Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry

By Poster, Winifred R. | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry


Poster, Winifred R., Anthropological Quarterly


Reena Patel, Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. 208 pp.

It is fitting to write about Patel's Working the Night Shiftfor Anthropological Quarterly. The study of women and work in South Asia owes a lot to the field of Anthropology in particular. Feminist Anthropology of South Asia has a long history with scholars like Hannah Papanek, Johanna Lessinger, Ursula Sharma, etc., while scholars in Patel's field of Geography (as well as my own field of Sociology) have been less interested. Anthropologists were pioneers in addressing the complexities of enclosure, movement, and mobility on women's (mostly rural) lives. Patel's book takes up where they leave off, addressing Indian gender and labor dynamics in the global information and communication technology industry at the beginning of the 21st century.

Working the Night Shiftfocuses on the urban experiences of female call center workers in Mumbai, India. It illuminates an important development over the last decade: the emergence of the transnational outsourcing industry in India. With the advancement of fiber optic cables, satellites, and the Internet, a variety of information and communication services can be sent from the Global North to South. In turn, new sources of employment have flourished in India, including customer service phone centers. What has accompanied this process, however, is a "reversal of work time" (Poster 2007a). Employees in India are shifting their lives entirely to the night in order to be available during the daylight hours of their US and UK based customers (among others).

With these dynamics, Indian women have been pulled for the first time into nighttime jobs on a wide scale. Patel reveals a paradox in that, just at the moment when women are entering the public sphere and nocturnal urban spaces, their movements are becoming more heavily controlled. As they gain higher levels of education and earn their own incomes, they simultaneously face new kinds of surveillance and restriction. Patel draws attention to the downsides and upsides for women of the global information workforce.

Against a call center literature that has been dominated by surveys, Patel offers some rare ethnographic, insider views of this phenomenon. She actually lived as a night-time woman in Mumbai, observing firsthand what the call center workers go through. She goes inside peoples' homes, rides the taxis, hangs out in the malls, cafes, bars, etc. She also interviewed 96 people, ran focus groups, and conducted participant observation. This monograph describes an important phenomenon in lively detail.

Her argument, as outlined in Chapter 1, is about "recodifying women's mobility" in the contemporary era (24). Reminiscent of feminist geographers like McDowell (1999) and Wright (2006), Patel crafts her analysis around issues of gender and space. She explains how the narrative of protecting women's safety and morality has legitimated a number of temporal and mobility barriers. She then interweaves this framework with captivating stories of women's agency in disrupting those regimes and how they take advantage of freedoms to work and move at night.

The first half of the book spotlights the implications for women's mobility outside the workplace. Chapter 3 discusses the role of the police and "nosy neighbors" in enforcing restrictions on women's time and place. The discussion of the way in which mobile phones keep women tied to the house virtually while they are physically in public is fascinating. Chapter 4 points out the contradictions of employee shuttles, which enable women to get to work at night but also trap them inside new zones of harassment by drivers and "security" guards.

Women's connections to their families are addressed in the second half of the book. In Chapter 6, we see how the fundamental gendered divisions of labor within the household (with both parents and husbands) remain surprisingly intact, even if they are rearranged somewhat by women's shifting schedules. …

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