BPOs: Outsourcing Violence?

In October this year, the Call Centre Association of India (CCAI) bitterly opposed the suggestion that call centres should form trade unions – the CCAI stating that the concept of unionism goes against the norms of international business. Its President, Sam Chopra, went on to say that unionism would hamper India ’s image as one of the most favoured IT (Information Technology) and ITES (IT Enabled Services) investment destinations.

Two months later, the brutal rape and murder of a young woman working in a multinational call centre in Bangalore has made one fact crystal clear - that unions are necessary. Concerns on the working conditions of BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry employees and the long-term health impacts of working at night have consistently been raised. Now it is also clear that security concerns of BPO employees are being seriously compromised. A clearer indication that as much as in any other industrial sector, there is a need for employees in the BPO sector to organise themselves and demand for more rights, is just not needed.

The BPO sector employs an estimated 3.5 lakh people in the country – approximately 40 per cent of whom are women. The nature of the BPO sector is such that employees most often have to work late-nights, in what is known as ‘graveyard shifts’. And a graveyard it unfortunately was for 24-year old Pratibha Srikanth Murthy. She was picked up for her late-night shift and driven to a lone spot by her driver, and then raped and murdered. She was however, ‘fortunate’. After all, unlike so many other women who become victims of violence, she has not been blamed for not looking after herself, or worse, for actually inviting trouble !

Caught on the defensive, the industry has been quick to respond. Its spokespersons have been busy announcing reviews on the security arrangements, and also passing the buck on the local police forces. Consider the facts – in Bangalore , the IT hub of the country, over 20,000 trips are made every night to transport employees to their work centre and back home. In spite of this, few companies have their own vehicles for transportation, mainly due to economic considerations. In order to avoid maintaining a fleet of vehicles and also to avoid hiring drivers, most companies outsource transportation to travel agencies. A direct consequence of this is that companies have little control over the drivers.

The industry has acknowledged that there are many loopholes that can and should be plugged. The pick-up and drop routes should be scheduled such that women are neither the first to be picked up nor the last to be dropped off. Security guards, preferably women, should be provided during the trips. Regular police surveillance has also been raised as an important issue to be tackled.

However, the fact remains that these cosmetic changes can act as nothing but a smokescreen for the real dangers that women working at night face on a daily basis. Earlier this year, the Factories Act 1948 was amended to allow women to work night shifts – and the move was actually promoted in the name of women’s empowerment. It was argued that women working in Special Economic Zones as well as in the IT sector would benefit by this amendment. Women’s groups who raised concerns over security issues were told that as per the amendment, women would be allowed to work at night only if proper care was taken to ensure their safety, and only if proper arrangements are made for their transportation. The recent events have raised serious questions on exactly how safe an atmosphere can be provided for women, especially in increasingly unregulated economies. And the logical corollary – if security cannot be guaranteed, then how is it empowering for women to work late nights? By what definition does being exposed to dangers of rape and murder translate to empowerment? It is time that governments stop lying to people and promoting such gender insensitive policies in the name of women’s empowerment. It is also high time that one sees such policies for what they actually are – an attempt to legitimise an increase in cheap labour force available for exploitation by market forces.

Ever since India decided to adopt the liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation mantra, neo-liberalists have pointed to the BPO sector as the one instance where globalisation has helped the Indian economy. Much has been said about how India dominates the global software industry, about how many jobs Indians have snatched from the Americans and Europeans and about how outsourcing to India became a major political issue in the US elections. And it is now this darling of the Indian neo-liberalists that is also showcasing the actual face of globalisation. Outsourcing of services to India is happening only because multinationals like Hewlett Packard and Dell find that India provides cheap labour. In the bargain, what the Indian employees of huge multinational giants, particularly women, have to deal with is unhealthy as well as highly insecure working conditions. Is it really worth it?

- Radhika Krishnan