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Are Indian BPOs slave ships?

Last updated on: October 26, 2005 17:35 IST
Is there any relation between ancient Roman ships that once employed prison labour and Indian BPOs? Yes, says a study by the VV Giri National Institute of Labour.

The report by the labour institute has created a furore for bringing out the appalling working conditions in India's hi-tech business process outsourcing companies.

The study highlights that "the degree of surveillance required at work is even comparable with situations of nineteenth century prisons or Roman slave ships". It also points put that human resource managers "camouflage work as fun''.

Outsourcing and India

With several states exempting call centres from labour laws including the Industrial Dispute Act, there is a great concern over flouting of labour laws in these call centres.

Meanwhile, IT body Nasscom and call centres have denied these charges. Leading BPO companies say they were not even approached for any kind of feedback.

The institute's study says workers at BPO centres are monitored round-the-clock with specially designed software and closed circuit cameras.

Call centres? Never again!

"Even the time taken on attending each call is scrutinised and the employees are expected to take a certain number of calls on an hourly basis in some companies. In some companies, the person attending the call asks whether the client is satisfied with the response and asks for his feedback, which is again used to rate the employee's performance, according to a BPO employee.

Nasscom president, Kiran Karnik agrees that the institute is highly credible but what irked him was the reference to prison camps. Nasscom also points out that the Indian outsourcing firms have the highest employee satisfaction rates across any industry in India.

BPO companies have raised questions on the credibility of the report citing several examples of high growth prospects and huge opportunities for the youth of India.

"Its sad to hear about the bad working conditions of employees in some BPOs. Companies have to realise that the people working in BPOs are not made of nuts and bolts. They are human beings and should be treated well too," Daniel H. Pink, author of best sellers like 'Work Agent Change' and 'A Whole New mind', told rediff.com.

How to choose the right BPO

According to the Labour institute report, though the BPOs project a good work environment, higher salaries and ample growth prospects, this is far from reality.

Young graduates are made to believe that they have the best offer on earth, but once they are hired, their performance is constantly monitored and several warnings are issued if targets are not meet. They are also asked to quit if they don't meet the company's high expectations.

The labour institute report draws parallels to popular model of work organisations followed in 1980's saying that the organisational structure of call centres is basically 'dualistic' with one set of permanent and non-permanent workers. While the top managers form the core group, the young graduates form easily replaceable group. 

What is surpirisng is that the BPO employees also seem to be divided on this issue. While some feel that they were aware of the working conditions and they chose the profession as the best among the various options they had. Others agree with the labour institute's report that a rosy picture is drawn to attract them and once they are hired, it's a totally different world altogether.

"If such bad practises continue, talented people are bound to move out. So in the long run companies will be forced to make sure that employees are happy and they stay with the company, " says Daniel H. Pink .

rediff Business Desk