The Rise of the Cyber-Coolies: Call a Helpline These Days and You May Well Speak to Someone in India Doing a Job "Outsourced" from the UK. Praful Bidwai Reports from Delhi on a Boom Industry with Serious Downsides

Article excerpt

Six days a week, as dusk falls over Delhi, 24-year-old Sumi Tiwari starts her long, rattling, tiring journey to suburban Gurgaon. It will take an hour, involving two buses and much jostling with an aggressive, almost all-male throng of commuters. Then Sumi will transform herself into Susan--wearing a skirt, or jeans and T-shirt, and a bandana, her arms tattooed, headphones in place. With 300 co-workers in a "business process outsourcing" shed (or call-centre), she will take her place for at least eight and a half hours on rows of bare, severe-looking desks with just 100 "seats" between them.

Susan spent six weeks in formal training to acquire an American accent and familiarisc herself with the names of (if nothing else about) places she is unlikely to visit, such as Louisville, Kentucky, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Now, after 18 months in the job, Sumi/Susan wants out. "What I hate about the job," she says, "is not so much the money, which isn't great ... it's the pretence and its psychological burden ... You have to pretend all the time--that you are not 7,000 miles away from your client's location, but nearly there; that you're actually American [sometimes British]; that you share the same etiquette and mode of social conversation; that you don't hear the sexual innuendo targeted at you; that your jaws don't hurt speaking continuously in a strange accent; that the rudeness of tone you hear has nothing to do with racism."

But near by, at another call centre, Ratna (Rita by night)--who went to the same lowbrow undergraduate college in Delhi as Sumi-wants to keep her job. Her working conditions are slightly worse: here, 450 workers share 250 "seats". Unlike Sumi, Ratna has to support her family: her father lost his job as a factory time-keeper two years ago and has abandoned all hope of finding another job.

Moreover, Ratna likes the call-centre's "cool, co-ed" atmosphere: there are three women for every two men, a rarity in any other industry in India. Work represents modernity and freedom in contrast to her extremely conservative family life. Rama's anxiety is that last month her employer suddenly sacked 300 workers to comply with new US Federal Trade Commission rules, which impose fines of up to $11,000 a call for ringing numbers in the "do-not-call registry".

Just two years after starting from scratch, India's booming out-sourcing industry--call-centres for product promotion or inquiries, medical transcription, booking and reservations--now employs 170,000 people and turns over more than $ 2bn annually. The revenue, according to estimates by International Data Consultants, will rise to $12bn by 2006 and $24bn by 2008--equivalent to about half of India's current export earnings.

The strongest factor driving the boom is low costs. Wages in call-centres are 10,000-20,000 rupees (130 [pounds sterling] -260 [pounds sterling]) a month, about seven times lower than the salary that an American operator might earn.

But the threat to jobs in the North is not confined to labour intensive, low-end operations. Software development and software operation are also migrating South Indian wages for trained engineers are a quarter or a fifth of those in the North. The likely loss of 4,000 jobs in HSBC bank and plans to shift Britain's national rail inquiries system are only the beginning. Britain might sec as many as 200,000 jobs lost.

The situation is worse in the United States, where an estimated 800,000 have lost jobs to outsourcing in the past year. One of them was a Silicon Valley programmer, Kevin Flanagan, who killed himself in May because he lost his Bank of America job to outsourcing. The cruel irony was that, before he got his marching orders, he helped train the Indians who were to replace him.

Gartner, the world's biggest high-tech forecasting firm, says that of the 10.3 million jobs in the US computer services and software industry; half a million could move to India by 2004, and at least as many to other low-wage destinations such as Russia. …