India Call Centers Struggle with Western Workload

Discussion
Oct 16, 2007

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network

Staff in call centers in India are struggling with the effects of working for Western businesses. A combination of night shifts, erratic eating patterns and taking the brunt of disgruntled customers’ outpourings have resulted in such a high level of illness that government ministers are now drafting a new health policy to protect them. An industry charter is being drawn up to take preventative action, possibly including regular health checks by employers.

According to the U.K.’s Times, “the
problem is so acute that some estimates suggest that £100 billion could be wiped
off India’s national income unless more is done to protect the health of its
workers.” Anbumani Ramadoss, the Health Minister, said of the IT sector, “It’s the fastest-growing industry in our country but it is most vulnerable to lifestyle diseases. Its future growth could be stunted if we don’t address the problem now.”

The Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations recently reported that “burnout is common, with three out of ten workers changing jobs every year. One in seven is forced to leave the industry altogether because of stress. Some develop diabetes. Common complaints include sleeping disorders, voice loss, digestive problems, repetitive strain injury, blurred vision, headaches and dizziness.”

Differing time zones often mean working long shifts, right through the night, which eventually takes a bitter toll. Divorce rates among IT employees in Bangalore have risen four-fold in the past three years. Many call center workers are in their twenties and experiencing a range of problems previously unknown in that age group. Serious illnesses include a drastically higher incidence of heart attacks, depression, suicide, diabetes and insomnia. Not having much opportunity to exercise and a steady diet of junk food are also being blamed for higher obesity levels.

Devendra Saharia, who runs an outsourcing center in Madras with 1,500 employees, told the Times that companies are doing what they can to improve work environments because there is a shortage of talent. Some companies provide gyms, yoga classes, salad bars and door-to-door. Others have counseling hotlines and work-life balance policies. But it remains to be seen whether officials are convinced and regulation can be avoided.

For Western companies that outsource call center work to India, the situation could be considered analogous to the use of sweatshop labor for manufacturing. By and large it has been consumer advocacy that has put pressure on apparel manufacturers to, in turn, force improvements in working conditions overseas.


Discussion questions: To what degree should American retailers try to influence the conditions of Indian call centers to which they outsource their work? Do you expect pressure from consumer groups in this area? How do you see a possible crackdown in poor working conditions affecting customer service for U.S. companies dependent on Indian call centers?

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13 Comments on "India Call Centers Struggle with Western Workload"


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David Livingston
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

I agree with Doron. We don’t need to get involved. The whole point of having call centers in India is to save money and to spare our own citizens from having to do such jobs. What we consider poor working conditions in this country are considered good working conditions in India. Let’s not mess with success. Most likely, the speaking skill of those working in Indian call centers would be superior to comparable paid workers in the US. All we need is to hear them on the phone. We don’t need to get involved in changing their culture.

Giacinta Shidler
Guest
Giacinta Shidler
14 years 7 months ago

I find the question of “consumer backlash” ironic, considering it is irate and abusive consumers who are contributing to the poor working conditions. Call center jobs are emotionally stressful and draining and there is always high turnover, whether in the U.S. or India. The issues are different than in a sweatshop environment.

The article listed numerous health problems, including increased obesity, diabetes and susceptibility to heart attacks. This trend has been plaguing Americans for some time. I don’t think the average American consumer is going to feel exceptional alarm and concern over this news.

Also, consumers have already, multiple times expressed their frustration with outsourced call centers. Whatever pressure they have brought to bear has not convinced the retailers to close down the Indian call centers and I don’t see that changing.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 7 months ago

American companies outsourced to Indian call centers to save money. Saving money frequently implies someone is making less, working under conditions that are less optimum, and in this situation talking to disgruntle customers. This apparently is happening and it is taking its toll. It’s a serious matter and now we are hearing an “Indian Love Call” (with apologies to Nelson Eddy, Janette MacDonald and Rudolf Friml.) The situation occurring in India is undesirable, regrettable and possibly locally-correctable. Should Americans be expected to be the world’s ethical policemen–even though we may try?

Cliff Popp
Guest
Cliff Popp
14 years 7 months ago

Given the declining condition of the U.S. healthcare system, I can’t imagine American consumers are going to take kindly to any wellness or compensation program that American companies would provide for burnt out or ill workers in India or anywhere else outside the country. Corporations with call centers overseas are facing a slippery slope when considering the potential consumer backlash this poses.

Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
Guest
Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
14 years 7 months ago

Check it out:
http://outsourcedthemovie.com/ I give it 4 stars, and two thumbs up.

Gregory Belkin
Guest
Gregory Belkin
14 years 7 months ago

I couldn’t agree more with Jerry, above. If we expect the same level of greatness from our international counterparts as we do with our US-based workforce, we need to treat them with equal respect. If these workers are suffering some physical and emotional challenges from working, we should do our best to be accommodating.

I would argue that this extends to compensation-based issues as well. The salary we pay to these workers should be, if nothing else, competitive with similar positions in similar locations.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
14 years 7 months ago

A certain degree of moral concern is warranted. “White collar” workers in India are no less important than those in China or Latin America and retailers should be concerned that contractors are providing decent wages and working conditions.

However, retailers can’t be the world’s policemen. It is up to the Indian government and companies in the country to take the proper steps toward treating all workers fairly. We can suggest but we cannot legislate or force the issue.

I understand the issues impacting call center workers and overseas clients. It’s probably why such work is a temporary situation for young Indians. However, if you want to read something truly frightening, read the article in the October 15 issue of the Financial Times about the continuation of the Indian caste system. This is a centuries old system of segregation and prejudice that is being perpetuated by the government and “upper classes.” Let’s hear some moral indignation about this when we consider offshoring services.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
14 years 7 months ago

None! Our cultures are vastly different than India and the companies that ‘sold’ their services to North American companies should have been aware of the demands consumers put on customer service reps. I would say that if I was a CEO and was asked to put in some sort of concession, I would pull the contract immediately and bring the business back in house. The feeling I’m getting is that overseas call centers are not doing the sterling job they once were and customer frustrations are high with these types of outfits. Nobody knows your product or service better than you and your employees and associates. When a rep is handling Dell computers in the morning and then checking Amazon orders in the afternoon, how can they possibly provide the best and most knowledgeable service?

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
14 years 7 months ago
Chinese manufacturing entities and Indian call centers are utilized by American companies for one primary reason–they think they’re a cheaper option. As is becoming more well understood, “cheaper” is not always better and often can prove quite costly in the long run if customers are lost forever. The early call center contracts and the early manufacturing contracts were highly structured, quite specialized, used the best available resources and measured for quality at both ends. They worked well for all concerned. After a while, second and even third tier organizations got into the picture without adequate controls. This situation is exacerbated by greed and over-promising on the part of both providers and buyers of the services. Yes there is a backlash. I am aware of two large corporations which have recently pulled back call center contracts from India because of customer complaints. Receiving boiler plate scripted answers to customer inquiries does not serve to enhance anyone’s health and well-being, and an escalation process usually does not exist. Let’s hope to see fewer but higher quality contracts… Read more »
Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
14 years 7 months ago

Welcome to Information Technology “American Style.” IT professionals in the US have no less stress. Unfortunately, it’s a cut throat business no matter where you live. Bring the jobs back home.

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

All of my clients who use overseas outsourcers for telephone work improve their results by (1) interviewing all candidates by phone before they are assigned to the account (2) training and testing all newly assigned folks before they handle real customers and (3) frequent review, coaching, and problem solving with the overseas workers and supervisors. In other words, even if the overseas outsourced staff is never seen face to face with their American employers, they can be screened, trained, reviewed, coached, and generally managed as if they are regular employees in America. You can pay them bonuses, and you can also get the unacceptable performers disciplined and/or removed. You can also determine their work hours. Or you can treat the whole relationship as an arm’s length remote cattle call, never forming any personal relationship with anyone. If you use the latter technique, the results will show.

David Biernbaum
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

Many western based companies have unrealistic expectations for the India based call centers. Many of the basic needs are effectively answered by the call centers, however, some types of customer problems need to be handled by the company more directly, even though the cost is higher. The India based call centers try very hard to do it all for western companies, however, in certain situations the cost savings for the western company will backfire, because the outsourced India based call center is following a boiler plate dialog plan, that does not effectively resolve customer issues.

Jerry Tutunjian
Guest
Jerry Tutunjian
14 years 7 months ago

When we talk about sustainability and corporate responsibility these days, working conditions at developing countries–which produce some grocery SKUs or product ingredients–are considered part of the same agenda. Call centres fall in the same category. Nobody wants to see the product/service provider being treated unfairly.

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