The Indian Economy Blog

October 24, 2005

Don’t Insult BPO Workers

Filed under: Business,Miscellaneous,Outsourcing — Amit Varma @ 6:37 am

I’m a little tired of people equating BPO with the slave trade, and BPO workers with coolies. Take this article, for instance, which cites “the first major study of labour practices in Indian call centres,” and compares them with “Roman slave ships.” That is a ridiculous analogy, and it insults the people who work in BPO companies, who do so out of their own free will. They are not forced into taking up those jobs, and they do so presumably because they find it better than all the alternatives. They are aware of the working conditions that will be offered to them, and they can check out any time they want. Are these critics implying that BPO workers have made the wrong choices, and that they know better? This kind of condescending, self-righteous mindset is, sadly, rather too prevalent these days.

When I was in college, in the early 1990s, it was unheard of for a graduate to get a job without having any additional qualifications. Today, an English-speaking graduate in any major city of India can easily find employment, contrary to a decade ago. The choices for young people have expanded, and that is a fantastic thing. It is a pity that there are still regressive people around who, instead of wanting to expand those choices further, bemoan the improvements that have taken place. Ivory towers are a perfect environment for self-delusion.

Update (October 25): Nasscom responds to the survey.

34 Comments »

  1. Infosys and the even older TCS have done well, inspite of the system and given an opportunity to the Indian who wants to do well in India without becoming an entreprneur.

    Comment by Abha Kumar — October 24, 2005 @ 7:14 am

  2. [...] laves?

    Neha on 10.24.05 in Current Affairs at 9:00 am

    Amit Varma doesn’t quite take to the whole notion of degrading people who wor [...]

    Pingback by DesiPundit » BPOs And Slaves? — October 24, 2005 @ 9:00 am

  3. But, will the boom in such jobs last? what happens when other places like China catch up, or learning the trends, the Americans decide to reduce labour prices? Is BPO the right answer to Indian employment problem? Should the right answer not be something that is more innovative and doing business originating in India? The BPO sort of thing also makes India dependent on others in the long run

    Comment by Mukundan — October 24, 2005 @ 10:51 am

  4. It is indeed sad to witness the remarks made on BPO professionals. The BPO industry has been a great boon to the country as they employ a large number of people in the 20-25 age group . They have also helped to generate numerous jobs in various non-core sectors such as Transport. 10 years back, one was considered lucky if he or she could land up a job with a salary of 6000. But now even undergraduates can earn upto 15-20k .

    Mr. Mukundan, as of now the western countries are dependant on India for its strategic location, intellectual capital and Cheap costs.God willing this trend may continue atleast for the next 2 decades.

    Comment by Krishnakumar — October 24, 2005 @ 11:27 am

  5. seriously, wats the point here?

    How does it matter if I call BPO slave labor? If the individual makes a choice, that also includes facing consequences.
    I think BPO jobs are boring and a serious insult to anyone who is doing it – but I would not mind working in the industry myself, as long as I get to eat.

    Comment by Nilu — October 24, 2005 @ 11:44 am

  6. I agree with the views of Amit.

    The article (and for that matter even the study) seems to be very shallow.

    Indian workforce all through the several decades after independence had been just satisfactory at best. The laid back attitude can be attributed to the fact that most of them were state controlled and there was hardly any accountability (probably except at the management level). There was hardly any urge to be profitable.

    Now, due to the liberal policies the private sectors have opened up shops and they play by the corporate rule. People who had been working at government/public sector organizations feel that the private sectors employees are working under constant surveillance and people are being treated by slaves.

    Especially, the BPO sector has to operate by very strict rules as every individual is highly accountable. To satisfy their Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with their client, they may have to employ tight practices. But if one looks at the bigger picture, one may see that the practices are for the good for the employees and as well for the organization. Looking at the smaller picture will only result in half-baked studies and articles like this

    Comment by Ram — October 24, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

  7. in response to Mr. Mukundan, I would like to say that the BPO industry is evolving and I believe that in the near future it will resemble an industry that is innovative and does business which originates in India. Already we see the emergence of KPO (knowledge process outsourcing). Initially, companies only outsourced menial work inorder to cut costs. Subsequently, many of these companies, after collaborating with indian BPO firms, have found that they are dependable and capable. So they are willing to outsource more complex work. The incentive to outsource work will always be there so long as the cost savings are there. And the more complex the work the greater the expected disparity between developed world wages and developing world and so further incentive to outsource. Companies will continue to outsource so long as they feel that their core competencies and IP remain there own. When this happens, I believe you will see certain sectors in the BPO industry come to maturation and that is when you will see the emergence of Indian companies that are able to take all that was taught to them and go the next step.

    An old article by business week discusses this in further detail:
    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_12/b3925601.htm

    Comment by Patel — October 24, 2005 @ 1:03 pm

  8. Mukundan, I don’t know who you’re arguing against because no one is saying that BPO companies are “the right answer” to anything. All I am saying is that they are not a bad thing, as some critics contend they are. Anything that expands the choices available to an individual is a good thing, and the choices of Indians have vastly expanded since the economy began to open up, though I’d love to see much more liberalisation. And everyone who opts to be part of BPO does so because they prefer it to the options available.

    Comment by Amit Varma — October 24, 2005 @ 4:26 pm

  9. Great post. Can these critics find alternative avenues of employment for these graduates? I challenge these critics to offer jobs with same or better salary and better working conditions. Sadly, marxism and marxist thinking is not dead in India although it was soundly defeated by capitalism elsewhere.

    Comment by sv — October 24, 2005 @ 6:54 pm

  10. Amit, I am not exactly trying to argue with anyone, what i am trying to get across is that, BPO, by itself is insufficient(tho not wrong), companies doing the outsourced jobs must begin learning from these technologies and build their own. Only when BPO and original work go simultaneously, these jobs will survive, and as ppl want,better jobs will comei n

    Comment by Mukundan — October 25, 2005 @ 1:19 am

  11. Mukundan, you’re stating the obvious. Nothing is a panacea.

    Comment by Amit Varma — October 25, 2005 @ 2:20 am

  12. I am quite surprised that all of you so willingly defend the BPO industry!

    I agree with your points,
    1. They have provided jobs to previously unemployable people
    2. They provide better job environments than other industries

    These points aside, we must look at the report in an encouraging way. Sure, there have been unqualified comparisons – “slave labour” and working like “coolies”. But lets not argue over the grammar, let us instead look at the basis of the report.

    I have read, and I support the findings of this report, especially, with regards to working conditions.

    Some of you might dispute the fact that working conditions in Indian BPOs are equivalent (or in some cases even better than) to similar enterprises in the West. I disagree. I am sure some exceptions are there.

    One point, that over 90% companies in India, whether BPO or IT, ignore completely is Health and Safety.

    How many of us – who work in BPO/IT sectors in India, can say that our Health and Safety is well looked after? Lets look at some brief points,

    1. Fire – Is your building protected against fire? You work in a high rise, does the city govt have fire engines to support your building? Was your employer responsible enough to research this before it rented/constructed that building? If your employer was aware of this fact, has this fact been communicated to you? Are there enough fire marshalls in your office? Do you have emergency lighting? Are your fire exits unobstructed, well lit, accessible? Do you have enough fire extinguishers?

    2. Disability – Is your building disabled friendly? Have you got ramps? Have you got toilets for the disabled? How many disabled people work in your company? Probably very few or none – why? I thought your company was an equal opportunity employer! What happened? Maybe disabled people dont apply. Why not? Investigate this and get the lowdown from your HR.

    3. Workplace – Your workplace is ergonomic? Really? Are you sure? Please, ask your employer for a photo of their office in US/Europe, anywhere else. Do you see those office look more ergonomic? Ah, probably not – because you think your offices look more modern! Hang on, do a google search on “RSI”. Repetitive Strain Injury. First point in avoiding RSI – keep keyboard and mouse at same level. Ah but I’m sure your keyboard is on a tray and your mouse on a table. Your company obviously knows that, because they build office that comply to such things in the West – what happened in India? Ah lemme think, maybe because they dont care about you?

    I could go on.
    The brief from me is – yes, you have a good job, yes your workplace is good, but please, dont disillusion yourselves that you’re at par with the west just yet. And even the west has loads of improvement to make, so we’re a long way off baby. Enlighten yourself.

    Comment by Pranay Manocha — October 25, 2005 @ 7:31 am

  13. One thing I forgot but wanted to say – Dont let your faith in the new Indian economy blind you. Yes, India is great and will acheive wonders. Yes, all the ‘India will be a superpower’ believers will be proven correct. But please, no one grew without placing emphasis on people. No one grew without accepting criticism. Let us not debunk a report that obviously bases its findings on fact. Its opinion might be unwelcome or hard to digest but its fact will remain. Lets make this a better place, a better industry, rather than believing that because it seems to be better than other industries we should not criticize it.

    My response to above comments.

    Abha – I agree, but that is not the point of this report.
    Krishnakumar – you’re taking this personally.
    Ram – you’ve been listening to your management too long. Nothing is for employee benefit unless it affects company profitability. You have benefits only because of market reasons, not because giving you benefits makes the company feel happy about itself.
    Amit – I agree, theyre not a bad thing at all. The question is, how to make them better (as obviously it is easier to make a well performing industry better than to turnaround an ailing industry)
    sv – you miss the point entirely. the question is not alternative employment. If you are hawking the desperation of BPO employees to justify their working conditions, then I think you really belong in Marx country. Good luck.

    Comment by Pranay Manocha — October 25, 2005 @ 7:45 am

  14. How tall is your Ivory Tower?

    Amit Verma is not happy. In this post, he chastises the VV Giri Institute of Labor for its recent study of work conditions in BPO service centers at NOIDA, India.

    Trackback by BPO Journal — October 25, 2005 @ 8:42 pm

  15. I’ve heard the coolie, ‘cyber coolie’ used as a deragatory label by a white american and a singapore ethnic chinese. My thought on that is hey if you are threatened by a coolie then you must have been a weaker coolie. Ie only a coolie will fear competion from a coolie.
    But what is a new and puzzling development is hindustantimes engaging in this kind of arunGandphutty roy nonsense.

    Comment by Guru Gulab Khatri — October 26, 2005 @ 4:51 pm

  16. I don’t see, from the HT report at least, how the study insults BPO workers. At best, it calls into question the HR practices of BPO firms. Aren’t such practices common in many BPO companies?
    The comparison with ‘roman slave ships’ is also in connection with a specific aspect of call-centres: The degree of surveillance (not that it is a particularly called for analogy).
    I don’t see where the report says that youngsters shouldn’t seek a job at a call-centre or that those who work there are collies.

    Comment by Ashok Hegde — October 27, 2005 @ 6:41 am

  17. Ashok – You’re bang on.

    Comment by Pranay Manocha — October 27, 2005 @ 9:46 am

  18. I don’t see this as an insult to the indian “worker”…

    This post, which says that Indian Workers are put at hard ship is an insult to the person who runs the organisation…. and they should change it….. You have to improve the work conditions and have some facilities for EPF, etc…..

    And …… One more point….

    If you do not turn up for job without informing your superior, that is called as “un authorised absence”… What is wrong in that….. How do you expect me (as a team leader – say the manager of the bus depot) to cope up if the driver does not turn up and does not inform me…. How can I answer the persons who have booked tickets…

    The driver should inform me atleast 6 hours in advance…

    Comment by Bruno — October 27, 2005 @ 10:55 am

  19. The article is an instance of an attitude, not an embodiment of every aspect of it. And the uncalled for analogy of BPO units to slave ships exemplifies it perfectly. I’m amazed anyone would bother to defend that.

    Many of you in the comments are arguing besides the point, and against a straw man. I’m not saying that BPO is the answer to India’s problems, or a panacea. But it is the best option available to those who work in that sector — obviously, or they wouldn’t work there. Instead of dissing them, we need to focus on everything else that is going wrong.

    Comment by Amit Varma — October 27, 2005 @ 3:00 pm

  20. “how the study insults bpo workers?”

    If I am working in a BPO voluntarily, comparing BPO to slave ship is an insult to me because it means I voluntarily signed up to work in slave-like conditions. Plus, you seem to suggest you know what’s better for me than myself. Given the high rate of poverty and unemployemnt, I am sure millions are lining up voluntarily to take a bpo job, which hardly sounds like a slave ship.

    Comment by sv — October 27, 2005 @ 8:55 pm

  21. Amit, I think you are the one missing the point of the report. The study doesn’t ‘diss’ the younsters who work at BPOs, but rather the BPO firms.

    Is your problem with the study that it uses inappropriate language while characterising the methods of BPO firms (not BPO employees, mind you)? Or do you dispute the conclusions of the study that BPO firms do not offer a great working environment for their employees?

    Whatever it is, I really don’t see where it insults BPO workers.

    In fact, studies like these may put pressure on BPO firms to improve work conditions for their employees… in turn, helping the very same people that you have posted in support of.

    Also, Nasscom itself in its reaction does not completely refute the findings.

    Comment by Ashok — October 28, 2005 @ 12:26 am

  22. Comment 20 by SV answers comment 21 by Ashok very well. Calling people slave-ship workers, and implying that they are making the wrong choices, is not insulting them? Oh, come, come!

    Comment by Amit Varma — October 29, 2005 @ 9:29 am

  23. Really, Amit?
    Where does the report call BPO employees slave ship workers?
    Does comparing surveillance methods of BPO companies with slave ships automatically imply that those who work in BPOs are slaves? Oh, come, come.
    By the same token, then, the report implies BPO workers are convicts and criminals, because it also compares surveillance methods to 16th century prisons…
    I think I’ll just rest my case…

    Comment by Ashok Hegde — October 31, 2005 @ 1:29 am

  24. Typo: that should be 19th century, not 16th.

    Comment by Ashok Hegde — October 31, 2005 @ 1:45 am

  25. Oh come, come! If a BPO is compared to a slave ship, the natural implication is that the people who work there are treated like slaves. If the survillance there is compared to that of a prison, the natural implication is that the people there are monitored like prisoners. If you wish to deny those implications, go right ahead. Ha!

    Comment by Amit Varma — October 31, 2005 @ 2:50 am

  26. We live and we learn.

    Comment by Ashok Hegde — October 31, 2005 @ 4:49 am

  27. Interesting Issue. What is a BPO? Any organisation that outsourses the activity of other companies. We have been doing this for years in other industries like auto, pharma, chemicals, garments, leather etc. The popular type of a BPO, which is under discussion today is still in it’s nascent stages, hence appear to a few like sweatshops (and i’m told that some of them are), but as Amit pointed out that these companies are rapidly climbing up the value chain and the knowledge content of these jobs can only improve. Examples can be drawn from the software boom, where intially indian companies were just used for warehousing data, then they started doing bodyshopping, then contract software development, then solutions oriented software development and finally now they are manufacturers of Software Products (Finnacle, Flexcube, Talisma etc).

    If you take the global outsourcing wallet size as $750 Bn and the indian ambition (as stated by Dr. Manmohan Singh) of aiming for 50% of the market share, this industry itself has the potential of being the single largest industry in the country. How this industry would evolve is would be very interesting and going by the growth in the core software industry business, the interesting times are yet to come.

    Comment by R. — October 31, 2005 @ 8:13 am

  28. sv, you say,
    “If I am working in a BPO voluntarily, comparing BPO to slave ship is an insult to me because it means I voluntarily signed up to work in slave-like conditions”

    Lets say you work in a BPO voluntarily and it was the best option available to you. Thats great, the BPO provides you an engine of growth and sustainability.

    But hey, lets say Pranay pops in, looks at the BPO and your working conditions, determines that you work in a slave ship and your conditions are appalling.

    Now everyone seems to be trashing what this report says on the basis of
    (i) my BPO is better than the steel industry,
    (ii) This was the best option I had,
    (iii) they pay well and that is one positive that eliminates the existence of any other negatives that may exist,
    (iv) I am not a slave
    (v) I am happy working here

    Oops.

    Can we please look at it objectively? Example,

    1. How much is the surveillance – does it make anyone jittery? – Again, dnt argue if it is necessary or not, argue if it is helpful for the work environment. After all, the slave ship captain might say that it is necessary to keep slaves in chains – so the argument will continue.

    2. What are the labour practices this report criticises? Lets argue whether they are helpful in terms of labour satisfaction rather than the necessaity that the management might portray.

    In the original article, Amit writes
    When I was in college, in the early 1990s, it was unheard of for a graduate to get a job without having any additional qualifications

    Thats hardly the point to rebut a report that merely talks about working conditions and not the opportunities.

    Lets talk about how ethical it is to ask an employee to change his name and his identity just for the purpose of servicing clients who would like to hear more western names? Sure, the employee may agree, but is there an option provided in clear and visible terms? Would such a thing be allowed to happen in the EU?

    BPOs are not only exploitative – thus reminiscent of slave ships – but they infringe on human rights of employees – something not recognized by most people because of their ignorance of what constitutes such rights.

    For that reason, sv, looking at your comment again, this is relativistic – how can it be insult to you (for choosing to work on slave ships) when you didn’t even know that they were slave ships (In fact, you still disagree they are slave ships so good luck to you!). Your ignorance is both your defense and your weakness.

    Regards.

    Comment by Pranay Manocha — November 3, 2005 @ 10:45 am

  29. The point that Amit is making can also be made in reference to the sweatshops in Thailand. People are working there simply because it is the best of all the choices available. That doesn’t mean sweatshops are perfect. This argument can be applied to any scale. I can complain that I am being treated badly because I don’t get all the perks that my CEO gets. So it’s not a good argument.

    What we need to see is whether BPOs meet western standards (or for that matter those in the IT industry in India) for work environment etc. Are Infosys employees so closely monitored? If not then why should BPO workers be? Is monitoring employees somehow required for providing good service to the customers who call?

    I don’t see how the article implies that BPO workers are coolies? Saying that conditions in a sweatshops need to be improved does not imply that sweatshop employees are slaves (unless they are forced to work there against their will).

    Comment by Sameer — November 5, 2005 @ 7:38 am

  30. The story got picked up by NPR.
    Here’s the link
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5027761

    Comment by Guru Gulab Khatri — November 28, 2005 @ 8:18 am

  31. Everybody says that Indian Economy is booming, i do agree with them to a certain extent though, but i refuse to agree totally for the simple reason that indian economy is basically a service industry.As long as the foreign or multinational companies receive that quality service but cheap labour costs, they will invest. What happens if other competing countries like china which also has huge manpower start providing services as good as India? No one can say it for sure that these companies would not divert their attention other countries, infact, they will. I think India should take advantage of such a situation and build more industries and not depend on others. India should not be complacent at anytime and take things for guaranted.

    Comment by Nizam Rahman — January 13, 2007 @ 11:18 pm

  32. No matter how much u shake your head in disdain, BPO is going to remain favorite among the employees !!!

    Comment by deepa — February 22, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  33. After Indian Railways, i believe its the BPO industry which has offered jobs to most of the population. Those who say that BPO is not worth working dont know that BPO industry provided the a major part to indian economy and need less to say it is very much evident from the Lifestyle and a raised standard of living among the BPO employees.

    If one wants to learn management(Time, Stress, Money), i think BPO provides a wide platform to gain that experience.

    Comment by Bhanu — February 23, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  34. Bhanu
    I appreciate your wide understanding and the empathy you have for the BPO workers!!!

    Comment by deepa — February 23, 2008 @ 11:48 am

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