Feb 2, 2012

Bangalored! [32/365]

Sweatshops: A dirty word that conjures up images of obscure rows of employees sitting hunched over in dark dreary and unhygienic factories in countries like Philippines and Bangladesh.
While the truth is not far from the fiction, sweatshops have evolved into sophisticated work-areas where employees and their working conditions have not changed much.

Bangalore is the ITES sweatshop capital of the world.
I've started my career in a call-center. One of the first in Bangalore, it was when people the Dell call center was still that dream company to work for. We never had cabs the way most companies have now. Sometimes, you'd get a ride in the company's Maruti van or sometimes, the MD's Cielo. Most times, it was BYOA (Bring Your Own A$$) to work and back. But I enjoyed my stint there. I was one of 25 who would try and sell Sony products to American customers who visited our products online. I could easily sell a couple of VAIOs or a $7000 plasma televisions on a regular day.

The company never had the infrastructure or a clue on how to manage it's employee and retain talent. Every time an enterprising rodent chewed on the computer cables, we were simply sent to a nearby cybercafe so that we could continue chatting with our unaware clients. To my clients, I was Nancy. We never had to field questions like 'Are you in India?!' or make much small talk. They just wanted to buy a Sony product and it didn't matter that we were in a rat infested call center in India who had no clue about how the weather in the US was. This was more than a decade ago.

While BPOs and call centers might look a lot better in buildings of glass and metal, with backup plans and improved infrastructure, I often feel much of this is just cosmetic. I have seen companies that encourage their employees to work overtime by paying them 20 times of what they would normally get in as a bonus in their annual appraisals.
I've worked in companies where they pack you ten to a cab that would normally seat only seven plus the driver. I've been in one of those cabs where sandwiched between the co-passenger and the driver and with the gear stick between my legs, I would hope that the driver clutches the right shaft. I've been in companies that mandate that you reach office at least 30 minutes before your shift but could care a rat's ass if you missed your ride back home. Transport and food has always been the bane of every employee in such a company. But of course, the buck is always passed.

If you thought only the folks in garment and manufacturing industries were being slaved, think again.
Surely proponents of the industry can testify at how the average standard of living has increased in India in general and Bangalore in particular since call-centers have arrived. And I agree that this has given jobs, a career and so many other things to millions of graduates like me.
But we aren't that much better than our Chinese counterparts. Our educated boys and girls migrate to cities with dreams of a better life but end up working in call centers that don't serve good food, wont listen to their transport woes and can't guarantee that they wont be fired the next time a 'ramp -down' happens. Many of them live in unscrupulous hostels and dilapidated paying guests that fleece them.

For people outside the industry, if you're working in a call center you have loose morals, an affinity for mobile phones and gadgets and you live a life that disgusts them yet they would tolerate you since you are a source of money for them.
But for people who have survived the industry, they can vouch for how difficult work can get, at how harsh Indian task masters are and how life is generally not as rosy as we make it appear to the world. I know of companies that insist their employees take about 400 calls a day (and that's about 50 calls an hour with an average handle time of 5 minutes or lesser per call) with a constant pressure to excel and not be at the bottom of an archaic performance scale.
Yet, I've referred many of my acquaintances and friends to a call center anytime they wanted a job and I know plenty of people who have done the same. The life may not be great, but it's a great place to start from.

Definitely, many of our call centers are nothing but really sophisticated sweatshops but I shudder to think where the world would have been without India, her million call centers, the billion graduates and the zillion puns and jokes about the Indian accent.

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