Call center workers are the new slave laborers of the 21st century.
|“Hi, I am Peter. How may I help you?”. “Hi, I am Jane. Nice and warm today in Atlanta! And what can I do for you?”
Except that, as we all know now, he’s not Peter and she’s not Jane, and what they can do for anyone is strictly limited to what can be done over the phone or through a computer. Nor do they really live down the road or in the vicinity to be breathing the same nice and warm air; they are probably as far away from the American caller as it is possible to be on our little planet. Sitting in a little cubicle in Bangalore or Gurgaon, they have just read the Atlanta weather off the computer screen.
These brisk and bright young Indians are employees of various call-centers and business processing offices set up in India to cater to American and British multinationals. Many of them work through the night, on what is called the chowkidar (night guard) shift, for the good reason that night in India is day for their clients in America.
They speak in an accent that is not quite American, but resolutely not Indian either; it has, over a long and rigorous training programme, been “neutralized.”A lot else in their personality, biological clock, and identity has been neutralized as well.
So, why do these eager young souls have to pretend to be Americans, to be anyone but themselves? Why are they obliged to lie through their teeth each time they open their mouths?If, in that cynical saying, each man (or woman) has his/her price, what is theirs? Do they get paid half or one-fourth or even one-eighth of what an American worker would get for doing their job?No, it is probably more like one-tenth. So, why do they do it?
There is, as always, another side to it. However little they are paid, these people would probably be paid nothing at all if they did not have these jobs. They are the scions of middle-class parents who have paid good money to put them through English-medium schools, and they have come out with no skill other than a certain fluency in English (which paradoxically must be reconstituted as soon as they enter a call-center) and a wide-eyed exposure to Western popular culture.
Indeed, so glamoured are many of them by the prospect of working for a multinational, and so beguiled by what they imagine to be the American life-style swirling around their work-place, that they feel that they are already half-way to America.
Except that, for most of them, the enchantment wears off sooner than later. Many find that they have no social life left to speak of, as they are at work when their friends and family are at home. Some develop long-term sleep disorders, and some take so much verbal abuse, day after day, from irate American customers that they actually need psychological help, which some call-centers themselves have learnt to provide.
The burn-out is high, the turnover is rapid, and the scars of schizophrenia run deep. After all, for just how long can Pratap play at being Peter and Jaya at being Jane? In any case, it is not a proper job, there are no long-term career prospects, and when one moves on, it’s not the kind of work-experience one would care to flaunt on one’s resume.
In many ways, this kind of job marks a new and advanced stage of the ever thorny relationship between capital and labor. Some people have always left home in search of better economic prospects, and many more have been forced to leave. The massive slave trade from Africa to the plantations of America was probably the most brutal example of such coercive human movement. When slavery was finally abolished by the British parliament in 1833, it was almost immediately replaced, at least within the British Empire, by what Hugh Tinker, a British academic, has called (in the title of his book on the subject) A New System of Slavery.
This was the arrangement by which cheap labor from India was dragooned to work on the sugar plantations of colonies as widely distant from India and from each other as Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen alludes darkly to these slave-run plantations, while the early fiction of V. S. Naipaul, himself the descendant of Indian laborers transported half-way across the world to the West Indies, is a testimony to the enforced Indian migration.
Another great wave of human dislocation under economic compulsion occurred shortly after World War II and the coming of Indian independence, when cheap labor from India and Pakistan (as well as from the West Indies) migrated to the United Kingdom.
These immigrants took up low menial jobs, which the British themselves did not want; some of them are still seen sweeping the floor and cleaning the toilets at Heathrow. But no economic phenomenon is ever merely economic; it often has unforeseen human consequences. As a bye-product of that migration, the “fair” face of England has been altered forever after and so has its cultural and culinary identity.
But is this really progress and improvement, or is this, on the other hand, the ugliest and the most uncaring face of capitalism seen so far?If outsourcing has become a big issue in the West, it is because jobs are being lost on a significant scale. The much celebrated process of globalization is finally seen not only to degrade and demean the globalized, but to begin to hurt the globalizers as well. Thus, there are now at least three distinct perspectives available on the phenomenon: the Indian, the British and the American.
A characteristic British response to outsourcing is to be found in an article by George Monbiot titled “The flight to India: The jobs Britain stole from the Asian subcontinent 200 years ago are now being returned” (The Guardian, 21 October 2003). Trust the British to resort to a well-honed sense of historical irony when faced with a present crisis!
Monbiot boldly and pithily calls the colonial spade a postcolonial shovel: “Britain’s industrialization was secured by destroying the manufacturing capacity of India,” and”We are rich because the Indians are poor. ” He also acknowledges what many euphoric young Indians cannot: “The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.” But surely, he goes over the top when he suggests that outsourcing is now doing to Britain what the East India Company did to India. For that, we Indians will have to go and rule over Britain for 200 years – in that miserable climate!
As for the American response, it is bewilderingly varied. Susan Sontag, writer and public intellectual, published a long article titled “The world as India” in the Times Literary Supplement (London, 13 June 2003), in which she seemed to celebrate a brave new world where the young all over the globe would live the American dream and speak in fake American accents, as they already do in the call-centers of India.
In a debate in that paper which followed, I called these harbingers of a new age “cyber-coolies,” which in turn brought a retort from another Indian, himself associated with the running of several call-centers, that these young persons were instead “masters of the universe.”
More recently, the American outlook on the issue has grown distinctly less upbeat and more anxious. The grand old man of American economists, the Nobel-winner Paul A. Samuelson, retired professor at M.I. T. whose college text-book, first published in 1948 and now in its 18th edition, has probably been the best selling introduction to the subject ever, was reported in The New York Times (9 Sept 2004) as having challenged the smug orthodoxy on outsourcing, which is “the popular polemical untruth” that globalization and free trade are good for everyone all the time.If Americans thought that they will not lose more and more jobs in the future and be paid lower average wages, then, says Samuelson, they “must believe in the tooth fairy.”
And during a one-hour Indo-American debate on outsourcing on the CNN broadcast live on 9 September 2004, even the word “ethical” came up a couple of times, prompting one participant (all right, it was only me!) to cite a highly ethical-sounding cartoon from The New Yorker (30 Aug 2004).
It shows two angels in heaven opening and examining a freshly delivered consignment of angels’ wings, as one angel says to the other: “We design them here, but the labor is cheaper in Hell. And that, for some of us, just about sums it up.