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1-800-Call-Center: India as the World's Receptionist

Priya Lal

Many Indians are now merely perceived as better equipped to serve Western companies.

The next time your General Electric refrigerator breaks down or you have a question about your American Express credit card account, you could unknowingly seek assistance from someone across the world.

Pay attention when you pick up the telephone to call the 1-800 customer service number that pops up on the GE or AmEx website. When the ringing cuts and a little click signals that the representative on the other end of the line has picked up, listen closely. It will seem that you are speaking to Ron from GE who wants to know how he can help you today, or Sally from AmEx who asks how she can be of service to you.

If you bother to wonder what kind of people Ron and Sally are, your imagination might supply the image of two middle-aged Middle American types who spend their days in a cubicle somewhere in Ohio or Wisconsin, lamenting their dead-end jobs that compel them to labor in front of a telephone all day, forever projecting a false chirpiness into their voices.

Perhaps your mental portrait of the two will differ slightly from this picture I've just painted. But I can quite safely venture to say that you never, never would guess that Ron is actually named Rupesh and Sally is really Sumitra, and the two are recent college graduates of one of India's premier academic institutions, and they are sitting in a vast office filled with hundreds of other coworkers similar to themselves in . . . a suburb of New Delhi.

Maybe it's about 11am when you call, and you've just finished a morning cup of coffee and your breakfast bagel. Rupesh and Sumitra are two hours away from their middle-of-the-night "dinner" break, when they will fill themselves with samosas and milky sweet coffee, hoping the caffeine will keep them going until their shift ends just before the sun rises. Welcome to globalization's latest, bizarrest face.

GE and American Express are just two of a number of Western-based multinational corporations that have chosen to outsource their call center services to India in the past few years. What is a call center? It's a kind of human telephonic response factory; a location from where company employees respond to queries and complaints from customers regarding that company's products and service. While some call centers are run by the corporations their workers are servicing, larger businesses tend to outsource their call center activities to more specialized companies; that is, companies that specialize exclusively in "CRM", or Customer Relationship Management.

While CRM is increasingly incorporating Internet-based services and tech-support, it still primarily revolves around telephone communications. A call center physically looks something like an incarnation of 9-5 cubicle hell (in India, that shift is more likely to be 9pm to 5am, but more about that, below). The call center consists of rows and rows of personal stations, each manned with a single human body, a telephone, and sometimes a computer. Larger call centers can include up to 10,000 such "seats".

There are currently close to 400 call centers in India, and this number is sure to continue growing exponentially over the next few years. Currently about 100,000 Indians are employed as call center staffers; over the next years this figure is expected to increase to over one million. GE blazed the trail for this trend of outsourcing call center services to India when it established a call center outside New Delhi in 1998 to add to its roster of countries in which it already had established company call centers, such as Japan and China. Shortly thereafter, a number of other corporations including American Express, AOL, and Citigroup followed GE's example and began to shift their telephone-based and electronic customer service work to India.

Earlier this year, India's National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom) announced that the country's call center and related information technology (IT) industry grew by 70% during the 2001-2002 fiscal year, resulting in a staggering revenue of $1.46 billion. And that's not all. Nasscom estimates that India's revenue from the IT-enabled service market could reach about $17 billion in the next five years, and the number of Indians employed in this field could easily increase by one million in this same period. Another study, conducted by the International Data Corporation a few months ago, concluded that India will be able to corner 70% of the global call services market by the end of this year.

In other words, this thing is big. Indeed, the sudden explosion of the call center industry on the subcontinent has indelibly altered the employment landscape for educated, urban Indians. Young Indians with decent English language skills are jumping en masse onto the call center bandwagon, responding to heavy recruiting by "CRM" companies and driven by the otherwise bleak prospects for skilled university graduates in a country that is suffering from high unemployment rates. Once they make it through the gates of a CRM-specialty domestic company like Infowavz or the Human Resources department of a multi-national corporation itself, the first step for new hires is to complete a required training process.

Many international corporations would rather hide from their customers the fact that the customer service representative they are speaking to is located in South Asia, so a large part of training entails a sort of cultural warping to ensure that Indian employees can effectively transform themselves into "typical" Americans when they pick up the company's telephones. Call center managers employ a wide variety of techniques in order to accomplish this unlikely objective. Accent "elimination" is standard practice; employees are coached to adopt the nasal tone of American English and drop the tongue-clicking retroflex t's and d's that pepper South Asian speech.

But accent modification is only the beginning; the next step in training is an entire cultural identity makeover. Bits and pieces of American history and geography are thrown into the mix, and clips of Hollywood movies are screened for new hires to expose them to what are taken to be average, run-of-the-mill American lifestyles and to assist them in their construction of an American version of themselves. Indeed, many call centers require their Indian employees to adopt American names to complete the illusion � hence, Rupesh becomes Rob, Sunita becomes Sally, Vivek becomes Victor, and so on. I wonder who I would become if I moved to India and took up call center work �Paula? Penny? Patty?

The culture-bending and blending doesn't just stop when training ends. For many companies, the entire call center environment constantly functions as a sort of perpetual bubble of quasi American-ness. Some centers hang American flags around telephone stations, some continue to screen Men in Black, Pretty Women, and other assorted Hollywood blockbusters and Fox TV sitcoms on a weekly basis for their employees' continued cultural exposure. And many offer their staff free coffee from a store like Barista, India's latest ultra-hip urban chain that bears an eerie resemblance to our American favorite, Starbucks.

To add to the unreality of the whole thing, all of this takes place in the dead of the night. Call centers run on American hours, so in order for customers calling from New York to be able to access, say, AOL's 1-800 helpline, employees in India's AOL call center must be on the job between the hours of about 10pm to 6am, South Asian time. Young 20-somethings return home after a night of telephone work to parents and brothers and sisters and uncles and grandmothers that are just waking up. They hit their beds while morning chai is being prepared, and breakfast while the normal workforce is returning from the office.

And for many, the bizarre subculture that the call center explosion has given birth to means that their lifestyle changes extend even beyond the physical workplace. I've heard stories, for example, of employees forgetting themselves and answering the phone in their homes with their false American accent. The more traditional parents of young call center workers watch all of this with wonder, proud to see their children working under the illustrious name of a large international corporation, but wondering how a career such as this is compatible with participating in activities in the home and managing the exigencies of having a family.

What explains this bizarre phenomenon, and why India? Earlier this year, a survey by A.T. Kearney revealed that nine out of ten of its financial services firm respondents explained their motivation for moving jobs offshore is � what else � cost reduction. The average call service agent in India earns a salary of approximately $2,600 to $2,700 annually; the equivalent position in the United States could cost an employer over ten times this amount. Including other expenses, international corporations can save 40% by outsourcing back-office service work to countries like India. The latter is a logical choice for language reasons (most educated urban Indians speak English) as well as because of the sheer numbers of such educated, English-speaking Indians looking for work in a market clogged with an excessive supply of skilled labor.

Of course, companies like Citigroup would never admit that their business practices are motivated solely by profit, so the A.T. Kearney report also notes that its respondents cite improved productivity, "enhanced service", increased capacity and expanded skills as reasons for importing call center and IT-enabled service labor from India and countries such as the Philippines. Often mentioned is the fact that call center jobs are looked down on in countries like the United States as unskilled, rote, low-wage labor, while in a country like India the same jobs translate into relatively high wages and gleam with the status of "international business". Thus, according to this highly questionable logic, Indian call center agents will exhibit overall better performance than would their American counterparts, who would tend to be less educated and less motivated.

One can't help but wonder, however, if South Asians pretending to be Midwestern Americans and acting the part based on their gleanings from episodes of Ally McBeal can really be more effective customer service representatives to disgruntled American customers than an actual Midwestern American might be. Or, for that matter, that a South Asian not pretending to be something other than a South Asian might be.

So if money is the ultimate factor motivating the service outsourcing trend, as it appears, is it disingenuous for businesses to refer to their call centers in India as "CRM" hubs? Does the latter merely comprise an example of typically opaque corporate jargon meant to mask the true nature of the operation, a euphemism for what might well be called a white-collar sweatshop?

Old-school hard-labor sweatshops, of course, are unfortunately not yet defunct, but some argue that the rise of offshore call centers represent a sort of "Phase 2" shift in the global economy. In this model, Phase 1 would mean the earlier transfer of non-specialized manufacturing to Third World countries with an ample supply of cheap labor, like China, for example. The current phase comprises the Second Wave; enabled by a flowering of IT services and improved telecommunications links, as well as a new cadre of young people in countries like India that are educated and skilled in dealing with recent technologies.

Does the sweatshop analogy hold in this new context? It's hard to make the argument for a literal re-labeling of call centers as high-tech sweatshops when considering, for example, the fact that most large call centers abroad are air-conditioned � a prized quality-in-the-workplace issue during sweltering Indian summers. Furthermore the World Bank, for example, argues that its transaction processing facility in India is modeled after the standards of its Washington, D.C. offices: each Indian worker is delegated at least 90 square feet of personal working space. Domestic CRM-outsourcing firms such as Dutto and Daksh also provide transportation to and from work for its employees, which comes as a relief to the many female workers for whom solo nighttime travel can be frowned upon and actually quite dangerous.

Despite such concessions, though, the basic economics of the whole operation screams exploitation. Ultimately, companies are employing Indians because they can pay them less, a fact to which workers in the US and countries like Great Britain are certainly not blind. Indeed, the shifting of service jobs to the Third World has elicited a substantial reaction of outrage among Western workers who are being dropped, unemployed, into a flailing economy by companies turning to cheaper labor abroad. In other words, to many Westerners the "giant sucking sound" is back, and amplified.

In a country like Great Britain, the cry against labor outsourcing takes on particular significance in light of the country's post-colonial identity crisis as manifested in recent, nasty Caucasian-South Asian race riots. The alarm in the West about the job exodus � how far will this trend go � is not always colored by nostalgia for the era of empire and is more than understandable. Recently, members of Britain's Communication Workers Union (CWU) protested outside the annual general meeting of BT Group, which opened two call centers in the southern Indian city of Bangalore in May. By December, these centers will employ 2,200 Indian workers. The CWU believes that this is just the beginning, and that up to 200,000 British service workers could potentially lose their jobs to the subcontinent in the next few years. US workers have reacted similarly under the organization of the Communications Workers of America. And its not clear to anyone yet how many American and British jobs will be shifted abroad.

Is the call center revolution a mere segue into a Phase 3 of globalization in which more and more skilled positions are filled in countries like India, the Philippines, and Mexico? Will every job in the West that involves the use of a computer and telephone become a potential transfer to India as the trend advances up the skill ladder? Forrester Research, a high-technology consulting group, estimates that the number of American service jobs that will be outsourced to countries such as India will increase from its current figure of about 400,000 to 3.3 million in 2015. This could include 450,000 computer industry jobs, which comprise about eight percent of America's current computer-based jobs.

And India certainly possesses the technological wherewithal to perform more hi-tech tasks for multinationals. Ever since Texas Instruments set up a development center in Bangalore in 1985, the southern city has been slowly growing into a sort of South Asian Sillicon Valley and has been the site of a flowering of international and domestic software and tech industries. The rest of the country has followed, especially in cities like Hyderabad and Mumbai. Students of Indian universities are graduating with more and more honed computer engineering skills, and internet cafes have popped up in even the subcontinent's smallest towns. It's ironic, though, that the much-celebrated lessening of the global "digital divide" by a country like India's rapid growth in the technology sector has actually led not to progress towards global equality but instead to a reproduction of the global divide in another fashion: many Indians are now merely perceived as better equipped to serve Western companies.

Indeed, however far the trend will go, the fundamental question remains whether or not this CRM outsourcing trend will benefit Indian workers. Naturally, proponents of India's exploding call center industry argue that CRM work offers a relatively well-paying option out of unemployment for India's skilled workforce. But the cover of a 2002 issue of India's wide-circulation weekly news publication, Outlook, made a thought-provoking point with its bold headlines, declaring India a "Housekeeper to the World".

The increase in jobs for South Asians is one thing, but the fact that the increase comes with the requirement of compromising cultural integrity by mandating that Indian call center representatives mask their identities is another. Even if the industry expands to include more sophisticated, less monotonous tasks than script-based telephone communication, Indian workers will still be laboring for employers that expect them to serve Western customers by Western standards.

Accent-elimination might no longer be necessary when CRM goes fully electronic, but night-time hours might well remain a reality for South Asian service reps. The terms of the agreement are being set now, but those terms are not those of Indian workers, and neither are they those of the Western workers who are losing their jobs to this trend. The latest, perhaps strangest, phase of economic globalization appears in many ways to be not such a break from past practice. Ultimately, this new phase is benefiting the elites running these multinational corporations more than anyone else. And it's all being done in a terribly opaque manner so that even you, as you speak to an invisible Citibank representative living on a salary of $2,600 a year and pretending to be your neighbor, are left in the dark. Perhaps next time you dial a 1-800 helpline, you'll be able to acknowledge that Rupesh or Sumitra might very well be the voice on the other end of the line.

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