation speeches off-the-Scientology-peg. There they are, all the Indians, and listen to him making jokes about their Chinese co-workers in the call centre in Shanghai, which he has just visited. “They are like children, they cannot deal with criticism”. His joke is greeted with comparably well paid formal laughter. In China he probably has just told the Indian version. Would the Chinese CP grant you political asylum if you would defend their people against racism by tossing a allegedly neutral swis citizens head into a machine which provides only bad instant coffee anyway?
I look over to Maneesh, he shrugs. He is smart and ironic, I started liking him when he told me about his first call centre job: “...and the team leader told us every morning that we have to treat the customer like a king, but what kind of fucked up monarchy did he talk about? Every bloody minute yet another king on the phone...”. He then worked as an estate agent for an uncle in Torino, where he learned Italian. The job and visa ran out and the only possibility would have been to do restaurant jobs and similar work. He has chosen to come back instead, not doing manual jobs. Not a single call centre employee I talked to had experience with manual labour. In a country which is so full of physique. If you want to put a half disbelieving, a half pitiful (with tendency towards a slight shade of disgust) smirk on their faces tell them that you left school aged sixteen in order to work on construction sites. It is half past ten night-time, the offices shut in Germany and I go for a last smoke to the back entrance. Three managers stand in the dark, smoking and listening to the building workers drums. “They only work in order to sing and drink during the night. That’s all...”.
General conditions in Gurgaon Call Centre Cluster
Gurgaon is a satellite town in the south of Delhi, a new development area. The area is characterised by the automobile industry. Maruti/Suzuki, India's biggest car manufacturer, and Hero Honda and Honda Scooters and Motorcycles India, Indians biggest two-wheeler manufacturers have their plants and suppliers in Gurgaon. Apart from the automobile sector Gurgaon is a textile hub, there are extensive industrial zones consisting of textile export factories. The government of Haryana recently announced the opening of another Special Export Zone within the next few years, allegedly creating an additional 200,000 jobs. About five years ago Gurgaon became a call centre cluster. Several multi-nationals have off-shored their call centre work to Gurgaon or nearby Noida, South Delhi or Okhla: Microsoft, American Express, Dell, Amazon, IBM, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, HP etc..
Some of the call centres are huge, e.g. in the building of Genpact, formerly GE Capital, about 12,000 workers are employed. In May 2006 Dell was just about to open a 5,000 seat customer service centre. Other call centres are hidden back rooms with six people on the phone. Exact numbers of how many people work in call centres in and around Delhi are not available, but in Gurgaon alone there are probably about 150,000. Most of the bigger companies not only off-shore their work to India, but outsource it at the same time to tele-service companies like Wipro, Converges, Genpact, IBM. American Express for example has an outsourced process at Converges, at the same time and just across the street it runs its own in-house call centre. Wipro employs 1,200 people in the Dell process while Dell is opening its own centre only few kilometres away. It is unclear yet whether Dell will keep on running both processes parallel, but during conversations we heard that workers in the area are also effected by re-locations of their work. Some workers reported that the process they had worked in was re-located to a call centre in Hyderabad in the South of India. IBM has an in-house call centre and at the same time acts as a service provider for Amazon and various bigger airlines and travel agencies. Due to the re-shifting a lot of workers see their work as unstable. They know that they were at the receiving end of global re-location (although they are also aware that they earn only about 20 per cent of the US-workers), but they also know that the boom is temporary, that capital/work might move on.
While having a stroll through Gurgaon, the main revelation is that the planners of the industrial plot have not studied European revolutionary periods in the late sixties, or the struggles in Latin America or the movements in South Korea in the 80s. Or they think that due to the general deeper divisions in Indian society putting call centres right next to huge motorcycle factories and textile mills will not create explosive potentials in case of bigger turmoil. While we were distributing the call centre brochure the temp workers of the Hero Honda factory organised a wild occupation of the plant which went on for five days. Right opposite the factory is a bigger call centre with 1,000 young students, able of conversing in international languages and with access to modern means of communication, having to work ten hours night-shifts under quite severe pressure, while watching the police sleeping in the shadows of the occupied factory. Only a couple of weeks later we heard of trouble in the call centre because incentives were not paid in time. We were not able to verify the rumours but during a visit at the site a lot of young workers complained about having to travel and wait two hours in cabs before shift starts and about delays of wage payment. During times of revolutionary upheavals the students first had to “discover” the workers, here they work right next to each other and are in similar ways connected to the global movement of capital, e.g. the IBM call centre is right next to the Delphi plant, the world's biggest car supplier, and in the US both companies are in deep economical shit.
Also in the daily street and communal life of Gurgaon its particular class composition expresses itself. The nights are full of white medium sized transporters carrying night-shift call centre workers, in the middle-class housing estates of skilled permanent Maruti/Suzuki workers young call centre employees of different call centres have sparsely furniture shared flats, bigger groups of call centre workers have coffee breaks in the shopping malls while ex-Honda temp workers sell them cigarettes or tea or peanuts. The spatial proximity is obvious, as obvious as the social abyss that still opens between them. Their different status is a social and cultural one, but can also be expressed in money terms: an unskilled building worker on the Dell call centre building site might earn 1,000 to 1,500 rupees per month, working a 80 hours week; a textile or metal worker employed through a contractor earns about 1,500 to 2,500 rupees for the same working hours; the official minimum wage for unskilled work in Haryana for a 48 hours week is about 3,000 rupees, a contract worker at Maruti or Honda is paid between 3,000 and 5,000 rupees for 50 to 60 hours per week; a guy at Pizza Hut serving the call centre agents gets 3,700 rupees for a 60 hours week; permanent skilled workers at Maruti with a certain seniority, the highest paid industrial workers in India earn about 10,000 up to maximum 30,000 rupees Basic wages in call centres for a-level students start at about 8,000 rupees, the average wage including incentives range between 12,000 to 14,000 rupees for normally 50 hours night-shifts. Some call centre people, mainly in sales, earn up to 25,000 to 30,000 rupees During the last five to ten years the wage of unskilled factory workers decreased (apart from wages in the main auto mobile factories), while basic call centre workers wage are said to have increased by about 3,000 rupees. In many cases a nineteen year old call centre worker, e.g. daughter of of a university professor or hospital doctor would earn more than her father. To put it in context: The rent for a normal single room in Gurgaon ranges between 1,000 to 2,000 rupees per month; if you cook your food yourself, as a single person you would need about 3,000 rupees for a basic, but health nutrition; a basic meal at a street stall is 20 to 30 rupees, a coffee at Starbucks or one hour internet the same; a mobile phone contract/number for one year without credit is about 1,000 rupees; the price for a small car ranges between 300,000 and 500,000 rupees .
The money, the night-shifts, the contact with the “western world” creates a kind of call centre culture, even best-selling novels about it. The experiences of the new proletarianised middle class generation are characterised by a call centre job straight after school or university, the night shifts, the technological control and general pressure, the shared flats, the purchasing power, the expensive food in the neighbouring shopping malls, the long hours in cabs, the frequent job changes, the more open gender relations at work, the burn out, the difficulty to keep the perspective of an academic career or to find jobs as academics.
To these general experiences others are added. We had gatherings with other call centre workers in their flats, they arrived in Gurgaon coming from various states in India and they worked in different call centres in the area. One guy had been put into an Australian detention centre for several months and has not seen his two year old son for a year, since being deported. Another guy, a heavy metal guitarist, originally came from Mizoram, a state in the north-east and grew up under a militarised state of emergency. Someone was about to open his own small call centre, having worked four years night-shift he has the money and business connections. Our conversations mainly evolved about the sense of this new life, the question of love-relationships opposed to classical married life, the shattered illusion that a well paid work is a fulfilling one, the threatening perspective of depending on call centre jobs, the lack of other opportunities, migration.
Concerning the gender relations the social management tries to contain things and maintain certain boundaries, e.g. we heard of various cases where people were told off and warned by the management for bonding or flirting in the call centre. Landlords and neighbours normally make sure that there are no “mixed” shared flats, at Evalueserve normally only the male Indians came to the parties of the foreign workers etc.. We also heard of cases where male team-leaders took advantage of the new moral pressure on female employees to be out-going and modern, by privileging flirty agents. The following interviews are products of rather short conversations during breaks, but they give an impression of the workers background, reality and perspective.
Female worker, 22 years old
In April 2004 I was still living in Bhopal when I had my first job interview with a call centre company in Gurgaon. After a first interview over the phone I was invited for a second interview in Gurgaon. I went with my mother. The company said that they were interested, but that they currently had no job, that I should wait another week. A friend of mine arranged me a different job, so I moved from Bhopal to Gurgaon. I first had to convince my family, but when my father saw that the flat is fine, they let me go. It was the first time that I went to a big town. In the following one and a half years I worked in fourteen different call centres and by changing jobs I increased my monthly wage from 8,000 rupees that I earned at my first job to 20,000 rupees, my current wage. All jobs were outbound, I was calling the US, Canada or the UK. First I had a quite glamorous picture of call centres, you know, free cabs and meals and all. But that changed after a while, after working six days a week from 2.30 am to 12.30 pm plus travel-time. I started working in small call centres with ten people employed, later I worked in companies with up to 2,000 employees. The smaller call centres are less organised, they often do not give you a contract, they do not pay in time, you do not get your promised incentives. They also often do not pay the Provident Fund (unemployed/pension insurance), they do not give you a PF-number, although it is obligatory. They also hire more or less anyone who can speak a little English.
In the smaller units I called for Rogers Canada, they do business in telecommunications, or I called trying to convince people in the US to make use of the Government Grant Profit. They are supposed to pay 299 USD into this scheme, but often it turns out to be a con-trick. The shift-times for the US are tough, you work from 11 pm. to 6.30 am. I called for Three-G-Network or OneTel, selling mobile phones to private households in the UK. A lot of call centres here call for telecommunication companies.
Most of the call centres had automatic diallers, meaning that you can not influence when a call is made. Sometimes you have to make 400 to 500 calls per shift. Bigger companies like Infovision or Technova sometimes share a building, so that you have one row of Infovision workers the next from Technova. Big companies have their own buildings, unlike smaller companies, which often share a single one. It can happen that in one row there are people working for seven different companies. Infovision also has several branches, one still in the US, three or four in India. Some people start working while they are still living with their parents. For them it is pocket-money for party or gadgets. For them it is also not such a problem if wages are not paid on time. But I guess that 60 to 70 per cent of the people actually have to pay rent, they came from various places in the North, if there is no money, they are in trouble.
One time at Icode Customer Management wages were not paid in time. It is a small call centre, only 25 people worked there. The management made cheap excuses, said that the client was not paying, that money will come in soon. That happened several times before people got fed up. During a night-shift people decided not to work as long as there were no wages. The manager actually went and got cash money from the bank and paid people the next morning. Later several people left this company, now there are only ten workers left. Similar things happened at bigger call centres, as well.
There was also trouble about taking leave. For example my brother was ill and I had to go back to Bhopal. The team leader said it was fine, but when I came back he asked me “Who allowed you to take holiday?”. Sometimes I just left a job because I needed holiday, I took a new job after coming back. You can find them in the internet, in the newspapers or you hear about them from friends. There are call centres like Wipro or Converges which are seen as better and more established call centres, also because they have good clients, for example BT or Orange. The problem is that they are far away from Gurgaon, you would have to travel at least two hours plus working a ten hours shift. The atmosphere in the call centres is a bit like in college. There is a culture of parties, people share flats, keep in contact via google-groups. Sometimes it is fun, people come to work after a party still drunk, falling asleep, waking each other up when a CIO comes. Sometimes it is childish, even harassing. Boys play their games, make jokes of the girls. We also got abuses when calling the US, but mainly from private people, not from employees. We did not know much about working conditions in call centres in the US, also we did not talk about it much. We only saw the high-up US managers from time to time, that is it. When I saw that more and more people came into the call centre business I felt that only speaking English is not enough of a qualification, because so many people speak English. I learnt French. In call centres you mainly learn about working time and discipline, you are physically un-free, but mentally free. You do your task. I also tried to get a job teaching French, but that is difficult and the wages are not that good. I finally joined Evalueserve, here you are less under pressure. In a call centre, if you do not sell, you are fired. A lot of people try to continue their studies while working in a call centre, about 40 per cent study on correspondence. But it is difficult, a lot of people stop after a while. Also for managers working in a call centre is not a step towards career, they can stay within the industry, but outside of it call centre experience is not valued.
GE Capital, female worker, 21 years
I worked for GE Capital in the Australian shift. The shift would start at 4 am and finish at 1 pm, meaning that the cab would wait for you at 2.30 am. We did not get better pay for these shift-times, the same wage, about 8,000 rupees Sometimes when Australian people heard that we were from India they would say “How can I trust you”. About the job in general, well, I just finished college, still living with my parents and I thought it would be fun, but it was more like a prison. You could not move away from your desk, you had to be available all the time. If someone missed a call, a manager would call from Australia and complain about this particular worker. We answered about 100 calls a day. We had five minutes to got to the toilet. I had to give me an English name, the dress code was very strict, as well.
Female worker, 27 years
The job gave me a lot of confidence, I worked hard, got some respect for that. But the job was tough, 120 calls a day, often no weekends off, because clients of water and gas companies in the UK have queries at weekends, as well. We were supposed to convince UK customers to get a regular payment plan for the gas or water, meaning that the money is regularly extracted from their bank accounts, instead of them paying each single bill individually. For poorer people we proposed a pre-payment meter, so that they would pay in advance. They are keen on quality, if someone disconnects a call, he would be fired. If someone would be a second too late back from the break the incentive would be scrapped. There were bi-annual bonuses, a good performer would get about 14,000 rupees. In some call centres they display the incentives right there on the shop-floor, for example bikes or fridges or televisions.
HP, male worker, 22 years
I came to Gurgaon from Calcutta. I come from an Adivasi (indigenous) background, my father got a job in the government sector. I first went to a Catholic School were a lot of rich kids hung out. I graduated and my brother, who is working as an engineer paid a technical course for basic computer hardware knowledge for me. The course cost about 17,000 rupees, but the qualification is basic, so I would have only found jobs which paid 1,500 to 2,000 rupees a month, so it would not have been a great investment. I wanted to start working at Wipro in Calcutta, because it was the biggest and best known call centre in town. But a friend told me that they make you work 16 to 17 hours and would only pay eight. Soon after a guy from a consultancy contacted me and asked me to come to Gurgaon to work in the technical support for HP. I talked to my parents and then decided to leave for Gurgaon, only because HP seemed to be a chance to increase my computer knowledge. There was some delay with the re-reimbursement money that HP is supposed to pay, for travel costs and the first two weeks rent in a hostel, but that seems to be solved now. HP outsourced its technical support to Daksh, which was then taken over by IBM. In the call centre there are also other processes, such as Delta Airlines, another US company. The HP process is quite new not older then six months, I guess. HP has its own call centre in Bangalore, I do not know why they have kept it, they do basically the same job there. About 100 people work in the HP process, all rather youngish, often not married, most of them fresh from college, I guess for 80 per cent it is their first job. They know a little bit about computers, but HP only requires good English skills. They come from everywhere, the consultancies which work for HP even go to Kashmir in order to hire people. They get 5,000 to 6,000 rupees per head. Before we started to take calls we had a two months training period. It was basically about how to use the tools. The main tool is a kind of HP trouble-shooting google-like program, a search engine to find technical solutions to problems. Basically we receive calls from the US, mainly from private people who have problems with their HP product. On average I receive 30 to 50 calls in a 9 hours night-shift, some of them take 30 min, most of them less. The company tells you off if you would need more than 30 minutes. We have direct-to-ear phone machines. After three months on the phone I have already dealt with about 90 per cent of the problems that I come across. That makes things rather boring. I am happy if a new problem crops up and I can learn something new. It is strange, I brought all my software books from the course, because I thought that I would work at IBM now, but I do not need them. I can come to work in T-Shirt and with my base-ball cap. The basic wage is 10,500 rupees, but there are incentives. We are supposed to sell things, from software programmes to computers. For example if a guy calls because of a virus problem then we are supposed to sell him a virus software after having solved the problem. I sell stuff for 1,000 to 2,000 US-Dollars a month, but I get only 1,000 to 1,5000 rupees incentives for that. The rest is for HP. There are other incentives, e.g. the client can rate the service on a scale ranging from 1 – 5. You should not get less then 4. Some of the incentives are tied to team performance, meaning that if you take too much time on a call, the whole team would loose, the team leader would get trouble and pass it on. The total incentives would sum up to 3,000 to 3,500 rupees per month. One guy sold stuff for 5,000 US-Dollar a month, he was invited by HP guys for dinner and then offered a job in the HP call centre in Bangalore. There he would make 250,000 rupees a year. We rarely talk to guys from HP in the US, only if they pass on clients. But there is no time for chats. Also everyone knows that they earn more and that HP shifted to India because we work long hours for much less money. We mainly talk to clients, about life here and there. This is what I like most, the rest is not too exiting. Apart from that we make jokes, the atmosphere is fine. We say that HP computers are pretty crap, but at least this saves our jobs. Somehow the main thing that I got out of the job is that I have learnt to cope. Night-shifts are tough, there is not much life left, I could not send money home during the first months, because life is quite expensive here. So in a way I am prepared. It is the first job and it is tough, it can only get easier. I will not stay longer than for another year.
Citibank, male worker, 24 years
I used to work for Converges, in the Citibank process. In total about 600 people work there, it is a 24x7 process. Converges made sure that they got the people with the best accent for the Citibank process. I worked inbound, the credit card department for US clients, we had to do balance transfers, give information on interest rates and loans. We were also supposed to sell pro-active loans and credit protectors, a kind of insurance in case people pay their rates to late they would not have to pay higher interests. We got two US Dollars for each sold credit protector. We were supposed to sell two a day. Our wages were calculated in Dollars. The other people at Converges would not get these incentives. The basic wage would start from 8,500 rupees for beginners, they could go up to 17,000. Some people made 26,000 total wage including incentives. It was also the most strict process at Converges, e.g. if you did not log out your computer and left the desk for a minute you would get the sack. Citibank had a individual floor and entrance in the building. People working for Citibank were also obliged to wear a tie, the others not. So you could see who works for Citibank and who is not. The call centre here in Gurgaon was the only outsourced call centre from Citibank. If a supervisor was not available and there was a problem then we sometimes had to transfer a customer back to the US. But the Citibank workers would only ask for the client's details, they were professional, no chat, no nothing.
As 'Workers Solidarity' we put together a small brochure mainly consisting of job reports written in the late 90s by friends working in call centres in the Ruhr area, Germany. The interesting fact was that some of the companies mentioned in the brochure also had call centres in Gurgaon, such as HP and Citibank. The other part consisted of struggle reports from various call centres and countries, e.g. in France and Spain (see prol-position newsletter no.3). We wrote a short introduction trying to relate the situation in Europe to the current conditions in India and analysing the general trend of global re-location of work. We distributed the brochure in front of the major call centres. Often we had to explain first that we were not trying to recruit people for jobs in Europe. Another misunderstanding was that people thought that we blame them for taking European or US jobs. Some people had a defensive attitude stating that there is a win-win situation for capital and workers in India: due to higher qualification, lower wages and longer working hours capital makes more profit and provides Indian youth with relatively well paid jobs. In contrast to that most people were aware of the fact that the main reason for capital to come to India is due to the wages being 20 per cent of those in the US or the UK and that also on a personal level call centre jobs will not guarantee a long-term income: people said that after five years in call centres you are finished. A lot of people complained about the usual call centre work related side-effects, such as boredom and burn-out, particularly due to night-shift work. In general it was not much different distributing leaflets in India or in Europe, in Gurgaon probably more people took a brochure. Similar level of stress with security guards, though.
In general people are grateful for being informed about conditions and struggles of others, but the distributors are seen neither as heroes nor as from Mars. Actually a lot of people were up for meeting again another time in order to talk about the conditions. Unfortunately the brochure does not contain any information on struggles which took place in the US or UK because of the re-location of work to India. Recent examples could have been struggles at IBM or Dell in the US and in Europe against redundancies. This would be a challenge for future interventions. We tried to get in contact with the call centre union called UNITES, but did not manage to do so. There is an NGO labour rights group in Bombay which is active around call centre work. And there are various related academic research projects (see below), but so far we have not heard of any “organised” action of call centre employees to improve their situation. There have been rumours and stories of spontaneous strikes and of a riot in Bombay (see ppnl no.3), but they seem exceptional or could not be confirmed as fact.
Like in Europe or the US the particularly labour force demanding boom time of call centres encourages rather individual solutions for dealing with problems: people change jobs frequently. The difference in India is the relatively high wage level and level of education of call centre workers on one hand and the additional alienation (night-shifts, racism, dead-end for academic career etc.) on the other. Another big difference, which might have an impact on future conflicts or struggles is the fact that in India there is a kind of call centre workers culture and net which also organises the reproduction, e.g. the living arrangements. Connected with this culture is an erosion of certain gender roles or the hierarchical relation between generations. At least in and around Delhi the call centres are situated in areas of massive new industrialisation, with struggles of first generation factory workers in world market companies, which might influence potential conflicts. Call Centre workers who do not live at home anymore realise that the wages are only relatively high and not as glorious as promised. This material constraint, plus the dim outlook for finding other academic jobs, plus the daily alienation and first signs of the finite of the boom might trigger some outbreaks. Interesting would be if these outbreaks will happen while the struggles in call centres the western world are still going on...
“Labour in Business Process Outsourcing, A Case Study of Call Centre Agents”, B.Ramesh, 2004 http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/nov202005/artic14121620051119.asp
“India calling to the far away towns: The call centre labour process and globalization” Phil Taylor, Peter Bain
“Chronicling the Remote Agent: Reflections on Mobility and Social Security of Call Centre Agents in New Delhi” Taha Mehmood, Iram Ghufran August, 2005 http://www.labournet.de/internationales/in/agenten.html