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Are you a call centre worker? Beware!

September 15, 2004 14:18 IST

As part of my profession, I need to visit all types of organisations and often need to work with clients till late in the night.

Last April, on one such visit, I stepped out of the offices of one of my clients who are handling voice and non-voice transactions of a foreign bank and wanted to wind up our discussions over dinner. So, I politely asked some of my client officers to join me for dinner. When more than one of them gave the excuse of headache and body ache as the reason for not joining in, I quipped mischievously that their clients are probably outsourcing body pain also to them.

I realised much later that the matter is not a topic for poking fun, but a very serious thing indeed. I felt sorry for being so insensitive.

Work has been the very focus of human existence. Even for philosophers like Kahlil Gibran work made the difference between a mere existence and living. In Indian ethos, work always occupied an elevated place as a path to salvation. In every civilised society, work is seen as a factor that makes every individual contribute by adding value to the society.

But, for the first time, work is now being redefined as an end in itself by the business process outsourcing firms. An army of young men and women sweat out their valuable days and nights in activities that do not add value to the society in which they live.

This has made work as a means of only earning money and having no other larger meaning. It is for sociologists to dwell upon this development and draw lessons for the Indian youth. I am more concerned about the individual who works in a BPO unit and the deprivation which he or she is undergoing, and do not intend to get into the sociological aspects as yet.

Owing to the 10-hour time difference between the Western hemisphere, particularly the United States, and India, almost all Indian back-office operations have to work at shifts typically running from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. to coincide with the daytime office hours in the United States.

It is this working at nights that requires adjusting the biological clock and social practices to a different time, which is turning out to be a major cause for health-related and social problems.

The data published by a reputed United Kingdom source says that 40 percent of the employees working in BPOs have eye problems. This problem is more acute with the team leaders who need to come in early and go back late.

Typically, for call centres handling bank customers, say from Europe, the team leader may have to stay till midnight though typically his day starts at 10 am. The British government has now included call centre employees in the high-risk category for eye diseases. Comparatively, software programmers are a happy lot as they can break the VDU (visual display unit) gazing at will.

Digestive disorders are common among employees in BPOs. A total of 34 percent of employees had complaints on this count as revealed by a survey.

One of the common refrains of human resource executives of BPOs to attract young people is to publicise the fact that they have a 24-hour cafeteria. For people used to the shabby industrial canteens of India, the canteens of BPOs seem a world apart. They do not serve the usual fare of usal or uttappam, but offer exotic dishes.

A new logistics industry has grown around the call centre/BPO industry to cater to the taste buds of staffers. But like in every thing else, the managers of BPOs have been careless.

A captive multinational company centre in India suddenly found a high incidence of gastroenteritis cases on its hands last year and initially brushed it off to unhygienic habits of employees. Till it found that the food being brought to the centre came in large steel drums to keep it hot for its over 1,000 employees for 4 to 5 hours. At that temperature bacteria thrive and they did.

The latest finding is truly shocking. Studies point out that people who work in the call centre industry are facing the possibility of losing their voice. The problem known earlier as 'the teacher syndrome' is now being found in the young workers of call centres. Some of them may face the acute manifestation of this in the form of permanent loss of voice.

As usual, there are people who come up with counter arguments. Almost all point at the happy environment and the enjoyable surroundings they provide. But they do not want to accept that this happiness is not 'happiness' at all, but only a brief prelude to many sicknesses about which we are blissfully unaware.

We have read in fiction about a sizeable section of the population being kept 'happy' so that they will readily give away their freedom or their precious life. But, this is not fiction like the Orwellian Animal Farm. It is a fact and a brutal one at that.

In times of war, young people go to battle knowing fully well all the risks but they understand that it is a sacred duty one performs for one's motherland. We live in times of peace and yet have to face this social evil. Business always has its share of people who justify their greedy actions in the name of progress.

They invariably refer to the salary and the perks and take pride that they have brought thousands of jobs to the country. BPOs and call centres have also found vocal advocates among them and we are not surprised. But it is saddening that no business leader -- including Infosys Chairman N R Narayana Murthy -- has come out and apprised us of the dangers that are lurking in the corners of well-furnished BPO offices.

The youth today do not know that the eight-hour work and eight-hour sleep routine is the result of enormous efforts after the early period in the Industrial Revolution and its notorious sweatshops.

The sweatshop owners too claimed to be saviours of England but brought consumption to many workers as Charles Dickens captures aptly in his novels. The hard earned equilibrium and the harmony between work and the rest of life has now forever been disrupted.

Even in the Navy, the watch duty during peacetime is for only four hours, but the czars of BPOs demand with impunity twelve hours of continuous work from the young workers. We do not know whether anything has changed in the human biology and psychological capability to make this possible.

The youth of India now have to take the courage and call off this bluff.

Young sons and daughters of India! We do not want you to starve but at the same time do not want you to sell yourselves cheap for a Pepsi and a pizza in the job market, which is threatening to make you sick in a few years.

Awake, The Youth of India! Be bold and let this monster know that its ugly tricks cannot get you. As for the BPO industry captains, I need to remind them gently that the Day of Judgment awaits them.

C P Chandrasekaran