Calling time on India's pending crisis

Enthusiastic, and fresh-faced on the way in, they are bitter, disillusioned and unsure of their identities when they leave. Is India's call centre industry killing the country?

Shilpi leaves for work at 11. Not in the morning as you might assume, but at night.
At a time when the rest of the country is getting ready to go to bed, Shilpi prepares for a eight-hour shift in a high-tech warehouse.

Call centres have given "night life" a new meaning to India's youth.

Over 100,000 20-somethings are now employed by various call centre giants that have mushroomed across the country to serve businesses in the West.

It is easy to see how.

With five figure salaries, pay hikes of as much as 30 per cent a year and almost no qualifications required, fresh graduates here have a good thing going.

Or do they?

Despite the hefty pay packets, burn-out rates are unacceptably high.

In one Delhi call centre as many as 200 people quit in the last month alone. And, as of now, there are some 50 court cases pending against call centre owners filed by frustrated former employees, according to a senior call centre executive.

So where did the dream sour?

That depends on who you talk to.

Disgruntled former employees - victims of burnout - complain HR departments were so busy hiring more graduates to feed rising demand that they ignored the ones already working for them.

But it is a problem that Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies - call centres to you and me - are obviously worried about.

This is largely because it costs nearly Rs50,000 (USD$1,010) to train each employee.

With a 30 per cent attrition rate, these companies are now seeing their bottom lines rapidly shrinking.

A typical workday for recruits to this new army starts anytime between 2300 and 0200.

After an eight-hour shift, they pack up, head home and go to sleep. Then wake up late afternoon or early evening for a bite, some TV, maybe a few phone calls and then it is back for another night at work.

"Your social life goes for six," says Sujit Baksi, president of the India division of the US-based call centre provider, vCustomer Corporation.

Employers have been trying their best to compensate by creating a friendly environment for their employees.

Companies like GE Capital Services have been recruiting friends and family members of existing employees.

Most call centres also try to create a congenial work environment with picnics, get-togethers and out-of-station trips.

On-site cafeterias serve free beverages and food. One call centre even goes so far as to host its employees' weddings.

But even this has its limitations.

Employees' spouses often complain of being left out of work events while employees themselves say there is little point in having their relatives and friends work with them when they don't get a minute off the phone they are assigned to.

"There is a limit to which people can be pushed," says Sushma Nanda, a Delhi-based psychologist who claims as many as three-dozen call centre employees have come to her for regular help.

Nanda recently opened an office in Gurgaon so that she could be closer to her growing client base.

Since this is typically a first job for graduates, many don't want - or perhaps expect - to be pushed so hard, especially for what they see as a dead-end job, despite the perks.

Salaries might be hiked periodically but the work remains monotonous.

A large number of people claim such work takes too much of a toll on them and after time they cede they would rather work in a lower-paying, less stressful environment.

Accents remain a problem for almost all call centre workers too.

One of the leading reasons for Delhi's emergence as a destination for BPOs is the neutral accent of Indians there.

However, within the US there are at least a dozen regional accent variations and ditto in the UK.

According to accent trainer Ruchika Madan - who has made a fortune teaching Indian call centre employees to speak with American accents - most young Indians adopt to their new accent easily, thanks to life-long exposure to Hollywood.

Indeed some call centres make their workers sit through hours of Friends re-runs to accustom them to American lifestyle and behaviour.

But what is the impact of this potentially devastating change in cultural identity?

According to psychologist Nina Dhar, more and more young call centre workers have been left depressed and disoriented by their pseudo-Western persona.

Jyoti becomes Gina as soon as she picks up the phone.

Switching to a Texan drawl, she wishes the caller a happy Thanksgiving and inquires about the latest NFL scores.

Nanda says acting and speaking like Americans can have long-term effects on the individual concerned.

At least three of her clients became delusional and imagined themselves as real Americans.

Raghu Nagpal says he hangs out in Gurgaon malls during afternoons, his only free time. He says he tries to impress girls with his American accent and his new "cool" nickname, Rage.

The BPO and call centre industry in India currently employs some 180,000 of these people, mostly under 25 years old.

It will require at least 80,000 more each year for the foreseeable future as business booms and an estimated 35,000 make the choice to reclaim themselves from their work.

Even the most vocal call centre critics agree that the herds of young people working night shifts will keep on increasing regardless of the warning from their older and wiser counterparts.

India is not only a cheap place for Western businesses to outsource customer service centers to, it is also a place where employers have the pick of two million college new graduates a year.

Unless something is done to curb the country's revolving door scenario of fresh-faced graduates in and bitter, burned out ex-call centre operators out, India's race for business dominance could be a subterranean social crisis just waiting to happen.