Indians Trade Health for Jobs

By Rajesh Mahapatra
Associated Press
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NEW DELHI -- The job came with a good salary and good perks.

But, Vaibhav Vats, 26, will tell you, it was doing him no good. His weight had grown to 265 pounds, and he was missing out on social life as he worked long overnight hours at a call center. Eventually, he quit.

"You are making nice money. But the tradeoff is also big," said Vats, who spent nearly two years at IBM's call center in India, answering customer calls from the United States.

Call centers and other outsourced businesses such as software writing, medical transcription and back-office work employ more than 1.6 million men and women in India, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who make much more than their contemporaries in most other professions.

They are, however, facing sleep disorders, heart disease, depression and family discord, according to doctors and industry surveys.

Experts say the brewing crisis could undermine the success of India's hugely profitable outsourcing industry, which earns billions of dollars annually and has shaped much of the country's transformation into an emerging economic power.

Heart disease, strokes and diabetes cost India an estimated $9 billion in lost productivity in 2005. But the losses could increase to $200 billion over the next 10 years if corrective action is not taken quickly, said a study by New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

The outsourcing industry would be hardest hit, it said. Reliable estimates on the number of people affected are hard to come by, but government officials and experts agree that it is a growing problem.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss wants to enforce a special health policy for employees in the information technology industry. "After working, they party for the rest of the time . . . have bad diet, excessive smoking and drinking," he said at a public meeting last month. "We don't want these young people to burn out."

The minister's comments have infuriated the technology sector, which says it has been unfairly singled out for problems that also exist in other businesses.

The outsourcing industry has come under fire because the sedentary lifestyle of its employees combined with often stressful working conditions makes them more vulnerable to heart disease, digestive problems and weight gain than others. Some complain of psychological distress.

Most call center jobs involve responding to phone calls through the night from customers in the United States and Europe -- some of whom can be angry and rude. It is monotonous, and there is little meaningful personal interaction among co-workers. That can also be true of other jobs such as software writing and back-office work.

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