Hope to Despair: The Experience of Organizing Indian Call Centre Employees

Article excerpt

Introduction

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). …