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Long Hours Offshore: Harsh Days at Indian Call Centers

In this excerpt from his book Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves, author Shehzad Nadeem reveals the grueling work schedules and oppressive employee policies at India’s infamous call centers.

Dead Ringers

While offshoring is motivated by the prospect of significant cost-savings,
many companies have reported substantial productivity gains,
ranging from 15 to 25 percent. An executive says that Indian employees
are more productive because “they’re better qualified, they’re better
educated, they’re younger.” Additionally, managers often give cultural
explanations, arguing that Indian industriousness is a product of the
culture’s emphasis on education. One manager speaks admiringly of
the “Indian psyche.”

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In call centers, at least, gains in productivity may have less to do
with age, motivation, or cultural inheritance than with an accelerated
work pace and technologically induced efficiency. Larger call centers
use automated dialing technology, through which numbers are dialed
automatically and workers are fed only live calls. According to one
manager, the rate of calls is variable: on average an American worker
might have 45 seconds to one minute between calls, whereas an Indian
worker would have only 5 to 10 seconds. By eliminating “idle
time,” nominal working hours remain the same but real working hours
are lengthened.

One worker, Adnan, says that in a day they handle
about 200-250 calls, of which 80-90 last a minute and 50-60 last between
three and five minutes. “It’s a source of stress. You don’t have a
long gap after every call,” Adnan says. His coworker, Preethi, adds,
“It’s seconds. There isn’t a break after every call, though I would rather
do an 8-hour than 10-hour shift with longer breaks.” Busy hours do
not preclude an extension of the workday when necessary. A former
worker complained that her shifts occasionally extended from the required
8 to 10 hours and that she handled hundreds of calls daily.

Workers also complain about not receiving their promised salaries.
Managers respond that this is because a large portion of one’s “salary”
comes in the form of incentives, which are based on performance and
adherence to predefined parameters. Two major components relevant
to our argument are talk time (the quicker you can dispatch a customer
the better) and the intervals between calls (a matter of seconds).
The result is an internalization of time-discipline, which is manifested
in a psychological pressure to perform. “If I can’t achieve target, it
leads to an in-built stress. We know what we have to do every day. It’s
our own mind telling us, ‘You have to do it.’ The only thing we do is
talk, talk, talk. We have about two seconds for the next call. Sometimes,
though, you do have a long break. Those are the times we party,”
says Preethi, looking at Adnan, who is looking at a coworker who is
looking out the window.

Yet even breaks are a matter of dispute. Despite the bright furnishings
and the game rooms, the conditions of work can be exacting.
Breaks (including dinner, which might take place at two in the morning)
are strictly monitored, and one worker complains that they “are
not given on time, if at all.” One worker says that they are denied
weekly days off and that “sometimes we aren’t even getting breaks if
call flow is high.” Leave policies are another matter of contention:

You can’t fall sick. You have to plan your sick leave in advance. It’s
almost like having to say, “I’m planning to be sick in three weeks.”
They don’t have a real sick leave policy. Someone had a bad fall
once and they wouldn’t sanction the leave at first. She came to work
in intense pain and only then was told that she could go. They want
you to come in first. Also, if one is sick, then they don’t get incentives
because the sick days are construed as leaves, unless planned.

Another worker says that he cannot attend out-of-town gatherings
because of work timings. Leaves are hardly an option: “If we take more
than one leave, then we will have to pay from our salary. And without
money we cannot fulfill our social and family requirement.”

At the same company, workers must ask permission from a superior
to use the bathroom–the visits of which are timed. In one case, a
worker named Neeta was dealing with a particularly cumbersome inbound
call. Thirty minutes in, she requested permission from her
team leader (TL) to use the restroom, the normal protocol being that
another worker or superior would handle the call from there. But the
TL did not allow her to get off the line, and 20 minutes later when the
call was completed, he congratulated her with a paternalistic smile
and said, “I knew you could be a good rep if you put yourself to it.” After writing a letter to management
itemizing this and other abuses, Neeta’s services were suspended,
officially for “dropping calls.” Another of her “lapses,” was returning late from the bathroom.
She claims that she vomited after her meal and had to be assisted
back to her seat. As another worker at the firm carped, “The
food is not good. They contract service out to different caterers who
prepare meals on a cost-cutting basis. This causes health problems
and some have had food poisoning.”

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The authors of a recent study of the call center industry by the Indian
Labour Ministry-funded V.V. Giri Labor Institute, argue that the
constant surveillance in firms creates an atmosphere similar to that in
“19th-century prisons or Roman slave ships.” My observations suggest
that while surveillance is indeed tight and can be a major source
of stress, most employees would not make such comparisons. Many
describe their work environments positively. However, poor management
and excessive monitoring can create a hostile atmosphere. Says
one worker: “Everything is monitored. They record every damn thing.”
Additionally, workers are often expected to work six days a week and
forego national holidays, and they often complain of unpaid mandatory
overtime.

Executives, often Indians trained in the West, lament their compatriots’
lackadaisical attitude toward time. They claim that Indians take
more breaks and have difficulty dealing with deadlines. And, indeed,
an intense focus on family and social life does not mesh well with
the rigidity of organization time and clock discipline. Very commonly,
IST–Indian Standard Time–is jokingly referred to as Indian
“stretch able” time. The rigid status distinctions prevalent in Indian
society and the often servile attitude of workers toward their superiors,
however, ensure that when workers are called on to put in long hours,
they do.

While productivity and quality are said to be at least as good as
they are in the United States, Indian workers in IT firms regularly
work longer hours than their American counterparts. This expectation
on the part of employers, especially at the elite IT services firms, is rationalized
by the notion that the company is a global business that
works on a 24-hour cycle. As employees of a company with a “24-hour work culture,” they are
expected to be available at all hours. And while some managers say
there is a longer learning curve for Indian workers, they are able to
condense a good deal of training into a short period of time. One
worker at an IT firm said that her team of trainees had to stay in the office for over 24 hours twice during their three-month training.

Even on his days off, Amir, an employee of an IT firm, receives a
steady flow of messages on his Blackberry. The device, a source of
both pride and annoyance, rarely leaves his person. His company
maintains IT infrastructure for a variety of transnational companies,
including Wal-Mart. He once spent two continuous days in the office.
“I took meals at my desk. Afterwards, I could barely walk. I just collapsed
there at my desk and went to sleep,” Amir remarks wearily, as
if reliving the exhaustion. He is also required to travel extensively and
says that Western workers feel threatened by his work ethic. He quit
twice because he felt that his services were underappreciated only to
be lured back by pay raises.

Erran Carmel, who is no enemy of capitalism, writes that offshoring
involves various hidden costs and time delays. These hurdles, however,
can be cleared. “If Infosys has an elixir for the time zone gap,”
writes Carmel, “it is its organizational culture that expects a heightened
commitment from employees.” He continues:

This commitment is to work longer hours and work off-hours. In
short, it is a culture that expects heroics. . . . India-based engineering
staff members are also expected to perform heroics by being
time-zone flexible. They work longer hours and sometimes they
time-shift. Managers are used to staying late to overlap with U.S.
time. For example, one delivery manager said that he works 9-to-9
many days. The Infosys campuses in India are 24-hour campuses.

Despite a culture that exacts “life style sacrifices” and expects “heroics”
of its employees, Infosys is highly selective in its hiring, accepting
less than 1 percent of its million applicants each year. “Infoscions,”
as they are called, earn very good salaries and benefits by
Indian standards. “In return for being hired, employees know they are
expected to contribute more than just their talent,” Carmel concludes.
21 Given that Infosys has a blue-chip client base and was named
“India’s best managed company” by consultants A.T. Kearney, this is
telling. But long hours are not unique to particular companies; they
are generalized across the Indian ICT landscape.

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The IT magazine Dataquest released a study that found that long
hours are the leading cause of stress for workers, followed by work
timing. As it surveyed workers at some of the largest employers in
the outsourcing sector and is largely proindustry in outlook, the findings
are worth quoting at length: “Any average agent works for 11-12
hours per day–the number goes up to 14 in case of companies that
encourage overtime. The plight of the operational heads is worse–
they regularly clock 17-18 hours per day working their shift besides
staying back for customer conference calls.” In her comparative study
of three software firms in China, Hungary, and India, Perlow finds that
Indian employees work the longest. The “mandatory” workday is
from 9:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., but workers regularly end at 7:00 p.m.
and sometimes as late as 11:00 p.m. Saturday is also a full workday.
Likewise, many workers I interviewed spoke of frequent 12- to 14-
hour workdays. Seeing long hours as a positive thing, one executive
mused, “Here people are much more willing to sacrifice their time and
do things.”

Workers at small to midsized companies fare no better. Manoj, a
manager at a midsized firm, contrasts Infosys (a “good paymaster”)
with smaller companies “that exploit their workers too much.” Employees
routinely work over 60 hours a week, he says, and “too much
pressure is given to the developer to complete work.” There are also
occasional power shortages. When they occur, “Developers have to
stay longer and work through the outage. Sometimes people have to
work 18-20 hours continuously. It makes me feel like I should leave
the industry, but there is satisfaction when I complete the work.”

Given these issues, one might wonder about the policy options
available to limit the adverse impacts of long and irregular working
hours. Mindful of the social consequences of the “24-hour society,”
the European Union released a “Working Time Directive,” which lays
out guidelines on the scheduling of shifts, rest periods, and work
hours. It is unlikely that such a directive will ever apply to the offshore
partners of EU companies. Nor is it likely that Indian companies will
welcome the imposition of “foreign” labor standards. The CFO of one
of India’s largest ICT companies puts the issue of long and busy hours
in comparative perspective:

People work very hard. And why do people work hard? They do so
because they’re a poor country. They’re growing up. India’s a poor
country. So every country has worked hard. Koreans have worked
hard; the Japanese have worked hard; the Germans have worked
hard. To grow your national economy, a couple generations work extremely
hard. People in the U.S. worked hard; people in the U.K.
worked hard. Once you become wealthy, you work less, right. A
wealthy country cannot dictate to an emerging country and say,
“You work less.” It’s not going to happen because everybody’s at a
different state of development.

Thus in addition to cost, part of the attractiveness of Indian labor to
corporations is its willingness to “work hard.” Software developers
who visited their U.S. parent office for training said that American employees
generally stick to a nine-to-five schedule. They, on the other
hand, frequently have to stay into the evening to attend conference
calls with “on-site” personnel. They then stay on to fix software
glitches, which leads to “more than eight hours of working a day.” A manager in the U.S. office says
that the extended hours were unintentional: they simply were not
mindful of the time in India. “We have a big clock now that’s set to
Chennai time on the wall. It’s not that big, perhaps it should be bigger,
but we are much better about it now,” he says.

Excerpted from Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing Is Changing the Way Indians Understand Themselves by Shehzad Nadeem. © Copyright 2011 Princeton University Press. Shehzad Nadeem is assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, Lehman College.