Monday, April 21, 2008

I know how we can help

The Chicago Tribune had a front page story in Sunday's paper titled, Outsourced to India: Stress. It's a heart-wrenching tale of the suffering endured by Indians in trying to cope with the challenge of doing call center work. We begin with the saga of Vamsi:
After two years working nights at a U.S. company's computer call center, Vamsi knew it was time to quit when his 6-year-old son brought home a school portrait he'd drawn of his father, asleep in bed.

"He was asked to draw a picture of his mom and dad, and he drew me sleeping. That's the only way he ever saw me," remembers the 31-year-old, who like many southern Indians goes by only one name. "He never saw me doing anything else."
Of course, it's not just Vamsi:
Indians may have taken over three-quarters of the world's call-center jobs, but they've also taken on the stresses of those jobs: weight gain, depression, boredom and, often, relationship troubles.

Worse, for the legions in India busy helping Americans reboot their hard drives or refinance their mortgages, the problems are often more severe, both because of cultural differences and because the work, by virtue of time differences with the U.S., largely takes place at night.

"There are a lot of pressures on people. The jobs are very stressful and not very creative," said Karuna Baskar, a director of 1to1help.net, a Bangalore-based counseling service that was contracted by 27 mainly information technology and call-center offices in India to work with troubled employees.
America is truly the cruelest country, creating fat, sad, bored, divorced Indians because of our insatiable need to make our computers work or try to pare a few dollars off our house payments.
As more and more Indians spend their nights drinking too many colas, trying to sound like Americans and dealing with impatient clients on the other end of the phone line, "it's very clearly showing up in health problems and also tiredness and irritability," Baskar said. "At work and with their families, they're more irritable than they should be, and that's affecting their relationships."
I know, maybe we can set our alarms for 3 AM and call them then, so they can work normal hours.
Indian call centers and other outsourcing companies now employ more than 1.6 million people, mainly young Indian college graduates, who earn relatively high salaries. But the fast-paced, repetitive work is creating a growing number of stresses, some of them peculiarly Indian.

In a nation where dating among young people is still the exception, and most marriages are arranged, 20-something outsourcing workers can be both excited and confused to find themselves out at night with attractive co-workers, even if they're simply sitting in the next cubicle wearing a headset.

Archana Bisht, a director of 1to1help.net, remembers counseling a young man who proposed marriage to the young woman working next to him, only to become depressed and confused when she indignantly refused.

"The girl is friendly, and in their minds they've already decided she's the one to marry," Bisht said. "And when she says no, they go through all the emotions of the breakup of a relationship even though there wasn't any relationship."
It's hard for me to work up much sympathy for someone who, in any culture, has that kind of thinking at work. It is interesting to see that, in India, counseling is offered to workers, when that benefit is less often available here.

But maybe it is too hard to work around this kind of schedule, even though you're doing your best to take care of yourself:
"After working, the [employees] party for the rest of the time," Anbumani Ramadoss, the national minister of health and family welfare, said at a public meeting late last year. "We don't want these young people to burn out."
Oh. Well, what of our friend Vamsi, surely he isn't partying?
The combined effect of sleep deprivation, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and a sedentary lifestyle at the keyboard "is killing people," said Vamsi, who has since left his job as a call-center worker for a U.S. computer firm in Hyderabad. "People are killing themselves."

Relationships are also feeling the strain. During the years he worked at Dell, Vamsi said, his wife worked a day job, so "by the time I started going to the office, she was set to hit the sack," he said. And when his son told teachers his father didn't go to work but only slept all day, "it was pretty embarrassing," he remembers. The boy "never saw me doing anything else," he admitted. With so many problems, "you can imagine the life. There was no life," he said.
Having worked in and around a couple of call centers, I know the American response to these problems is, "Man up, or get out." I imagine a lot of the stress comes from that hard-line attitude:
Call centers also are experimenting with setting up full-service dormitories for young employees, aimed at giving them a quiet place to sleep during the day and providing services like cafeterias offering healthy meals, gym access and other recreational facilities, said Deepakshi Jha, a spokeswoman with Nasscom, a leading trade industry group for India's call-center and information technology companies.
I don't recall American companies bending over this far backwards for American call center employees.

[I thought of juxtaposing this with an article by the same writer, Laurie Goering, from four days ago. In that one, Goering discusses child labor in India, how perhaps as many as 40 million children under the age of 14 work, perfectly legally, in jobs that pay maybe as much as $5 a day. Of course, this is presented as a problem for American countries - again, keep in mind it's legal for children to be used in this way. But the only common threads are that India's economic miracle seems to be riding on the backs of their most vulnerable people, and that we should feel responsible.]

I really am at a loss here. I don't really understand the point of the article - are we supposed to feel bad that our infernal calls are forcing these bright young men and women to take jobs that are killing them? This is a country that has pushed itself to take these jobs from other nations, and now finds there are problems in doing so.

We are a country that estimates that, among the top 10 jobs for growth over the next 10 years, will be: retail salespersons, customer service representatives, food preparation and serving workers, office clerks, home care aides, janitors, and nursing aides. How many of the companies who employ these people will set up dormitories, cafeterias, and gyms for these workers?

Also, where are the bright-eyed, high-test-scoring, excited young Indians whom Tom Friedman esteems so highly? How does his description of the future high-performance workers square with the picture presented in the Tribune? I would really like to know how I, as an American, am supposed to feel.

[Edited: I received a comment from someone who thought I mischaracterized the story of the gentleman who proposed to his cube neighbor. The point seemed well-taken, in that the article didn't fully support my wording, so I changed it.]

6 comments:

Rak Kanojia said...

Reasons are many but it is growing very fast and evolving many in them.

mcfnord said...

you've mischaracterized this article, as well. why is it hard to acknowledge that the best ideas can have negative consequences? is anyone blaming you? the new york times must drive you mad. i don't see the rationale for your sarcasm. "Man up, or get out" reminds me of, say PTSD therapists. you'd be perfect for the job! can an article describe a demographic trend without you feeling like it's dropping bombs on your America? good news reporting lets you make up your own mind. stick to limbaugh if you need someone telling you how to feel. when i talk to an indian on the telephone, i am polite and cooperative, and appreciate their work, because i know it's hard. "I wanna know how I, an American, am supposed to feel." that sums up everything wrong with America: Independent thought is dead.

Androcass said...

Well, no, mcfnord, I don't believe I have mischaracterized the article, but, even if I have, I don't see any evidence of that in your comment.

I found it a strange article, in that India has worked very hard to get those jobs, and American companies have shown a preference for moving them to keeping them in this country. If the jobs are stressful, and I have no doubt they are, that hardly compares to the stress that Americans feel when they lose those jobs, something the Tribune reports on too rarely.

I'm not sure what you mean by best ideas sometimes having negative consequences. Is offshoring a "best idea"? Well, that's one of the things I'm questioning, and, if the consequences are bad for the Indian worker, then the question becomes even larger.

As for blaming me, that implies that I am personalizing it rather more than I am. I did feel there was a tone in the article that implied that I should feel something, and I was open about my confusion as to what that feeling should be.

I think you misread my reference to "Man up, or get out," which referred to American call centers. Again, I have done some work in and around these centers, and can tell you for a fact that there is a lot less anguish expressed within the U.S. about the stress to our workers; there are no gyms or cafeterias for the vast majority of domestic call center workers.

Your references to "demographic trend" and "dropping bombs on America," I don't get those at all. As for Limbaugh, if you read any other posts on this site, you would see that I am diametrically opposed to that kind of simplistic thinking.

I don't deny that call center work is hard, whether done in India or in America. And I am also polite, even when the increasingly "cost-effective" management of the call center fails to create a system that can solve my problem.

As for your last comment, first, please do not quote me inaccurately - I don't write the term, "wanna," and it's fairly easy to cut and paste my exact words.

Second, I'm not quite sure you read the latter part of my post. Tom Friedman wants me to feel that the new flat world makes offshoring inevitable, and that I should be pleased that jobs are moving to the bright eager young people who are taking them. Then I find, according to Ms. Goering, that these same jobs are hated and resented by the people who hold them. So, offshoring is good, even if there is a negative effect on American workers, except now we discover that it's even bad for Indian workers? My admission of ambivalence is a result of independent thought; if that was unclear to you, then perhaps I will need to write differently.

At any rate, I welcome your views, and hope you will continue the conversation, if not on this post, maybe another.

Red Oak said...

"I wanna know how I, an American, am supposed to feel." that sums up everything wrong with America: Independent thought is dead.

Not only independent thought, but apparently, thought itself, if you are incapable of interpreting our host's perfectly lucid post in any but the bizarrely literal-minded, wholly self-referential way you just did.

Androcass, I salute your civility and patience. You're a better man than I.

mcfnord said...

Certainly there are articles about the stress of job loss in the United States. There are also articles about the stress of jobs in India.

Offshoring is a great idea when labor and environmental protections are maintained.

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

Very interesting article...it looks like you have done a lot of research for this article.....in case you are interested in knowing about some of the technology aspects that call centers are thinking about do take a look at my article here:
http://indradhanush-laal.blogspot.com/2008/02/this-article-first-appeared-in-feb-2008.html

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