Call Centres: A Phone Call Leading to Nowhere?

It’s been a while since we got familiarized with the term. It’s a household phrase; each one of us has either worked in one, or knows someone who is a part of the industry. Not a conspicuous phenomenon as such, certainly not so recent, nothing abrupt about it, nor would you associate adjectives like ‘dramatic’ or ‘unforeseen’ with it. Now, why would someone choose to write about it, after all these years?
The advent of call centres in India can be traced as further as the late 90s. Aptly coined as ‘Indian Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES)’, call centres have come a long way from being another industry addition; they are an integral aspect of the ‘feel good’ India. It all started when the US-based companies discovered a cheaper alternative for voice-based processes by outsourcing jobs to countries like India, Philippines, Malaysia and China.

The boom was exponential. The number of call centres exploded from a mere 40 to 800 within three years with more and more western companies jumping onto the bandwagon. For them, it meant paying lesser wages, about 30-40% less than the local counterpart. It was never all one-way traffic. The structure of our economy allowed this industry to flourish. There is no dearth of undergraduates in India armed with good communication skills. Most of them live with the burden of holding ‘just an undergraduate degree’ as if it is some sort of social stigma. A call centre job translated into easy money and unexpectedly large amounts it. The industry managed to captivate the imagination of the fresh undergrad who would be on the hunt for a head start. The proposition was too lucrative to resist, compounded by the fact that degree of difficulty as far as the work was concerned appeared to be a cakewalk, compared to what employees would end up getting paid, everyone thought they were in for a joyride.

Call centres mushroomed thick and fast in the metros and smaller cities alike. There were a host of major multinational corporations and more enterprising, new companies that set up offices. A majority of the employees working in call centres were youngsters, estimated to be falling under the age group of 18 to 25. The industry expanded manifold gradually. Knowledge Processing Outsourcing (KPOs), debt collection and other such processes were fresh additions to the fold.

The initial spurt could not be ignored. The ITES sector was welcomed with arms wide open, looked upon as the next big thing and appeared to be a saviour for the work deprived, ‘qualified but not qualified enough’ breed who wanted to belong. They had found their calling. The sector created instant job openings. The industry barely registered any gestation period whatsoever as one did not have to possess critical technical skills in order to be a part of it, training was conducted in abundance to make you floor-ready. In the instant gratification sense, it had been a perfect shot in the arm for the people and the economy. The average youngster was happy because he/she had found the perfect way to earn the extra pocket-money while studying, as the world purred in collective slumber, the Government did not mind at all because it had partially managed to solve the perennial unemployment woes. The conglomerates were saving massive amounts.

It fitted with the Government’s ideology of ‘India Shining’ and the ITES sector was a flagship model of what the newly empowered youth could achieve armed with deeper pockets. At around the same time, consumption patterns of luxury goods registered a significant crest on the graphs. Suddenly, all those elusive products which one could only stare at became accessible. The dress windows at shopping malls separating the awestruck, wishful teenagers from the dresses had vaporized. Everyone was buying without much critical thought being given to the decision-making process; the retailers sported extremely wide grins, ear to ear, year by year. It all seemed to be a rosy picture. India, as they said, was truly shining, finally!

A few years down the line, the initial sheen had worn off and the cracks had begun to show. Working in a call centre had its own pitfalls and it suddenly wasn’t so glamorous anymore. The common parlance of the industry, which consisted of a smattering of terms such as Average call wrap, qualitative indicator, degree of call flow, pseudo names, etc., was slowly looked upon as a dehumanizing, stifling mechanism which took a toll on the employee. The long hours of sedentary inertia, odd working hours, lack of job recognition, constant pressure to perform was beginning to get on the nerves of the employees. It was unimaginable for teenagers to deal with the possibility of being afflicted by life threatening, persistent ailments. The other aspect that had come to the fore was the one concerning job security. Call centre jobs, as people discovered over the years, came with a shadow of relocation looming large. There were always chances that the clients could ship the jobs to someplace cheaper, if they did find someone who was willing to work for less. The work turned out to be fickle, unrewarding, draining and monotonous. Quite a few strong opinions have been raised by concerned groups over the years regarding the same, call centre work has been labelled as ‘low grade’ jobs and beneath our merit. The whole working class was even termed as ‘cyber coolies’, faceless, nameless numbers that did the boring work. They were looked down upon as nothing but cheaper alternatives, more so by the western countries, which were not impressed by the job cuts it was leading to in the source economies.

The industry has come a long way ever since. The initial clichés still hold firm ground. I could always feel a sense of repulsion crawling across the horror-filled faces of my folks whenever they read about an unfortunate victim of the seemingly merciless industry. To them, it was always about the darker side of life, all those things that a nice kid should not dabble with. On being told that you work in a call centre, people would be a bit baffled, would either ask you if you did something else for a living as well, or advise you that it was about time you got a ‘real’ job?