15th September 2002
It is late evening.
The sun has not yet set but the halogen streetlights
are on, casting a warm yellow glow on the street. He
is standing amidst the steady stream of well-dressed
individuals entering and leaving the office building.
The street is bustling with activity as official cabs
roll in every couple of minutes bringing the agents
to work. Young men and women hang around snack carts
to grab that last bite before the shift begins. Workers
in about ten multistoried, international call centers
in the area are getting ready to go "live".
is in a hurry. He stubs his half finished cigarette
on the road and walks through the main gate. The entry
way is partitioned in four sections – visitors, staff,
agents and management. Two guard huts with four uniformed
security personnel, thick wooden batons dangling around
the waist on one side and walky-talkies in hand man
the gates. Joshua staggers through the overcrowded agent's
lane, signs in at the entry register, takes out the
latest Nokia 3315 from the back pocket of his navy blue
Levis, puts it on the silent mode, collects his access
card and starts walking towards the building marked
He breaks into a
run putting the access card around his neck. Climbing
the short steps to the foyer,
he quickly dodges through the half open automatic
glass door with attached motion sensors sweeping past
the large sunflower with red, fuchsia and yellow petals
– the insignia of the BPO.
"Hey Josh! You
are late man!" blurts the receptionist, Divya,
in half mocking seriousness. He looks at his watch.
The time is twenty eight seconds past six. Joshua panics.
"I know! I am
just there". He replies. His team was supposed
to go live at six. Last time he was late by precisely
thirty eight seconds from his log-in time.
He starts running
without any pretense. Crossing the hall, shoving people
aside, "Move people!
Move!" He hurries along the long corridor,
whizzing by the swanky interiors of waiting rooms and
ultra modern classrooms. At the end of corridor, he
turns right for the elevator. The elevator door is closed.
He heads straight for the stairs. His seat is on the
He is panting as
he crosses the last step. The light on the LIVE sign
of the rooms on the right is on. Joshua looks at his
watch. It is one minute and thirty-four seconds past
six. With a sudden jerk, he surges ahead. His hall Delta
is the last one on the right. He zooms past Alpha, Beta
and Foxtrot, swipes the access card through the entrance
and makes a dash to his seat through the neatly arranged
rows upon rows of cubicles.
The air is dry and
cool. White fluorescent lights make it difficult to
gauge the time of the day. The hall is buzzing with
activity. Agents are on air. Sitting on cushioned, straight-backed,
molded plastic, swivel chairs. Staring at multiple web
pages on their computer screens. Speaking in British,
Australian, South Asian Neutral, American accented English.
Some are smiling
as they speak, possibly keeping in mind "the smile
in the voice" mentioned in the training manual.
Others are talking in grave mechanical tones. Each cubicle
is pitching for a different product. Some are waxing
eloquent about a debit card, while some are cajoling
faulty credit card holders with dire consequences. The
walls on the side are adorned with clocks ticking away
along the time zones of various countries. Posters,
product fliers and pop-up promotional materials are
pasted up on the walls. Motivational statements and
reminders like "Never Give up" and "Be
are stuck on at each cubicle. Each campaign is aligned
across a specific time zone. As one corner of earth
twirls to face the sun, the other is already hooked
through a complex maze of optic fiber cables, ready
to work for another day waking up through all night.
Joshua slides into
his seat, gasping for air. Switches on the computer,
puts his mobile in the drawer, keys in the password,
puts the head-phone on and aligns the mike carefully
at an angle from his mouth. He looks impatiently
at his watch as the modem of his computer connects to
the main server. It is two minutes and fifty-nine seconds
"You are late
Mister". Joshua looks up. It is his team leader,
Anup. Joshua passes a meek smile. "We have to talk
after this," Anup snarls. Giving an intimidating
stare, he turns around to barge
on a call at a desk besides his. Suddenly Joshua hears
the mechanical ringing of the phone in his ears. The
screen of his computer shows an incoming call alert.
Joshua takes his first call of the shift.
Welcome to The Banking Corporation. This is Joshua Love
speaking. How may I help you?
Yaaa, can you please tell me about the minimum average
on a current account in your bank.
May I know whose on the line.
this is Mark Thompson.
Would it be the minimum average quarterly balance of
a current account, right
It is ten thousand dollars for every three months.
you for calling The Banking Corporation. Is there any
I may help you with?
Joshua goes through
the same script over three hundred times in next eight
In last three years
Joshua, has changed four call centers and has worked
with pay scales ranging from Rs. 8000/- to Rs. 40,000/-
a month. He owns two credit cards
with a credit limit of a couple of lakh Rupees. He is
planning to buy a car through a loan.
At twenty- three years of age he earns twice
the amount his father, a manager at a printing press,
does after 30 years of service.
Twenty five year
old Neil Anderson's call center had announced a bonus
of two dollars on every sale made. He was in the campaign
of a major American consumer durables firm. The money
was good, almost Rs. 30,000 or five hundred and seventeen
Euros a month, plus bonus. He said he had enjoyed his
work in the beginning but in a few months boredom struck.
Mouthing the same script and repeating the same lines
again and again wore him down, so much so that he would
often talk in his sleep, "Thank you for calling
BNZ Barclays Corporation. Have a very good day, Sir".
For Gautam, at eighteen,
once totally enamored by the call center industry it
was a dream gone awry. He landed up with a domestic
call center company for a local mobile telephony service
provider. His makeshift office was situated in the basement
of a busy crowded commercial office complex. The pick-up
and drop consisted of an old Suzuki van rented on monthly
basis, from a private owner. The office was air-cooled.
His salary was Rs. 6,000 or one hundred and seven euros
per month approximately.
Within two months of joining this place he was
thinking of changing the firm.
His job was to call
up people and tell them about the latest schemes of
the company. After some frustrating months at the job
he increasingly disliked, Gautam began using his work
hours for advise and consolation. He would often call
up unsuspecting people and tell them about his condition
and solicit their take on it. On a routine barging of
calls by the Quality Control Analyst, he was caught
and his contract was terminated immediately.
For a worker like
Sarah, hailing from a small town, the charm of working
in an office for a 'multi-national' company is an experience
in itself. Cruising in a cab at 3:00 AM after a grueling
listening to old Bollywood melodies from a FM channel
with a five-figure paycheck in her bag – was not a future
she had not imagined for herself a year ago.
For Joshua too the
future has been different and yet the same in many ways.
Before joining the call center industry Joshua worked
with a multinational Pizzas chain. For two years he
acquired a hands on "extensive" experience
in making pizza.
by 24 mm.
minutes and twenty-eight seconds.
to fourteen hours.
When eventually Joshua
quit his job, his resume didn't mention anything about
his skill and experience in making Pizza. The industry
demanded fresh graduates with no work experience and
he responded to that requirement by altering his resume.
He coaxed his former
colleagues at the pizza chain to quit and join the call
center 'line'. Many did join the industry through a
consultant agency, owned by Joshua's friend. For every
agent employed by the call center, Joshua's consultant
friend received a fee of Rs 5000/- from the BPO company.
The BPO unit marked
as an IT industry, initially attracted students and
fresh graduates because of its low demands on professional
skill. However, high attrition rates led to a slow but
determined shift to other potential workers – from retired
white-collar professionals to housewives. Today, it
is not uncommon for PhD scholars, doctors, engineers
and business management graduates to be working in call
centers that need their requisite skill. The call center
beckons anyone who is "eligible" and "available".
The call center industry
was largely seen as a stopgap option: there are not
too many people planning a career in the BPO industry
as calling agents.
Nicholas Kahn, twenty two, holds a mechanical
engineering degree from a central university in Delhi,
opted for a call center job, still considered "low
end" by his elk "for the time being"
till he found a more suitable one. Yet he was quick
to point out the fact that he is not a mere 'caller'
selling credit cards. His job was giving technical advice
to customers and the company employed only engineers
for this 'process'.
Largely being concentrated
in the metros and big cities, the call center becomes
the first choice in job options for younger migrants
from smaller cities and towns. Recruitment drives by
BPO companies in these places have yielded good results.
call center industry, largely comprising of American
and British firms demands that the worker be familiar
with more knowledge outside the product specifications
within a campaign. Sometimes it is the information on
baseball scores, weather conditions and the take on
latest Hollywood hit that had resulted in a successful
Because of the tenuous
relationship with the customer, it is important for
an agent to have a vivid portrait of an ideal American
sketched in her mind, making the soft skill training
A typical section
on America goes something like this:
Americans tend to be frank and outspoken. They enjoy
good sense of humour including sarcasm.
Appearance, in general is important to individual
American. Americans emphasize cleanliness but may purposely wear tattered
clothing to make a social or personal statement.
Dating is the national past time.
It is difficult to name a national dish.
Business is done at lightning speed in comparison to
interesting Facets of American Life:
Unlike India here in America, one has to keep to the right hand side of
road. And the driver's seat is on the left side of the car.
The date is written as, MM/DD/YY i.e. Month/ Date/ Year.
Don't offer chewing gum or a breath freshener to others. It gives them
message that they have a bad breath. Your intention may not be that but
is easily mistaken.
Here pink color shirt is normally taken as a sign of 'Gay'.
Never, ever talk in your native language in the presence of Americans
during a gathering. They don't like it.
The manual also serves
as a pedagogic instruction booklet on methodologies
regarding taking calls, dealing with customers, handling
irate customers, managing time and problem solving or
selling the product.
The Carrot and
Nicholas, who was
recently fired, recounts anecdotes about "irate"
customers who would scream, shout, holler and abuse
on the phone.
are imparted prior training to handle such situations
but Nicholas was equally blunt and candid to his 'frank
and outspoken' American callers, he would often abuse
back in Hindi because, he says, it provides one with
more satisfaction while the caller would not really
He was often reprimanded
for his misbehavior. On one such occasion at his second
work place he had to lose his job because of his aggressive
On the other hand
Sarah is often rewarded for staying calm under adverse
situations and making sales while maintaining a lower
handling time with the customers. Perks and bonus form
a crucial part of a calling agent's "package".
But often there is a catch – a subtle attempt to guide
the lifestyles of agents. Gift vouchers, for example
are often tenable at select stores only, specializing
in transnational durable products like televisions,
DVD players, Swiss watches or computers.
The life of
a calling agent reflects the complex narrative of the
call center industry in India. It is a life a dichotomous
state of being. One of perpetual motion and stagnation.
Of being Sarah Jane and Sangeeta Jaiswal.
An agent moves horizontally
through the industry, in a random zig-zag manner on
the floor, shifting between various campaigns, a loop
between the work shifts, global on the job, her voice
circulating many cities and continents on every shift.
In sharp contrast is the restriction to physical movement
within the cubicle, inside the halls through access
doors, repeating and controlling her words and thoughts,
the well-rehearsed script, the avoidable awkward 'dead
air', the ticking clock, the race against time.
Coupled with prevalent
notion of 'white
collar' work, appellations like 'Customer Care Executives',
flat organizational structures, promotion of informal
forms of addressing superiors with their first names,
make the imagination of a collective bargaining mass
like a 'union', difficult.
The excessive surveillance
of workers thorough barging of calls, installation of
CCTV cameras, along the work floor and leisure spaces
like canteens produces internalization of scrutiny,
accelerates anxieties about work performance and behavior.
It results in devising new sites of escape. Neil for
example, would often use the staircase landing and the
toilet to extend his break by a few more minutes. At
the same time thinking of strategies to keep his AHT
as low as possible.
For many who have
migrated to bigger urban centers from smaller cities
and towns, there is an increased dependency on colleagues
to solve work pressure related problems. Very often,
the call center is the only space where an agent feels
at home. Colleagues, the only people one would know
in the city. Neil who lived as a PG
would often hang around the call center long after his
shift was over because there was nothing to go home
to and 3am in the night was not an ideal time to wake
up his landlord.
Practice, such as,
of giving cash 'gifts' to agents who marry within the
company hint at official approval to extend the work
unit to being the only unit in an agent's life.
Odd work timings
with long hours of commuting (most agents regularly
commute three to four hours every night, in addition
to eight to ten hours of work) usually results in reversals
of circadian cycles leading to health ailments. An agent
would be constantly contesting his fluctuating notion
of self between assumed foreign identity – the alias
over his native Indian identity. Insistence of team
performance over individual results pushes for further
dilution of self.
Subtle control is
further exercised on eating or clothing preferences,
choices with respect to mobile phones, bank accounts,
automobiles or travel destinations. Malls and multiplexes
would often be the intended space for leisure through
"free" cinema tickets, luncheon or dinner
vouchers, or coupons. The invention of rituals and cultural
markers like rose day, jean day, ethnic wear day, hair
style day in an industry that primarily functions at
night coupled with excessive attention paid to acquire
the latest tag from the apparel world in a business
that deals with auditory sensors only, can be thought
of as an interesting phenomena. This understated normative
directionality help manufacture intricate imageries
of the notion of a call center agent and consequently
produce contradictory practices to subvert this imagery.
The work contract
varies from call center to call center. There is no
standard basic wage across the industry. The agents
gets anywhere between one tenth to four tenths of their
salary as basic wage the rest is ballooned through an
array of bonuses, gifts vouchers and benefits. Call
centers also differ on providing provident funds, gratuity,
medical, health, accidental insurance and loans. That
depends primarily on its turnover, availability of the
campaigns, agent strength and accessible surplus cash.
The call center industry
in India is far from stable. As call centers adjust
to structural uncertainties, flight of job, campaign
termination and rescinded contracts, agents like Neil,
Joshua, Sarah, Nicholas and Gautam are trying to steer
their way through this precarity. Constantly plotting
and re charting their routes. Continuously negotiating
obstacles and subverting dead ends even as they journey
on to an unknown uncertain future.
The above article emerges out of the research on Call
Centers in Delhi that Iram Ghufran
& Taha Mehmood
did under the Independendant Fellowship programme of