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Shining India’s swanky new sweatshops

Shining India’s swanky new sweatshops

Hindustan Times

Dinesh C. Sharma

Call centres housed in swanky glass towers may represent the new face of 21st-century India, but the labour practices they follow belong to the 19th century.

Though business process outsourcing (BPO) companies are projected as promoters of innovation, flexibility and freedom at workplace, they are actually quite inflexible, eroding even basic rights at work. This is the finding of the first major study of labour practices in Indian call centres.

The BPO industry in India currently employs 350,000 workers, according to the trade body Nasscom.

Superior work environment, the use of latest technologies, higher salaries compared to the manufacturing sector, fancy designations, smart and young peer workers — all these make young employees believe that the job they are doing is of an executive or a professional in a multinational-like environment.

But the organisational structure of call centres is basically ‘dualistic’ — consisting of a core or permanent set of employees and ‘periphery’ or non-permanent workers. All call-centre agents are periphery workers, who are easily substitutable, while team leaders and managers make up the core group.

This is similar to the popular model of work organisations followed in 1980s, the study done by the V.V. Giri National Institute of Labour pointed out. The institute is an autonomous body working under the Labour Ministry. The dualistic workforce model allows firms to regulate the workforce and nip in the bud any signs of collectivism.

The labour practices call centres follow are even much older. Take, for instance, the monitoring of workers at the workplace. “Work is monitored on the spot and after working hours with the help of specially designed software, computer network and closed circuit cameras,” the study says. “The degree of surveillance required at work is even comparable with the situations of 19th century prisons or Roman slave ships.”

In addition, all interactions among employees in office are continuously recorded or taped, and randomly checked by the team leader or manager. Mistakes in work lead to immediate warnings and they are recorded in ‘warning cards’ that form part of the daily ratings of agents. If an employee commits three errors in a day, he or she is warned and gets zero in his or her daily rating. Three consecutive zeros lead to counselling or even dismissal.

Availing oneself of leave without prior notice or consent is treated as unauthorised absence — sufficient reason for termination. During the course of the survey, half a dozen cases of termination due to unauthorised absence were recorded. Even if an employee is sick, it is mandatory to get the consent of the team leaders at least four to six hours before the shift, failing which the leave is considered “unscheduled”.

Human-resource managers play a key role in call centres. Their task is "camouflaging work as fun", detaching workplace feeling from employees and giving them opportunities to air grievances with least damage to the company, the study noted. The HR departments undertake activities such as organizing parties, recreation activities and designing workspaces.

All this gives employees a superficial sense of 'empowerment'. But the actual task of HR managers is to define and enforce roles for separate categories of employees, and define dos and don'ts for them. Yet another example of giving employees a sense of 'illusionary freedom and flexibility' is the number of codes of conduct, which are actually meant to be violated than complied with. For instance, BPO firms insist on a dress code on paper but allow employees to wear clothes of their choice. This is a strategy to make workers happy at no additional cost, the study said.

"HR departments strive to ensure that creativity and productivity of the workers are effectively tapped to strike a 'right' balance between work and fun, thereby creating a productively docile workforce," said Babu P. Remesh, author of the study.

For the study, about 280 customer-care agents from six call centres in Noida were interviewed through a detailed questionnaire. In addition, detailed interviews were done with 40 employees, managers and team leaders from BPO companies in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.