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Of murky alleys, credit cards and faceless staff

By Anjali Puri and Sahil Makkar
Last updated on: January 06, 2015 21:56 IST
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How the credit cards of two leading private banks are marketed out of a squalid Delhi neighbourhood.

Laxmi Nagar in the east of this city is only a half-an-hour drive from Lutyens' Delhi but a different world altogether.

As the posters plastered on its walls proclaim, it is a hub of professional training centres, of guesthouses for migrants from other states, and of scores of tiny job-placement agencies with signs offering 'walk-in interviews', often with pictures of a Western woman wearing headphones.

Both on the arterial Vikas Marg and a maze of alleys branching from it are narrow buildings with steep stairs.

In these are cheaply-rented offices of stockbrokers and real estate dealers, along with business process outsourcing (BPO) offices of various sizes, working for banks, insurance firms, online shopping stores, etc.

The area is a magnet for the largely Hindi-speaking youth from the poorer areas of East Delhi, who come here in search of jobs in domestic BPOs.

While being fluent in English could have fetched them at least Rs 5,000-6,000 a month more, salaries at local BPOs start at about Rs 7,000 a month (the minimum wage for clerical work in Delhi is upwards of Rs 10,000 a month).

In practice, wages are even less, as salaries are docked for not meeting targets.

That many local BPOs function in a grey zone, with hardly any protection for employees, is a fact readily acknowledged by Rudraksh Sharma, managing director of Wisden Training Institute, one of the older recruitment companies in the area.

"They don't give offer letters or contracts because they can get rid of them easily when they don't meet targets," he explains.

Many placement agencies, he adds, are fly-by-night operators. "When job seekers come back to them complaining the jobs aren't what they were promised, they refuse to refund the money."

"If there are too many complaints, some change names and premises."

We witness first-hand the business of street-level recruitment of young people in Laxmi Nagar, first watching a middle-aged man with dark glasses distribute pamphlets on the streets and then following him as he ushers job seekers into a narrow lane and a poorly-lit building.

The candidates are led into sparsely furnished offices of D-Infratech, where 'HR (human resources)' executives first demand Rs 10 from the bewildered candidates for not having brought resumes with them, and then insist on an additional payment of Rs 800 upfront, as advance for possible employment.

The candidates are promised jobs at telecom companies or leading banks. It seems hard to believe this hole-in-the-wall office can deliver on its promises, until it turns out, on a subsequent visit, that this building is teeming with young people doing what appears to be outsourced work for two of the country's leading private sector banks.

In a room on the ground floor, young women are sifting stacks of applications for credit cards for the two banks.

They say they are back-end staff, completing the verification. Up dark, uns-wept stairs, in a large room with walls divided by wooden partitions, are numerous young men and women trying to sell credit cards of the two banks over the telephone.

They say they work for a BPO called Call Connect Services, which has no signboards at either this office or another, smarter one, a five-minute walk away.

At the second office, Sangeeta Tripathi, who introduces herself as the company's HR manager, confirms during a conversation of about 30 minutes on December 10 that Call Connect Services handles credit cards, loan sales and back-end work for the two leading banks. She adds the organisation has 12 centres in Delhi.

Bank personnel visit the office from time to time and the BPO recruits much of its staff through local placement agencies, she says.

As she speaks, chatter is heard from adjoining rooms where, according to Tripathi, about 80 employees are at work.

Tripathi maintains all employees get appointment letters and salary slips, adding freshers earn Rs 8,000 a month, along with incentives for meeting targets.

"This is never more than 20 cards a month," she says.

"We do not like to burden them." However, on condition of anonymity, former employees of the BPO tell Business Standard a different story.

The company, they said, didn't give them written contracts, paid less than it promised, cut wages when targets of selling 25-30 credit cards a month weren't met, put unreasonable pressure to meet targets, and didn't discharge their dues at the time of leaving.

In their teens and early 20s, these staffers were easily intimidated and melted away quietly.

A request for an interview with the company's head, Naveen Gupta, is declined, and emailed questions go unanswered. Matters take a curious turn when Business Standard approaches the banks for comment. At first, neither bank responds to our mid-December request for interviews on the ties between them and the agents marketing their credit cards, as well as on the working conditions of the employees of these agents. However, in response to a specific request a week later, asking the banks to clarify their relationship with Call Connect Services, one of the banks calls on December 24 to say it has "no relationship" with Call Connect Services.

When told Business Standard had spoken to the HR manager of the company, a representative of the bank asked for the name of the HR manager.

Soon, the representative called back to say her services were terminated on December 15, and that "your story will be out of date if you quote her".

However, the bank's messages are mixed. The bank doesn't suggest the products being sold are bogus; rather, agents of the bank sometimes "pass on" work to other companies.

On being pressed for a written response, the bank sent a statement on December 26, saying: "We strongly deny having any relationship with Call Connect Services." Yet, it appends to the statement a letter from the very company it claims it had no ties with.

The letter, which carries a hard-to-decipher signature of an unnamed "proprietor" of Call Connect Services, says the company is "not an authorised partner" of the bank "in any capacity for any product or service".

It tersely adds, "The quoted employee, Sangeeta Tripathi, was terminated by us on December 15, 2014…As an employee of Call Connect Services, she was not authorised to give an interview on behalf of the organisation.'

"As an organisation we would distance ourselves from any details shared by the employee on behalf of the organisation." The other bank did not respond to repeated requests for a formal, written clarification on its relationship with the BPO.

Vishwas Utagi, vice-president of the All India Bank Employees Association, isn't surprised by these responses.

Exploitation of staff doing outsourced bank work is below the surface and rife, he says.

According to him, it is common for such staff to be hired on verbal contracts, which don't set out the terms of service and protect their rights.

It also common for them to earn less than half the salary of at least Rs 18,000 paid to a regular bank clerk, to work long hours without overtime, and to be denied provident fund and other benefits.

Utagi argues irrespective of whether bank work is formally contracted, subcontracted, or "passed on", a bank remains the "principal employer" of those selling its products.

As such, under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, it has the responsibility to ensure labour laws are adhered to. "If the brand name of the bank is involved, it cannot shirk responsibility," he says.

"After all, if there is a problem with the products sold by a telemarketer, consumers approach the bank, not the telemarketer."

Part II: The pathetic story of telemarketers who work at low-end BPOs

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Anjali Puri and Sahil Makkar
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