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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.

Long Hours Offshore: Harsh Days at Indian Call Centers

Dead RingersWhile 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."

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."

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.

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.