Abuse: study on Indian BPOs pulls off mask

Abuse: study on Indian BPOs pulls off mask

Every time her client hangs up, the young woman from Hyderabad goes to the washroom and weeps. Then she dries her eyes and returns to her desk, to pick up her phone and her fake American identity and drawl once again.

She is one of the many workers in call centres who face racial abuse from people viewing them as job thieves, says a new study on business process outsourcing centres in India.

It is a post-recession reality. Western clients are extremely cagey. If they think you are an Indian, their biggest fear is you are stealing their job and that everything is being outsourced, said its author Sweta Rajan-Rankin, from the University of Kent in the UK.

The study, released earlier this month, is based on ethnographic research with two global outsourcing firms operating call centres in India from 2010-12.

In 2012, an estimated 3.3 lakh Indians worked in call centres, which provide customer-related services, second only to the Philippines, which had 3.5 lakh such employees.

"Abuse? (It) happens almost daily, maybe one or two times in a day. During some point in the call, some people say You Indians!!! etc," the study quoted a BPO employee as saying.

The researcher said the study was also relevant in the context of recent developments in the United States and the UK.

"In terms of the current context, with Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in America, recession, pulling back of services, we have seen a resurgence of national politics... you might see much more customer abuse, much more racial abuse," Sweta said.

Sweta said in the 1990s, when the companies came to India, they used "complete masking", that is, ensured that the Indian identity should not be revealed at all.

"The reason for this is companies in the US are risk- averse and want to portray to clients that customer service is taking place in the same country where the service is being provided," she said.

To help employees take on a westernised identity, many are sent to the US, where they are trained in voice modulation and accents, as well as cultural reference points like baseball or films and TV shows like Baywatch and Friends.

Verbally cursed

Almost all the employees interviewed for the study said they were verbally cursed and abused.

"Narratives around identity masking of call agents are rooted in attempts to stem racial abuse from western clients who may perceive them as 'job thieves'," she said, citing the case of the young woman from Hyderabad.

Not much had changed in the industry in these five years, said Manorma Rathour, a BPO worker contacted by PTI, who said some of the abuse stemmed from a caller's disbelief over an employee's western identity.

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