The Gurgaon call centre hub

Text from autumn 2006 giving an overview on the call centre hub in Gurgaon, including interviews with workers.

Submitted by Steven. on February 15, 2010

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 backrooms 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 Rupies per month, working a 80 hours week; a textile or metal worker employed through a contractor earns about 1,500 to 2,500 Rupies for the same working hours; the official minimum wage for unskilled work in Haryana for a 48 hours week is about 3,000 Rupies, a contract worker at Maruti or Honda is paid between 3,000 and 5,000 Rupies for 50 to 60 hours per week; a guy at Pizza Hut serving the call centre agents gets 3,700 Rupies 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 Rupies. Basic wages in call centres for a-level students start at about 8,000 Rupies, the average wage including incentives range between 12,000 to 14,000 Rupies for normally 50 hours night-shifts. Some call centre people, mainly in sales, earn up to 25,000 to 30,000 Rupies. During the last five to ten years the wage of unskilled factory workers decreased (apart from wages in the main automobile factories), while basic call centre workers wage are said to have increased by about 3,000 Rupies. To put it in context: The rent for a normal single room in Gurgaon ranges between 1,000 to 2,000 Rupies per month; if you cook your food yourself, as a single person you would need about 3,000 Rupies for a basic, but health nutrition; a basic meal at a street stall is 20 to 30 Rupies, a coffee at Starbucks or one hour internet the same; a mobile phone contract/number for one year without credit is about 1,000 Rupies; the price for a small car ranges between 300,000 and 500,000 Rupies. In many cases a nineteen year old daughter of a university professor or hospital doctor would earn more than her father. 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 fact of having the first job after school or university in a call centre, 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… are experiences of a new proletarianised middle-class generation.
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.

Workers Interviews

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 1,500 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 lose, 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 Convergys, in the Citibank process. In total about 600 people work there, it is a 24×7 process. Convergys 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 Convergys 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 Convergys, 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.

Gurgaon Workers News - Newsletter no.1 (January 2007)