Hope to despair: the experience of organizing Indian call centre employees.

AuthorD'Cruz, Premilla
PositionBy Contribution - Abstract


The rapid growth of India's IT Enabled Service-Business Process Outsourcing (ITES-BPO) sector has drawn the attention of several researchers whose foci have spanned varied aspects such as cultural transformation and identity formation of employees (Cohen &El-Sawad, 2007; D'Cruz & Noronha, 2006; McMillin, 2006; Mirchandani, 2004; Poster, 2007; Ramesh, 2004), emotional labor (D'Cruz & Noronha, 2008), gender (Ng & Mitter, 2005; Patel, 2006), management practices (Batt, Doellgast & Kwon, 2005; Budhwar, Varma, Singh & Dhar, 2006, D'Cruz & Noronha, 2012), organizational control (D'Cruz & Noronha, 2006) and union formation (James & Vira, 2010; Noronha & D'Cruz, 2006; Taylor & Bain, 2008; Taylor, Noronha, Scholarios & D'Cruz, 2008). However, work on union activity still remains limited both in India and abroad. Bain and Taylor (2002) attribute this neglect to the more general perception that unions have become marginal organizations. In fact, in some countries like Germany call centers have been used to escape from the existing collective agreements or challenge to traditional regulatory constraints (Shire et al, 2002). However, in the UK established collective bargaining arrangements have been transferred from other parts of the existing companies to captive call centre operations (James & Vira, 2010). This success of union activity in captive call centers has been extended to employees of third-party call centers despite the significant employer hostility (Taylor & Bain, 2003). Nonetheless, this achievement in the UK has not been replicated by the established labor unions in India (James & Vira, 2010) despite the fact that India's call centre workers experience greater workplace indignities than their counterparts in the UK (Taylor & Bain, 2005).

Indian ITES-BPO employers have vociferously argued that the formation of unions would only threaten the flow of foreign direct investment into India, spelling disaster for the fledgling industry in the country. Hence, the introduction of third-party intervention does not augur well for its future. Further, unions are irrelevant to the ITES-BPO sector employees as employers provide exceptionally good work environments and the sophisticated human resource management strategies take care of the interests of employees (Noronha & D'Cruz, 2009b).

It was in this unfavorable context that UNITES Professional (henceforth re ferred to as UNITES in this paper) came into existence in September 2005. Some argue that the alternative occupational organizing model (James & Vira, 2010) of this new union which accounted for the socially constructed 'professional' identity (D'Cruz & Noronha, 2006; Noronha & D'Cruz, 2009 a) was better positioned to confront the new realities of work and employment in India's new service economy than the traditional collective bargaining model (Taylor & Bain, 2008) known to India's established labor unions (James & Hira, 2010) given the inherent contradiction of being termed a professional while performing call centre work (Noronha & D'Cruz, 2009 b).

This paper analyses whether UNITES really lived up to its reputation of being a torch bearer in organizing call centre employees and how its strategies were influenced by everyday work context of call centre employees and their socially constructed identity of being professional. The analysis is based on extensive fieldwork over a period of 8 years and in-depth interviews with union officials and more than 200 employees working in the ITES-BPO sector, though the article focuses on call centre employees.

Techno-bureaucratic Controls

Technology dominates the work context and work experience of call centre agents. The automated call distribution (ACD) system distributes calls, queues numbers and displays waiting times (Taylor & Bain, 2005), thus, systematizing control and possessing the power to push and pace work (Callaghan & Thompson, 2001), while simultaneously enabling management to set and measure daily output without the need for constant and direct control (van der Broek, 2004). Technology-based mechanisms also allowed the monitoring of targets, setting the average handling time (AHT) of the call, call wrap-up time, call waiting time and calculation of call abandonment rates. Moreover, since all calls are recorded and stored in archives, calls could be retrieved at any time and analyzed for the purpose of evaluation and appraisal. It was not uncommon for recorded calls to be randomly pulled out by analysts in the quality department and be examined for customer interaction including sensitivity, politeness, warmth, understanding customer needs, handling irate customers, adherence to the script, fluency in English language, understanding of the process, use of a neutral accent, maintenance of prescribed procedures including assistance offered and information provided, accuracy of documentation, and other parameters specified by the client in the service level agreement (SLA) signed with vendor organizations.

However, the employment of call centre technology as a monitoring and measurement device did not spell the end of human supervision. In addition, to having a master screen on their computers which tracked and highlighted in real time the ongoing work of each individual agent in the team, TLs stationed at a central point on the call floor, were always in a position to overlook the operations and keep an eye on the agents. Call barging (where TLs, quality analysts and other superiors and in some cases even clients listen in simultaneously but remotely on live calls to evaluate agents' performance) and side-jacking (where TLs, quality analysts and other superiors physically sit next to the agent and listen and evaluate his/her call) also form part of performance management (Noronha & D'Cruz, 2009a).

With customer satisfaction being as important as production levels, employer organizations monitor agent interactions with customers, rewarding those who perform emotional labor as expected and punishing those who do not. In keeping with Belt, Richardson and Webster (1999), agents had to smile down the phone. They were trained to believe that since customers could decipher their moods, the espousal and display of a positive frame of mind was important to induce a similar demeanor in customers, to enhance the perceived quality of the service interaction and to leave behind a favorable impression about the client. It was also made clear to agents that abusive customers had to be handled with empathy, tact, patience and detachment --even hints of reciprocating customers' negative backlash (whether through abuse in English/an Indian language, nonverbal cues or cutting off the call) would invite termination of employment. They were required to allow the customer to calm down and then proceed with the business at hand. Further, to counter customers' racial and ethnic animosity, call centre agents had to adopt cultural and linguistic traits together with the use of pseudonyms. Linguistic training served the purpose of facilitating mutual understanding between customers and agents (D'Cruz & Noronha, 2006; Taylor & Bain, 2005), the aim being to refine agents' language such that they could blend in with customers and appear less Indian (Cohen & El-Sawad, 2007) by adopting pseudonyms.

Working Conditions

In order to meet client requirements, employer organizations created 8-9 hour shifts with two 15 minutes breaks and one 30 minute break and 5 day work weeks. Adherence to shift timings was recorded via log in and log out data. Call centre agents mentioned how such strict observation of time meant that they could not log out of their systems or leave their seats even to go to the restroom (if it was an emergency, they had to seek permission from the team leader to do so). Not surprisingly then, on days when the call flow was very high, agents enjoyed neither breathing space nor breaks and were expected to report to duty no matter how ill they were. In some organizations, the management kept a strict watch on people taking sick leave, even going to the extent of checking out agents' homes or places frequented by them as well as verifying submitted medical certificates (Noronha & D'Cruz, 2009a). Further, while agents with less than 6 months tenure with the organization were not eligible for any kind of leave, agents whose tenure went beyond 6 months were expected to plan for and inform about their leave requirements well in advance. Availing of leave without prior consent was considered to be an unauthorized absence, and were either warned or dismissed with some employer organizations going to the extent of blocking bank salary accounts of those absenting themselves and refusing to give relieving letters to those who quit.

Failure to meet employer organizational expectations whether in matters of job performance, task-related requirements or general workplace etiquette, resulted in punishments. While punishments ranged from warnings, retraining and suspension to termination and dismissal, the degree of punishment awarded depended on...

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