Cyber-coolies

BPO workers, considered a pampered lot by some, actually spend long hours at the computer and telephone, with almost no breaks. Their work is repetitive and intensive, with unrealistically high targets and constant surveillance, say labour lawyers Vinod Shetty and Ketaki Rege. Eighty per cent work overtime thrice a week, and 24% report work-related health problems

A workforce of 700,000. Average age: 24 years. BPO workers are considered a pampered lot by some, and glorified but exploited cyber-coolies by others. But all agree that intense working hours, lifestyle, and posture are taking a toll on the health of young IT and IT-enabled industry professionals. Agenda interviewed Mumbai-based labour lawyers Vinod Shetty and Ketaki Rege to find out more about what it's like to work in a BPO. Shetty and Rege are also associated with the Young Professionals Collective (YPC), a forum for BPO employees.

How would you describe working conditions in the IT or IT-enabled industry?

Certain comments can be made about the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector which is part of the IT-enabled industry. In the BPO sector, the most stressful job is in call centres where employees service customers in the US, UK and Australia, where their waking hours are our sleeping hours.

Work in a call centre is intensive, requiring high levels of concentration. It is repetitive, as the employee performs one type of activity throughout the day. And it's in a physically constrained environment -- employees must stare at the computer screen all day. They are expected to be at the desk at all times during their shift except for designated toilet and meal breaks. They are literally tied to the workstation because they have a headset on all the time. They must pick up the telephone within seconds of it ringing (this is monitored). They must complete the call satisfactorily, as quickly as possible and move on to the next call. And, they must meet an unrealistically high target number of calls every day. (Call centre workers in India are expected to complete an average of 180 calls per day, compared to 75 in the US.) This is emotionally exhausting.

Call centre employees are under constant surveillance. Closed circuit cameras are placed in every part of the office. In addition, the "group leader" in each department tracks the workers' performance minute by minute to ensure that work never slows down and peak efficiency is maintained -- even though these offices are always short-staffed. When a person wants to take a toilet break s/he must raise a hand and the group leader will give permission after making sure that someone else takes over that desk. There are even reports of employees being followed to the toilet to make sure they are not actually taking a cigarette break!

Workers have to meet daily targets, as incentives are a large component of the salary package which is linked to performance.

The Young Professionals Collective helped conduct a US-India bi-national study in 2006 (1) where we surveyed employees from three BPO companies in India. Eighty per cent of the employees surveyed worked overtime up to three days a week, and 10% worked overtime up to six days a week, averaging 54 hours for the week (instead of the 48-hour week standard in India). They are required to do night shifts.

Workers are trained to forget who they are: to speak with an American accent and use American slang, and to think of themselves as American. "You're not the person who came to this office; from now on you're somebody else and you're somewhere else. You're actually in Boise, Idaho, not Bangalore. You're Roger, not Ramesh, and that's who the person on the other end of the line is shouting at."

But that's not true. Once customers know the call is being taken in India, they start abusing the person. They're not shouting at Roger, they're shouting at Ramesh who must tolerate racist abuse and take it home with him.

Yes, BPO employees work in airconditioned offices and they have recreation rooms and nice canteens. But their overall working conditions are no better than those in other offices in the private sector. They are under constant physical and mental stress.

Because of this, there is a high burn-out rate. In the survey I'm talking about, we found that the industry has a 40% attrition rate. People rarely stay for more than a year in any one office, and in about three years they've left the industry for other jobs.

What are the occupational safety and health (OSH) issues in these sectors?

Health-related absences are common in call centre work. In the study I mentioned, 24% of respondents said they experienced work-related health problems -- a significant number considering that the average age is just 24 years. Twenty-one per cent said they had taken leave on health grounds, even though they lose incentives for every day missed.

The single most important problem is stress which, in turn, has an impact on other health problems and on their personal lives.

There are a number of related long-term health problems. Of those who reported health problems, 13% reported back pain from sitting for hours at a stretch. Then there are sleep disorders as workers must always be prepared to work on any shift. In our study, 13% reported insomnia and 7% reported fatigue. Six months after giving up a call centre job, workers still have difficulty sleeping at normal times. Women have gynaecological problems because of irregular sleep cycles. Some 13% reported visual problems such as eye fatigue; 3% reported headaches; 23% had indigestion and constipation. They suffer repetitive stress injuries from long hours at the computer and "repetitive voice injury" from speaking on the telephone for hours continuously.

The work culture at call centres also leads to excessive use of tobacco and alcohol to relieve stress. We met many young male and female call centre employees who were addicted to smoking and even gutka. Companies promote the use of alcohol at parties and visits to bars to "revive" and "energise" employees. They offer discount coupons for special "happy hours" at these bars which are open at all hours for BPO employees.

Another concern is the danger to women travelling at night. Many attacks have occurred in Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. Call centre employers have refused to follow YPC's and the police's suggestions for providing security.

How aware are IT workers about these hazards or problems, and how aware are the employers?

We don't have information on employer awareness, but the findings mentioned above are reported by employees.

Given that the workforce is predominantly young, are the hazards all the more significant? The effects of radiation or the outcome of exposure to carcinogenic material usually takes 10-15 years to manifest. So it is less an issue of concern for older workers, and more of a concern to young workers. Similarly, exposure to work practices that affect pregnancy outcomes is more of a concern to women of child-bearing age.

Exactly. Most BPO employees are in their early-20s. They are in the sector for three-four years. But the long-term effects of stress, irregular sleep cycles, sedentary work, repetitive work, etc, will be felt 10-20 years down the line.

What steps have been taken by workers to address these issues? If no steps have been taken, why not?

We have not found any employees filing cases regarding occupational hazards. For that there need to be scientific studies on health issues, taking off from our surveys, to produce data that will stand up in a court of law. Some workers have filed individual cases (of sexual harassment, denial of promotion, wrongful termination, etc) against the management. But generally, whether it is about occupational hazards or other disputes, workers prefer to shift to another company rather than get involved in a confrontation with the employer, or prolonged litigation.

What steps have been taken by employers to address these issues? If no steps have been taken, why not? If steps have been taken, have they been adequate?

Most BPO centres are aware of the high level of attrition in the industry. Human resource managers are always on the lookout for new strategies to retain staff, but every company is bidding for contracts, and for this they expect employees to work non-stop and meet targets.

The IT sector pays very well. Can it not be argued that every job has its risks, and that as long as workers know of the risks and are paid adequately there is nothing unfair?

Our report found that 81% of employees are between the ages of 20 and 25, with a mean age of 24 years. And 88% are unmarried. This group is quite vulnerable to accepting such risks for a (relatively) high pay.

Most BPOs in India do not follow the best practices of their international clients. They suppress information about their employees' working hours from their foreign clients. For their part, the clients are not interested in investigating reports about violations.

Have there been efforts to organise IT workers? How successful (or not) has that been, and why?

None of the call centres covered by the survey were unionised, though two-thirds of those surveyed were in favour of having a union. Call centre managements discourage any kind of formal organisation by employees. The pay structure of individual employees is based on the management's discretion and employees are encouraged to compete with each other, which keeps them separated from each other and discourages unionising. Also, in order to deny them labour rights, management describes them as 'IT professionals', not 'workmen'.

Workers who oppose management policies are subjected to harassment, isolated from their colleagues, kept away from work, and eventually forced to quit. Employees are hired on contracts that allow the employer to terminate employment without prior notice, and it is an offence to discuss employment-related matters with colleagues.

Union activism can also put the employee on an industry blacklist. This has discouraged trade unions from aggressively organising in this industry.

Another reason attempts to unionise have not been successful in the classical sense is that it is hard to set up a union in an industry with such a high employee turnover. You won't get people willing to pay their dues regularly. However, there is scope to work as a welfare organisation and act as a pressure group to get the BPO industry to regulate itself.

Are there any regulations governing the working conditions at IT shops?

All existing labour laws such as the Shops and Establishments Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971, and the Workmen's Compensation Act apply to the IT industry.

However, the government is in the process of exempting this sector from some provisions of the labour laws. For example, provisions under the Shops and Establishments Act in various states have been relaxed as regards working hours, work shifts and employment of women in night shifts, to permit IT and IT-enabled units to work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In Maharashtra, the government has assured employers of relaxations under the Industrial Disputes Act and Contract Labour Act for IT and ITES units in Special Economic Zones in the state (2).

Are there any studies on the rate of occupationally-induced illness, etc, in software, BPO and ITES industries?

There are. 'Bi-national Perspective on Offshore Outsourcing: A Collaboration Between Indian and US Labour'. Centre for Education and Communication, Communication Workers of America, Jobs with Justice, New Trade Union Initiative and Young Professionals Collective; October 2006. Available on http://www.jwj.org/campaigns/global/tools/.

'When the Wind Blows: An Overview of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) in India'. Mumbai: Young Professionals Collective and Focus on the Global South, India; 2005.

Endnotes

1 'Bi-national Perspective on Offshore Outsourcing: A Collaboration Between Indian and US Labour'. Centre for Education and Communication, Communication Workers of America, Jobs with Justice, New Trade Union Initiative and Young Professionals Collective; October 2006. Available on http://www.jwj.org/campaigns/global/tools/

2 Source: http://www.maharashtra.gov.in/pdf/itesPolicy2003.pdf

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009