Hope and Toil at India's Call Centers

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By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

GURGAON, India -- As fireworks boomed across nearby New Delhi and families lit candles and incense and prayed late into the evening, thousands of call-center agents reported to work at a gleaming office tower here. Donning headsets and fake American names, they placed and fielded phone calls to and from the United States, collecting bills, selling products and raising credit limits.

For a few minutes each shift, though, the workers hurried outside to take part in their own celebration. Under a massive tent, a deejay spun beats including Punjabi folk music and the imported sounds of R&B artist Usher. Dozens crowded the dance floor and lined up at buffet stations and arcade games. It was Diwali, after all, and the Hindu festival of lights couldn't pass unmarked at Convergys, the Ohio-based operator of one of India's largest call centers.

"We celebrate here as if we are family," said Shweta Pundir, a 27-year-old training manager at Convergys. "This is like home."

In India, call centers are part of a burgeoning industry known as "business process outsourcing," or BPO -- a new world created by a rush of foreign investment as Western companies outsource functions such as customer care and billing services. But the emerging subculture of call-center workers reveals that the United States has exported more than jobs and products to India -- it has exported values, as well. Call centers have brought new wealth to India, but they are also fostering a cultural backlash, as the country's young, hip BPO workers run up against the traditions of the older generations.

Companies such as Convergys now employ more than 5,000 in India to perform "back-office" functions. This suburb south of New Delhi also boasts offices for International Business Machines Corp., General Electric Co., American Express Co. and Nestle SA. The Indian twenty-somethings laboring in these call centers not only work together -- they also drink together, dance together, date one another and, most important, understand one another. Their jobs compel them to cultivate American pronunciations and keep up with U.S. pop culture. They have their own hybrid vocabulary. ("No probs, yaar" means "no problem, my friend.") And they have boundless expectations about where their new careers can take them.

But not everyone rejoices at these new employment opportunities. Citing low pay and dead-end jobs, India's most popular news portal declared recently that call centers have "cons more than pros." A television talk show probed whether such centers are no more than "swanky sweatshops." And in a best-selling novel, "One Night @ The Call Center," two BPO workers quit to open their own company, saying they were sick of working all night for Americans in jobs with no potential.

As more call centers and multinationals enter India, the agents have become hot commodities, switching jobs and commanding steep salary hikes along the way. This, along with their spending and partying, has fueled a popular image of BPO workers as greedy and individualistic.

The reputation of call-center agents has plummeted in India over the past year, said Vishal Manchanda, who heads the India office of Arlington-based Cvent, an online event management firm. "It used to be if you said you were a team lead, a girl's family was impressed," he said. "Now, increasingly, it's being nullified. It's like the dot-com bubble which burst. . . . An associate or an agent is just a spoke in the wheel."

Observers say the sudden debate over call centers stems from longer-term changes in Indian society since the nation's economy opened up in 1991. Older Indians lament that their children are too busy, with no time for weddings, holidays or relatives. While young people's social life used to revolve around family, now it increasingly focuses on friends and work.

"The average Indian youth today is more outward-looking, more confident, more liberal in terms of attitudes and values and social norms" compared with 20 years ago, said Sunil Mehta, vice president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies. "It is a phenomenon of the Indian youth, rather than a phenomenon of BPO. But these characteristics might be more amplified by people who work in the BPO sector."

Call-center workers insist that they need not choose between their jobs and their traditions.

"Why is this industry so looked down upon?" said Pundir, the Convergys training manager. "I am so close to my culture now. There are things we've learned from our colleagues in the U.S. like time management, but I celebrate more of the festivals at work than I did before."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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