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How BPO staff can fight racial abuse

By Shyamal Majumdar
December 15, 2005 12:46 IST
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IT analyst Neelima Tirumalasetti's ordeal in the United States started when her company started outsourcing work to India. Fed up with her co-workers repeatedly calling her 'dirty Indian', and accusing her of coming to the US just to take their jobs, Tirumalasetti had reported the matter to her employers.

But the only step her employer took was to remove her from team leader responsibilities, begin auditing her work daily and blocking her access to leave.

The lawsuit she filed also alleges that Tirumalasetti suffered an emotional breakdown after the company reassigned her to report to a co-worker she identified as one of her chief harassers, and who stated she would "kill the bitch who complained."

No one knows whether Tirumalasetti will get justice. But she is just one among the growing victims of the "noose brigade" -- so called as the display of noose, placed in work spaces, lockers or vehicles, is becoming a visible symbol of coercive racism and implied violence in many Western countries where outsourcing of work is a dirty word.

The virus has spread even to countries like Japan. For instance, an Indian executive -- a graduate from IIT Bombay -- has filed a racial discrimination case against a Japanese conglomerate in a rare employment-related racial discrimination case in that country.

The complaint: the company kept on denying him training in the Japanese language, even rejected his request for flexi-time so that he could learn the language at his own expense but asked him to submit his reports in Japanese within six months of joining the company.

When he protested, he was asked to leave the company. The Indian executive finally responded by suing the company for 5.9 million yen in damages.

Back in India, abuse from British and American customers is driving call centre workers from their jobs, defeated by the strain of handling persistent rudeness.

According to an exhaustive study done by Jaya Prakash Pradhan, assistant professor in the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, and Vinoj Abraham, assistant professor in the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi, outsourcing has generated a lot of resentment due to the employment losses.

"Kinder, kein Inder!" a slogan popular with German agitators roughly translated means: "The solution to labour shortages is more children, not more Indians"

Web sites have sprung up in the US to cater to phone abusers with phone numbers of Indian call centres and Hindi swear words.

These stress factors generated by clients' rude and abusive behaviour are triggering call centre employees to quit their jobs and is affecting their normal social behaviour. Many firms are faced with high attrition rates due to the psycho-social costs to the employee.

The reason for all this is obvious. Countries like the US and the UK have lost thousands of technical jobs to India and according to some estimates, the number of Americans calling themselves IT professionals has decreased by nearly 160,000.

And according to consultancy firm Forrester, outsourcing is expected to move 3.4 million US service-sector jobs overseas by 2015. In the United Kingdom, hundreds of people are not getting IT jobs even though an estimated 19,000 low-paid Indian techies continue to flood into the country every year.

As long as the cost advantage remains, a bulk of outsourcing jobs is destined to move to India, as according to an interim report of the Task Force on HRD in IT, more than 200,000 post-graduates, 700,000 graduates and 800,000 diploma holders in IT and related areas would be added to the Indian system by 2008 -- majority of them looking for what the West considers to be low-paid, back-end jobs.

Tirumalasetti is lucky as she is based in the US and could seek legal redressal, but there are few options for call centre executives based in India. The only solution, therefore, is for companies to teach employees to learn to tackle racial abuse.

"It's a part of the job. Professional hazard, you could say," says an HR analyst. He gives the example of an incident in the late 1980s. Asian Americans were stunned when Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man celebrating his upcoming wedding at a Detroit area club, was stalked by and murdered by white men who had been laid off recently from the auto manufacturing industry.

The men had perceived Vincent Chin to be Japanese and, thus, a symbol for the country that they believed was taking away American jobs in the auto industry.

The solution against racial discrimination faced by call centre executives is psychological counselling and making them mentally prepared to face racial abuse.

More organisations have started to let staff hang up on persistently rude customers, after warning them three times to mind their language. Some others are appointing trainers to help new staff understand the different cultural forms of rudeness they are likely to encounter.

It is important to remember that the rage has really nothing to do with them personally. Better still, do what an HR expert suggests: Press the mute button and swear back. It's a good way of letting out the steam.
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Shyamal Majumdar
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