All too often globalisation is invoked as though it were a rallying cry with the potential to inspire national economic growth, consumer aspiration and new forms of lifestyle, with the accent on the style. However, globalisation is no virtual phenomenon. It is a set of concrete processes with real-time effects on our lives. And it is precisely in this tension between the idea of globalisation as representing an onward and upward march toward economic prosperity and the material implications of globalisation as lived experience that we observe the contradictions of the present moment even for those regarded as key beneficiaries, namely, those in Information Technology and Business Process Outsourcing. Despite differences within as well as across the IT and BPO segment, I consider the two as a whole here, since my interest is in certain problems that cut across the industry.
Alongside the print media glorification of the lifestyle of those in IT/BPO (often treated as if it were a distinct social category of hard workers and big spenders) there have been increasing reports of employee dissatisfaction with conditions of work. (See for example, Vinita A. Shetty, "Silicon City Sweatshops?" Bangalore Times, January 17, 2005.) These include the deleterious consequences of long working hours, constant deadlines, night shifts, and the shrinking of social and leisure time. Quality of life issues seem to outweigh the question of the much envied and remarked upon high levels of remuneration. A working environment geared to "delivering no matter what" has led to complaints that even leave to attend to family emergencies have required negotiation or struggle. Additionally, those in customer care face the hostility of the very persons for whose comfort accents are altered, false identities are created, and most Indian holidays are forgone.
There are several indications that these problems are evident enough to be of concern to employers. For one thing, the problem of attrition is widely acknowledged by industry analysts. In IT the attrition is primarily in a lateral direction as employees seek better prospects in other companies. In the case of call centers, however, employees frequently leave in order to return to earlier plans for higher education or professional training. To the chagrin of their BPO employers, many do not regard these as career jobs, no matter how impressive their salary or designation ('customer care officer,' 'call center executive').
Second, a three day BPO job fair held in Mysore at the end of December 2004 attracted a mere 400 odd persons and not the thousands that were expected. (Indeed the opening had to be postponed by a day since it met stiff competition from the police department which was also hiring.) Asked to respond to the poor turnout, one of the organisers argued that lack of awareness about the career potential of these jobs was chiefly responsible, as also the impression that these jobs were stressful and involved night shifts. We will return below to the issue of such reconstruction of fact as misimpression.
Third, the consequences of working in the high pressure environments of the IT/BPO industry have been the substance of a number of newspaper stories. Even The Times of India, which tends to be ardent in its support of globalisation, has recently carried several items on such issues as entry level software employees describing sweatshop like conditions, burnout among young professionals, and employees' worries about the cumulative effects on their health of their relentless schedules.
Human relations personnel in the industry have, at times, dismissed such stories as the complaints of a minority. However, it is clear from reading employment supplements that this is not the case. For here too one finds an increasing number of articles addressing various dimensions of stress, overwork and the negative impact on productivity of a lack of balance between work, rest, leisure and family life. It would appear that the very conditions imposed on people in the industry are yielding diminishing returns for employers.
The global beck-and-call service
Stress in the sunshine sector
End of an era of goodwill
Further testimony that these are industry issues, not merely the grumblings of an unmotivated minority, may be found in job advertisements for the IT/BPO sector. What is fascinating is how the very themes noted above figure in many advertisements in oblique and not-so-oblique ways. For instance, a hoarding for a UK based retail company shows a smiling female employee stating she dreams of retail during the day and sleeps soundly at night. The copy (which I am paraphrasing here) cleverly condenses several interrelated elements into a single sentence in the effort to distinguish this employment opportunity from others in this segment.
To begin with there is the obvious reference to companies that require one to service customers in time zones more challenging to one's body, mind and sleep habits. Further, in setting up a contrast between dreaming on the job and sleeping soundly at night, the copy implicitly refers to several problems endemic to this sector, even as it claims their irrelevance in this case. First, there is the ubiquitous problem of overwork and sleep deprivation. Second, there is the challenge of work that follows one home and even pervades one's sleep. This is a poignant issue for those required to take on a separate identity and accent at work, many of whom speak of identity confusion on and off jobs and recurrent nightmares. Finally, dreaming on the job implies an unhurried pace of work. This is again something that conditions often preclude. In the case of IT there are ever present deadlines. In call centers one is required to be on the phone continuously and there may even be such benchmarks as the optimum number of minutes per call. Anything but relaxed is probably a more accurate description.
Night shifts are obviously unpopular, for jobs requiring them bury this thorny fact deep in the body of the advertising copy. The advertisements invoke an abstract notion of "career", one that is frequently inversely related to the skills required by the job. Thus, one company requiring only fluency in English and a Bachelors degree from its applicants has its model saying she wishes to start "at the top." "At the top," it turns out, refers not to her but to the multinational companies serviced by this employer. In marked contrast with other industries, advertisements for call centers rarely describe the actual work to be performed. (Could this be a way of side-stepping the often repetitive nature of the job?) They focus instead on the client list of the company in question, presumably implying that the reputations and financial earnings of clients somehow imply a like future for those who undertake technical support or customer assistance for them.
In another inversion of things as they really are, jobs for IT/BPO are at times advertised as though they are principally about fun, glamour and a global lifestyle. These ideas take up as much space in the layouts of advertisements as the details of jobs available or qualifications required. It is as though each company is selling an idea as much as it is recruiting personnel for specific positions. Examples here would include a retailer leading off a job advertisement with its recreational facilities and an IT company featuring a woman relaxing on a pier with a keyboard on her lap framed by copy promising "java, clear skies and fresh air." It is as though in the face of a "work, work, work" ethic, companies in this sector have decided to accent its opposite, the idea of leisure, pleasure and fun-filled challenge as integral to life in IT and BPO.
It is important to note that the credibility of my analysis does not depend on the avowed intention of the copy writer or the company executives responsible for advertising vacancies. Advertisements do not merely create images but also rely on the interpretive competence of their primary target audience. In so doing, they offer us a window on the issues and concerns businesses consider important to address. Clearly quality of life and conditions of work are real issues. Reading advertisements against the business and city pages of newspapers illustrates how the former frequently remakes facts reported in the latter in marketing an image that is at odds with reality.
Outsourcing may have come to stay, but the conditions in which it is undertaken are surely amenable to change. We might wish to consider questions about the future to which IT/BPO employees are being invited to commit themselves. Is it worth expending one's youth and/or health in this way? How long can one's work routines distort the organic balance between mind and body, sleeping and waking, focusing and relaxing before we trigger a psychological or physiological collapse? It should be noted that I have not addressed here the consequences for the rest of the city and its populace of the 24/7 schedule and of the outsourcing boom. That is a story equally in need of narration.
It is also worth pondering how much of the work in the outsourcing sector is truly cutting edge and how much clerical in nature or maintenance in function. The point is not that the latter kinds of work are undignified, but whether service or tedious work is being falsely represented as executive in nature and whether the conditions of work befit the inherent dignity of employees. The answers to such questions lie in the material conditions of work. By this I do not mean the air conditioning, landscaping, gyms and other facilities (the lifestyle indices, as it were), but the nitty gritty of the organization of work- work load, expectations of hours put in, business culture etc. The former cannot compensate for the latter except in the idealised world of advertising or in the abstract promises of the cheer leaders of globalisation.