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Hope and Toil at India's Call Centers
Up-All-Night Culture Develops Around Outsourced U.S. Jobs

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."

From late afternoon into early evening, white minivans and sport-utility vehicles line the roads into Gurgaon, transporting call-center employees to work. A security guard often sits in the front seat to escort women. The "U.K. shift" works from late afternoon into night, while those on the "U.S. shift" toil overnight. Workers also are divided into "inbound" (receiving calls) and "outbound" (making calls).

Because of fears of customer identity theft and security breaches, agents leave all personal items -- pens, phones, any scraps of paper -- in lockers upon entry. They operate in highly regulated environments, including drug testing and monitored phone calls. "Tailgating" -- following someone through a door without scanning ID -- is forbidden. Fifteen-minute breaks are allowed every two hours.

"It's not like you can sit back for one hour," said Kapil Khaneja, a senior client servicing manager who has been promoted three times in his four years at Convergys. "You are spending seven hours on the phone."

Managers seem to have absorbed management lessons from their U.S.-based bosses. "They're ruthless," said Pundir, her tone reflecting admiration. "For an organization to sustain, we can't think 'poor thing this' or 'poor thing that.' " In charge of scheduling agents, Pundir said she can't allow her employees to skip work for every religious or family function, as is customary in some Indian companies. Instead, call-center workers take U.S. holidays including Labor Day and Thanksgiving -- but because the rest of India works on those days, they end up hanging out with friends from other call centers.

Supervisors motivate members of their teams with positive feedback and occasional gifts for good performance. As Khaneja offered a tour of his floor, decorated in balloons and a NASCAR theme to celebrate a new client, he gestured toward a glass case displaying employee perks: a silver flask, an Adidas T-shirt, Brut cologne.

Top employees receive weekend getaways at resorts, and high-performing teams can celebrate at company-paid dinners with competitions for "best dressed" or "best dancer."

Convergys managers say they encourage employees to unwind in their free time, offering discounts or passes to movies and restaurants.

On Sunday nights, typically a day off, BPO workers flood Gurgaon's half-dozen or so malls and wander the stores, sometimes waving to each other from passing escalators. They sit in coffee shops such as Cafe Coffee Day and Barista, crowding around bistro tables or onto leather couches. A recent issue of Cafe Coffee Day's newsletter, "Cafe Beat," provided fodder for their conversations: movies, dating, gadgets and gaming. Last month's cover story was on "live-in relationships."

While their parents might have dated or consumed alcohol, younger Indians say they can do so overtly now. In some cases, they also earn more than their parents, allowing for purchases -- jeans, cologne, nightclub admissions -- that would be pricey even by American standards.

"I'm pretty brand-conscious," said Varun Dhamija, 26, a Convergys manager. Like many young Indians, he still lives at home with his parents, in New Delhi. This evening, he wears a Levi's shirt, Levi's socks and a $100 Giordano watch. To date, his favorite purchase was his first car: a Maruti Suzuki hatchback. "When I started that car, it was a great feeling," he said, adding that he took out, and has since paid off, his auto loan.

Because many BPO workers spend their days dealing with Americans and their credit cards, they have a comfort level with debt that other Indians might not. Perhaps he is too comfortable, Dhamija admits. He has six credit cards and transfers balances monthly to "stay afloat," dodging the same collection calls his company often makes.

On her evening off, Pundir puffed on a cigarette at T.G.I. Friday's at a mall here. It had been a typical week at Convergys -- client dinners with the Brits and Americans, training sessions with the Indians. The former English literature major had read "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham" more times than she could count; "they help teach consonant sounds," Pundir said. On this Saturday night, she wanted to relax.

"I'll have an LIT," she said to the waiter, a young man decked out in Friday's signature red stripes and dozens of attitude-laden buttons, including one proclaiming him "too sexy."

The Long Island iced tea plus an order of fish and chips totaled $13, a bit more than the average weekly income in India. But Pundir, the daughter of mango farmers, earns about $20,000 annually. "It is good money at the end of the day," said Pundir, who abandoned her MBA studies because she saw a better career path in call centers. "In 4 1/2 years, I've risen through the ranks."

After dinner, Pundir headed to Elevate, a popular mall nightclub and BPO hangout, where she was joined by Khaneja and his cousin.

In his first call-center job, Khaneja had gone by the name "Steven Mallory," plucked from his favorite book, "The Fountainhead," by Ayn Rand. His supervisor thought "Howard Roark" -- the name of the novel's protagonist -- would be too obvious. Now a manager, Khaneja uses his real name. Last year, he combined his call-center earnings and a 10-year loan to buy his mother and younger sister a house in New Delhi.

The trio entered Elevate after 1 a.m., to find a raging "Hip Hop Hustle" party sponsored by VH1. Khaneja edged his way to the bar and ordered the first round.

"I'm sure we'll see someone we know," Pundir said, sipping on a screwdriver. Within a minute, they encountered Manav and Radhika, two former Convergys staffers who had later married.

A few drinks, a few dances and a few more run-ins later, Khaneja and Pundir parted ways, each getting home after 5 a.m. Even on their day off, they kept their regular bedtime.

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