Misplaced Tears Over Outsourcing
An acquaintance linked to this article about outsourced call centers in India, and since that’s a topic I know a certain amount about from a while back, I had to look despite the fact it’s at Mother Jones — not exactly one of my usual sources of news.
In facts, the article pretty well reflects the way things are, from what I know of the industry (more of that in a bit), but the editorial angle of the piece is so at odds, at times, with its content that the contrast become dizzying (unless you behave as Mother Jones perhaps expects their readers to and simply agrees to be outraged by whatever the author chooses to be outraged by.) For instance, read this section:
Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do. The competition is fierce. No one keeps a reliable count, but each year there are possibly millions of applicants vying for BPO positions. A good many of them are bright recent college grads, but their knowledge of econometrics and Soviet history won’t help them in interviews. Instead, they pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—”wherever” and “pleasure” and “socialization”—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or “mother tongue influence.”
In the end, most of the applicants will fail and return home deeper in debt. The lucky ones will secure Spartan lodgings and spend their nights (thanks to time differences) in air-conditioned white-collar sweatshops. They will earn as much as 20,000 rupees per month—around $2 per hour, or $5,000 per year if they last that long, which most will not.
Is there any greater cruelty than capitalism? Aren’t you shocked by what companies are forcing these Indians to do? Why do they put up with this abuse. Oh wait, the next sentence says:
In a country where per-capita income is about $900 per year, a BPO salary qualifies as middle-class.
Maybe this explains why people flock in from all over the country to these business hubs in order to try for one of these graveyard shift “sweatshop” jobs: Instead of appearing in picturesque native garb while working outside in “Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns” they can slip on their business casual clothes, head to an air conditioned office, and make 5.5x the per capital wage of the country. This would be the equivalent of making $240,000/yr in the US. Will Mother Jones be publishing a heart-wrenching account next month of how young midwesterners are passing up the chance to work on picturesque farms and auto parts factories to come to New York and sell stocks for Goldman Sachs for a quarter million a year?
Or how about this clear sign of worker exploitation: They hold new worker’s wages for the first two months:
After an hour of waiting, our trainer entered. Lekha was tall and rail thin, with big doll eyes. Her accent was what BPO higher-ups would call “perfectly neutral”—her vowels soft and long, her Rs a benign compromise between flipped and rolled. “Training takes three weeks,” she told us. “It’s combined accent and culture training; we’ll assume that you come to us with the accent part pretty well taken care of.” In a playfully arch tone, she rattled off the rules: no mobile phones, eating, or drinking. And she would charge us a rupee, she teased, for every non-English word she heard in the classroom. “Any questions so far?”
“When do we get paid?” asked a young man wearing a Nike cap, yellow-tinted sunglasses, and carefully crafted facial stubble. In New York, I would have pegged him as a party promoter from Long Island City.
“Very funny,” Lekha said. “You’ll be paid for your time, including this training, but only after you’ve stayed two months. You know the drill: We wouldn’t want people taking off as soon as training is over.”
Except, it turns out that this is pretty well justified by worker behavior:
During our first cigarette break, Mr. Long Island City revealed that, indeed, his plan was to do precisely that—he’d already gone through this routine at some 15 BPOs around Delhi. “Who needs to stay for the actual work? Plus,” he added, flashing a salacious smile, “that way you meet more girls.”
Okay, think about this one for a moment: It’s not just that some of the employees are unreliable like this fellow and like hopping from one job to another — it’s that well qualified call center workers are in demand enough that companies can’t get away with refusing to hire people who are chronic job-hoppers. Surprisingly for a case of low-wage outsourcing, the power is actually resting with workers here, not employers.
Alright, one more snippet, this one a little longer:
Today, almost half of BPO employees are women, many of whom outearn both of their parents. Free-market cheerleaders, conflating rising wages with rising spirits, are quick to applaud India’s “maturing” markets. But the truth is more complicated: Studies show that once people move out of poverty, increasing wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.
Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis. A BPO salary is contingent on the worker’s ability to de-Indianize: to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it’s company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.
Growing up in Kolkata, Arjuna never got along with his parents. “In America, you guys move away from your family after high school or college,” he said, “but not here.” His family expected him to stay at home, work at the bank where his father worked, and marry his high school sweetheart. Instead, he shocked everyone by moving to Delhi. BPOs aligned with his individualist streak; culture training taught him about societies where young people lived as they pleased. He impressed coworkers with his American accent, and when he got his first paycheck, he tasted the liberating power of disposable income.
Soon, though, his hobbies began to feel hollow. He had lost touch with his family and made few friends. His high school sweetheart stayed in Kolkata and met another guy, but Arjuna had not found a girlfriend in Delhi.
In a long Facebook chat, he told me he was still stuck in the same customer-support job, still verging on depression, and still single. He never could figure out how to date casually, as Americans do; nor could he bring himself to use the matrimonial websites popular in India. “To me, arranged marriage is a joke,” he said.
In a sense, Arjuna is too westernized to be happy in India. He speaks with an American accent, listens to American rock music, and suffers from American-style malaise. In his more candid moments, he admits that life would have been easier if he had hewn to the traditional Indian path. “I spent my youth searching for the real me,” he says. “Sometimes I feel that now I’ve destroyed anything that is the real me, that I am floating somewhere in between.”
Alright, let’s try to parse through this for a moment. Working for call centers that take “outsourced” work from the US allows these college educated Indian young people to make 5x the national average, it gives equal opportunities to women in what has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society, and it allows people greater independence in a culture which has traditionally practiced arranged marriage. Yet, the Mother Jones author feels that this is probably mostly bad because… Well, he’s not really sure why, but it’s caused by Westerners and corporations, so it must be bad, right?
Look, as a conservative the last thing I want to do is suggest that abandoning traditional ways of doing things is without negative consequences, and there are real tensions created as people move from a more traditional society to a more modern one and figure out how to use newfound independence and wealth without destroying themselves and their social structures. (As Shikha Dalmia discusses in this brief clip, this one of the main sources of dramatic conflict in Bollywood movies.)
But the desire of the author to see all of this as somehow victimizing Indian workers and wrenching them away from their traditional occupations almost gives one the impression that he thinks Indians are best off as poor but picturesque workers in the fields — or perhaps more fairly that he would like picturesque National Geographic occupations to somehow result in a US middle class lifestyle.
As I said at the beginning, I was drawn to the subject matter because I actually dealt with call center outsourcing quite a bit at one point. Eight years ago, new to Texas, I landed a job at one of the local tech giants and the first thing I was assigned to do was to audit tech support and customer service calls being taken by their offshore call centers — mostly in India. Our team spent probably six hours a day listening to calls and recording our ratings of them, and the rest of the day writing up analysis on how different call centers were doing and talking with managers in those call centers about how they could do better. All of us on the team were people who’d done at least a little bit of call center work ourselves in the US, and during the year we worked on the project we got to know our Indian counterparts pretty well.
Some things talked about here I can attest to. The competition for these jobs is intense — mainly because they pay so very well by Indian standards. People also sometimes work fairly long hours. (Indeed, we were always trying to get the people we worked with to stop working overtime out of a misplaced desire to deal with all our requests or suggestions immediately rather than the next day.)
What the article doesn’t talk much about (or glosses over with seemingly unknowing references) is the level of pride that a lot of these call center workers have (at least, the one’s fielding tech company tech and customer support calls — probably a cut above people doing bill collection or selling vitamins) both in their work and in how far they’ve come in a short period of time. The ones who are good at what they do (which contra the article is not just a matter of having a good speaking voice, but of being sympathetic, understanding people’s problems quickly, and going out of one’s way to solve the customer’s problems) have a lot of chances for promotion or switching companies. At least at that time, American Express was known for having some of the most skilled and best paid call centers in Bangalore, and we were constantly losing good customer service agents to them.
As with anything, the effects of these kind of global changes are mixed. But portraying the world of Business Process Outsourcing as some sort of cruelty inflicted upon India by evil Corporate America requires ignores the real experiences of the people I got to know while I was working with Indian call centers.