Vantage point

Friday, November 18, 2005

Let them live their lives!

For the past few months, there has been a bizarre and noisy media campaign of sorts targetting the BPO industry, more specifically the call centers. The noise has reached a crescendo after Chetan Bhagat's latest book was released.

People feel that the work in call centres is only about answering phones, and offers no satisfaction or growth or whatever. People expressing these opinions, will also, at other times exprss sentiments like "In Western countries, there is dignity in labour. No job is considered bad. Even plumbers, postmen, bus drivers etc are considered respectable people". Which is why the whole point behind trashing the nature of work in a call centre is lost on me. It is important work. It is necessary in the day-to-day lives of everyone. Customer service is of vast importance in today's marketplace. Now that we pay bills, book air tickets, and even rail tickets through call centers or back offices, how can we dismiss BPO work as below dignity.

In my opinion, this whole call-centre-bashing exercise is an unconscious expression of the deeprooted prejudices in our collective minds put in place due to the caste system. The whole idea of the caste system was, only a few jobs are respectable. All other jobs, be they menial or trade-related, were secondary. So what a brahmin does was admirable, while what the cunning sahukar or the filthy shudra does, was not.

These very prejudices led to the Indian middle class placing too much emphasis on medicine, bureaucracy, engineering and charterd accountancy as the A-grade professions. This unnatural order was further maintained due to the socialist policies of the state which led to unemployment as well as underemployment. So most people with a "mere" BA or BCom or BSc could not aspire to earn more than 1/4th of what an engineer earns. And no one thought there was anything wrong with that.

With the coming of even slightly free market policies, this changed. Improvements in technology made outsourcing a viable...rather a necessary practice. It started with software projects. Indian engineers through Indian companies worked on foreign projects and got paid good salaries. Everyone applauded. Suddenly "software engineer" or "programmer" were added to the A-grade list. The "brainy" engineers were now doing even better work than the early days.

But then call centers came. Anybody who spoke english, or even showed a willingness to learn could now earn good money. Thousands and lakhs of "lower" graduates, even under-grad students, could just work in a call centre and earn as much money as the software engineers!

A plush restaurant, an expensive discotheque on a weekend, mobile showrooms, car showrooms, apparel showrooms..... all these domains which were earlier restricted only to the engineer-doctor-types or the rich-kids were now invaded by hordes of call centre employees. The "caste system" was breaking down.

So naturally a softare engineer would ask himself.... here I slog to get into an engineering college, then slog to get an engineering degree, the slog to get placed, and now I slog writing code. This fellow didn't give two hoots about his graduation, whiled his time away, had to deal with much simpler course material in college, and now all he has to do is turn up for an interview, answer phone calls in a foreign accent, and get the same pay as me? Where is the justice in this world?

It is this sort of subconscious thinking that makes us all take potshots at the call centre employees

"Just answering phones....what a dumb job....I would never do it!!"
"Working all night and sleeping during the day...what a screwed up life man"
"Answering phones in a foreign accent... I am sure they must be facing an identity crisis"
"Where is the scope for growth in that business yaar? You just answer phones all your life!"
"You know, they dont have holidays for diwali, ganpati!!!!"
"No social life for call center people"
"Such a pathetic life, no wonder attrition rate is so high"
"This call center boom is just a phase. soon it will move to some other country"

I suggest we all lighten up. Let people work in call centres. That business will, like other businesses, have its own set of problems. Why highlight and exaggerate them unnecessarily? In which well-paying profession in India today, is there a healthy work-life balance? In which sector are employees not under stress? In which industry would there not be many job changes if there were lucrative options?

The call center folks are being unfairly put under the third-degree-lamp. And sadly, it is being done as a knee-jerk reaction without any logical reasoning or respect for factual accuracy.

For instance, I heard Chetan Bhagat say on TV "Call center jobs are there in India because no one in the West wants to do those jobs". I wonder if he followed the 2004 US Presidential elections where outsourcing was made a big issue because it was thought of as "job stealing". So if the jobs are so unwanted in the US, Mr. Bhagat, why is there a hue and cry over their being stolen?

Let us not argue backwards from our conclusions. Let the call center fellows live their lives.

Update: A reader sent in this link which talks about life in the Indian software industry.