Are call centers in India slave ships?

There was a report published in late 2005 that compared work in the Indian Business Process Outsourcing industry to Roman slave ships. An article on that report can be found here.

Now I had written a comment on a post the Indian Economy blog that I happened to bump into again today. I was exasperated then that people in India considered call centers to be a good thing and took it as a matter of 'national pride' rather than to look at it objectively.

I incidentally, worked in the Indian software outsourcing industry, with a pretty large Anglo-Dutch software services firm and my experience, even in that company, was that organsational processes were still far behind what the west takes as standard.

My impressions of the Indian software/process outsourcing industry are (adapted from the earlier comment),

The good:
1. They have provided jobs to previously unemployed people
2. They provide better job environments than other industries

These points aside, we must look at the report in an encouraging way. Sure, there have been unqualified comparisons - “slave labour” and working like “coolies”. But lets not argue over the grammar, let us instead look at the basis of the report.

I have read, and I support the findings of this report, especially, with regards to working conditions.

Some of you (those who are in India and support the BPO industry) might dispute the fact that working conditions in Indian BPOs are equivalent (or in some cases even better than) to similar enterprises in the West. While there might be a few exceptions, I disagree that this is a general trend.

For instance, how many of us - who work (or worked) in BPO/IT sectors in India, can say that our Health and Safety is well looked after?

1. Fire - In my FTSE100 office, my building was apparently protected against fire and we had fire marshalls - however, on my floor, there was a fire exit door that was kept locked and none of us were given information about safety or health issues in the orientation week. On top of that, considering that fire departments in India are ill-maintained even where they exist, one would expect the multinational companies who come to hire thousands of staff, to provide for better arrangements than elsewhere - however, these are often much worse.

We had an instance where the global CEO visited our office. I remarked to one of my colleagues that the company had gone so far as to rent (yes, rent) some fire extinguishers especially for that event. Fire extinguishers were rented because before that we had empty placeholders - with no extinguishers in them. Okay, granted, after the CEO visit ended, and some time passed, fire extinguishers were bought and the office was equipped. Still, you would not have a lapse like this in a London office of the same company.

About emergency lighting - the less said the better, these did not exist initially, and were only provided later once perhaps they received budgetary sanction.

2. Disability - The issue of disabled friendly buildings, or offices, is ridiculously enough, a complete non-issue in India. Again, we do not have laws or government mandates in this area, but one would again expect that international organisations, with established practices in the rest of the world, would transmit some of that to developing countries as well. But no, this is not the case.

In my office of 3500 people, I counted two disabled people. Thats an incredibly low ratio for a job where most of us sit around at a computer and write code all day.

Diversity of staff can still be blamed on demographics, i.e. not a huge number of disabled people qualify as technical experts in India. However, one would expect office bildings to have ramps, to have entrances and exits that allow for the passge of disabled people. The companies that operate in India, go so far as to create new office locations and customised workstations for people without limbs or sight, but in India, these issues are laughed at.

3. Workplace - I had the fortune to get introduced to Dr. Deepak Sharan, a doctor who treats repetitive stress injuries in Bangalore. I myself had suffered from Carpel Tunnel syndrome earlier and my girlfriend was (and still is, unfortunately) suffering from RSI.

Speaking to Dr. Sharan, I realized that he had conducted a survey that found that a majority (over 60% if I remember) of people who worked in the IT/BPO sector in India, suffered from some form of stress injury as a result of badly designed workstations and ignorance of the management.

I tried to counter some of that by arranging for him to come to our office and speak to the staff to make them aware. The response was phenomenal and the thanks I received from the people who had been suffering but had not been aware, made it totally worth it.

However, upon trying to get some feedback from project managers in my company, I was summoned to the HR director's cabin and asked to keep it down as such things 'demotivate' employees. The HR directors point was that the office was ergonomically designed (my opinion: it was not. far from it) and that people do not get injured from tapping on keyboards (ya right).

Anyway, there were only so many causes I could fight for.

There were a number of other instances where the attitude of the management was clearly agitated to any initiative that could, in their opinion, demonize them somehow. The attitude was this cannot be changed because if it is changed then it would appear that I was to blame for the earlier faults.

This is an attitude pervasive in Indian software and BPO companies. Everyone looks towards the bright side but forgets there is another story, one that few of us can see and even fewer talk about.

I had the fortune to work for, what I believe was a 'better' company in terms of its policies and structure. I have heard stories and met people, who were not as lucky as me, and their experiences, were directly affected as a result of the single minded focus on sales/profits and the illusion that Indian human resource could last forever.

Oh and did I mention that in the Indian IT/BPO sector, managers frequently refer to people as resources? Their ridiculously archaic English knowledge and perhaps their insensitivity, means that they frequently, in all staff meetings and reports and the like, mention that they require 20 resources (when they mean people) or that they hired 200 resources the previous month, or even worse, that one resource has left their team but two new resources are on their way in.

The Indian software and BPO industries are on a slave ship and they're so ecstatic that their ships are going to America that they do not see how hard they have to row or how many of us perish on the way.

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  1. My dear friend, I see the agony and the pain you took to write this blog. Well drafted and we versed....however i am not sure what era you are talking about. For the past 6 years i have been working for an Indian IT company and to say the least i am very satisfied.

    You are comparing them with the slave ships......... i could not help but a days the IT companies have there own fire safety mechanisms and hey don't rely on local fire a visit to Indian IT DCs....its a new world to which you should open our eyes...

  2. Good informative post....thanks for sharing your nice article.

  3. Good info article thanks for taking so much of time in creating it.

    For your Outsourcing in BPO & Contact centers

  4. Great article thanks a lot for posting.

    Keep it up.

    For your Outsourcing needs in BPO & Callcenters

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