India Call Centers Struggle with Western Workload
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?