By Amitabh Pal on Aug 4, 2008
Call center training institutes are springing up all over the bigger cities in India, helping young people, for a fee, to de-Indianize themselves.Students at a call center training institute in New Delhi are learning how to speak English, American-style.
“It’s peetzah, not piza, beeautiful, not bootiful,” the instructor admonishes them. “And you have to learn to be more polite,” says Surinder Singh Gill of Hero Mindmine. “You can’t say, ‘You have ordered it. Here’s the bill.’ That’s very rude. Say something like, ‘Thank you for ordering at Domino’s.’ That’s much more proper.”
In an adjoining room, other students are studying an interactive computer program that shows them how an “average” American family lives. The all-white faces that pop up on the screen reside in a huge house. A member of the family, Chris, practices ballet. The students are instructed to hear the narration—in an American accent—and answer questions about the family. In spite of my protestations, instructor Anuja Mehta asks a student to get out of his chair so I can sit down. Mehta gives me a pair of headphones to try the program out.
“Many of these people had no clue what a ballet or a tutu was,” sighs Mehta. “You have no idea how much we’re broadening their horizons.”
In another part of India, the British Empire is striking back with a vengeance. “Sixteh, seventeh, eighteh, nineteh,” intones Anupama Asthana in her best British accent to a group of students in Bangalore. “Bloody rude,” she adds. On a board in the classroom, there’s a cartoon of Prince Charles. Numbers below the cartoon inform the students about the London weather and the fate of the stock market there. Headlines give the latest on the European Union expansion.
Welcome to the Anglo-Americanization of India, or at least of urban English-speaking youth. The call center industry is extracting a sliver of Indians who are actively de-Indianizing themselves and adopting Western names and identities, accents and culture.
I recently toured a number of call centers to see how they function and the impact they’re having on Indian society. I even went to one call center that The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had visited and glowed about. He said what “an uplifting experience” it was and how the workers “seem to have gained self-confidence and self-worth.” Friedman has also trumpeted the “social revolution” that has come to India because of the formation of a new class of young urban “zippies” due to outsourcing.
What I found, however, was not so delightful.
Call center training institutes are springing up all over the bigger cities in India, helping young people, for a fee, to de-Indianize themselves. Hero Mindmine, which proclaims itself the largest national chain, says that it has trained 25,000 students nationwide since it opened three years ago, with a claimed 90 percent placement rate. The process of transformation at such institutes involves listening to CDs and other audiovisual material for an American accent, plus voice samples, activities, and role play, says Snehal Kulshreshtha of Hero Mindmine. Some companies prefer that employees put on an accent and others prefer “accent neutralization,” he says. The American cultural offerings that Hero Mindmine uses are Full House, Frasier, and Friends, while CNN and Fox News are used to teach them the American “lifestyle,” he adds.
Often, these training institutes are hole-in-the-wall operations. I visited one such classroom in Bangalore. A few students sat around in a small room on the fifth floor listening to a young, smartly dressed instructor, Sanjay, teach them the “correct” intonation.
“We try to neutralize their accent so that there is no m.t.i.—mother tongue influence,” says Sunil Wadhwa of Hero Mindmine, using the buzzword of choice in the call center industry. “We teach them about U.S. culture, the U.S. accent, and U.S. vowels and consonants.”
At a Hero Mindmine classroom in New Delhi, students are critiquing each other’s presentations.
“Brijesh didn’t say his vowels clearly,” says Rajesh. “He said ‘fund,’ not ‘found.’ He said ‘Ruzza,’ not ‘Russhia.’ And he used Hindi filler words.”
“It’s Japaan, not Jahpahn, Ahfrica, not Afreeka,” adds Gill, the instructor.
A board next to Gill urged the students to “conquire (sic) the heights of their carrier (sic).” It also urged them to “speak correct language without making any mistakes” and to “overcome regional accents in our speech and to have correct pronunciation.”
“It’s, ‘May I put you on hold?’ not, ‘Can you hold?’ ” Gill admonishes Rajesh after Rajesh has finished role-playing selling airline tickets to a Westerner. “And remember, Americans and the British are very specific with their times. When they say one minute, they mean one minute. When they say two minutes, they mean two minutes.”
This typecasting of cultures is a major part of the industry. ....“People in the East and West have different working styles and communication styles,” says Lynda Ongel Lepcha, who has set up a New Delhi call center training institute, Holistic Enterprise, that teaches employees on-site. “We in India are monochronic, while in the U.S. they are polychronic. We in India do one activity at a time, while in the U.S. they do several activities at a time. We in India have no active hobbies. Americans have active hobbies. In the West, it is ‘I, me, myself’; in India, the collective is more important.”
Lepcha denies that she asks people to adopt American accents but then offers lessons on how Americans pronounce things differently than Indians.
“They say Beddy, we say Betty,” Lepcha explains. “They say budder, we say butter.”
Lepcha launches into the differences between American and British customers.
“With Americans WYSWYG—What You See Is What You Get,” Lepcha says. “So Americans shout and scream when they get angry. The British use sarcasm instead.”
As I am leaving her residence-cum-office, I notice several tapes of Sex and the City. I ask about them.
“Oh, they are part of my husband’s collection,” laughs Lepcha. “But we also use them to train employees about American culture.”
A sign in a training classroom at Saffron Global, a call center I visited near New Delhi, said, “Do not speak Hindi,” next to exhortations to the staff to be efficient and courteous. Beside this was a chart with the right way to say “kweschon” and “pronøunciation.” When I entered the operational hub, a variety of British accents were buzzing in the room—all coming from the mouths of Indians answering phones for customers in Britain. A team leader was at the end of every row, to help “motivate” the employees and to “listen in on their calls,” in the words of Shraddha Sharma, a business manager with the firm. It was quite a performance. And many of the call center workers seem to relish the opportunity to try out their acting chops, often even internalizing their roles.
“What’s your name?” I asked a call center employee in Bangalore. “Stephen P. Y.,” he replied, in a clipped British accent. I didn’t have the heart to ask him his real name. The part only seemed to suit him too well.
At another Bangalore call center, I bumped into an accent trainer while I was leaving the building. He spoke with a thick British accent and used words like “menagerie” and “demon” that an Indian would seldom use. When I asked him where he was from, he seemed genuinely offended. “My roots are in India,” he huffed.
At other times, the employees seem to easily slip in and out of roles. When I was questioning an employee at a Bangalore call center, he spoke with an Indian accent and gave me his real name, only to acquire a British accent and identity when he answered the phone. To add to his bewildering multiple identities, he had put on a fake American accent and name while working at a previous job, he told me.
What’s the big deal anyway? Don’t we all perform a variety of roles in our daily lives, including at work? Is the acquiring of an accent and a name that much of a departure?
“Immigrants do it all the time when they emigrate,” argues Anand Kasturi, an instructor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, who has written his Ph.D. dissertation on call centers. “They shorten their names or Westernize them. How is it all that different for people working in call centers?”
“There’s little identity crisis about changing the name,” says Shahzada Khurram of Saffron Global.
Not so, counters Arjun Raina, a call center trainer. Raina, also a theater artist, has made the plight of call center workers his passion. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and has written and performed a play, A Terrible Beauty Is Born, on the subject. He was inspired to do the play after learning of a call center employee with an assumed name who committed suicide.
“When an immigrant settles abroad and changes his name, he does so voluntarily,” says Raina. “Here, the worker has no choice. When you’re faking the name, you’re making invisible the country, and the labor force is functioning as an invisible labor force. They are Indian by day and American by night. Someone told me that since he had traces of a Punjabi accent even after his training, he banned all his relatives from visiting him for three months.”
“It’s the ultimate humiliation,” says Professor Harish Trivedi of Delhi University in The Week, an Indian newsmagazine. “We are being asked to pretend to be foreigners. No one wants to know us as Indians; our identity is not good enough.”
Call center workers have to face other challenges, too, such as inconvenient working hours, a heavy workload, and unpleasant customers.
Lepcha of Holistic Enterprise is one of the few industry people willing to touch on these problems. A lot of the workforce has to work the night shift because of the time difference between India and the United States. This often plays havoc with their biological clocks, Lepcha says, causing many of them, especially women, to drop out.
Defenders of the industry are determined, however, to put a happy face on the experiences of employees.
“They are enjoying themselves,” says Wadhwa of Hero Mindmine. “They are more or less happy.”
“People get used to the night shift and even enjoy it,” says M. K. Thimmiah, managing director of Mainstay in Bangalore. Thomas Friedman told Terry Gross of Fresh Air that this schedule fits “in very nicely with the Indian day.” Khurram of Saffron Global claims that working at night is “not really an issue, perhaps only for one in fifty.”
Not true, says Raina.
“You can feel the stress in a call center once you’re there,” Raina says. “There’s lots of anxiety and stress.”
Raina claims that call center employees can be forced to handle between 500 and 700 calls a night. Executives at the call centers I visited gave me lower numbers, with one corporate spokesperson saying that the range is between 150 and 300 calls a night and another saying that the average was 250 calls per shift.
The London Guardian reveals that employees are so closely monitored that even going to the bathroom can affect their pay, which is often linked to their job performance. “In call centers, a half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute snack breaks each day are considered a generous benefit,” the paper notes.
Raina also pointed out the strain of listening to abusive customers. Subbu, the founder and CEO of Convergeon, a Bangalore-based training institute, said that industry sources tell him that 30 percent to 40 percent of people ask the telemarketers if they are from India. “People feel that Americans should do these jobs, not Indians,” he said.
Corporate personnel have a different perspective.
“Look at the bright side—the customer doesn’t shout at you, he shouts at a name,” Khurram of Saffron Global says cheerfully.
“That’s what they get paid for,” said an executive at 24/7 Customer when I asked him if handling angry customers was an issue with employees.
How do employees feel?
It was hard to say, since all the interviews I was granted were under the vigilant eye of company executives.
Shubhanil, an employee at Mainstay, spoke with me under the watchful gaze of J. A. S. Diaz, the company’s executive director. Was the acquiring of a fake name and accent a problem? Not really, he replied. Is the call volume a problem? “Not here,” he replied nervously, “but at the previous company I worked for, Transworks, I got no rest.”
Syed Ahmed, another employee at Mainstay, revealed the truth about why so many call center employees turn to these jobs. “When you have a master’s in engineering and you don’t have a job, the frustration can be immense.” Diaz nodded approvingly.
The employees knew that even mild criticism would not be taken well. When “Stephen P. Y.” complained to me about the cafeteria food and that the company-provided taxi service was erratic, Shimonti Sikdar, an assistant manager at 24/7 Customer, went into a tizzy. “You’re not going to print that, are you?” she exclaimed.
The fear of losing a job is so intense that people are not willing to speak to a reporter even outside the premises of a call center. A number of friends of my cousins are working in the industry but refused to speak to me when my cousins approached them on my behalf. (My joke that The Progressive is not widely available on the newsstands in India didn’t seem to reassure them.)
Friedman has been extolling the economic benefits of these call center jobs, but they are more meager than he makes them out to be.
The call center sector employs between 150,000 and 250,000 people. That is less than 0.1 percent of India’s labor pool of 500 million. Approximately 70 percent of India’s population lives in villages and sees little economic effect even from jobs spun off by the industry, such as in software, retail, or transportation. (Few villagers speak English fluently enough to get jobs in the call centers.) The benefits of the sector are largely bypassing those most in need.
People associated with the industry are quick to point out to me the upside of call centers. The industry has “helped in the emancipation of women,” Kulshreshtha of Hero Mindmine says, since they are working now. (He actually means urban English-educated women; poorer women have always been working in India.)
“India has awakened,” he says proudly. “We now give our students workshops on the finer points of golf and wine. Globalization means the death of distance.”
Industry wages, although decent by Indian standards, are not enough to support a family. Starting salaries are from 8,000 to 12,000 rupees a month, or between $175 and $265 at current conversion rates. (The purchasing power of this wage in India, however, is higher than the amount in dollars would suggest.) While these wages pay better than entry-level white-collar jobs in some other sectors, they are not sufficient for an urban middle class family to live comfortably on. Many young people who work in the centers still live at home and hence save on housing and utilities. Plus, the work is stultifying.
“The jobs are so low grade that no one is interested in upgrading of skills,” Raina adds. “Companies are going further down the social hierarchy to hire tougher people who can handle the job. Wages are consequently going down. In accounts like collections, it really doesn’t matter if you have the right accent or not.”
The incentive for American and British companies is huge. Thimmiah of Mainstay says that call centers like his offer a 30 percent to 50 percent savings over those based in the West. Not surprisingly, the call center industry is rapidly expanding. 24/7 Customer, the call center Friedman and I both visited, has grown to 3,000 people from just 1,000 last year, and is expected to increase to 8,000 employees by the end of the year.
But employee turnover is heavy. “Attrition is very high—it’s 22 percent,” says an executive at 24/7 Customer. Subbu of Convergeon says that the industry suffers from an annual 40 percent attrition rate. (Unions are absent because of the intense turnover rate and because a lot of the workers, due to their social background, would not be caught dead trying to unionize.)
Unfortunately, jobs such as those in the call center industry are frequently the only game in town for English-speaking urbanites. And if they have to give up their names, their identities, their accents, and their culture in the process, it’s a concession many are willing to make.
Upon returning from India, I made a call to the JCPenney credit card department. On the other end was a woman from India who said her name was Rachel, but her bad American accent gave her away. I realized then that these call center trainers have a long way to go.
Amitabh Pal is Managing Editor of The Progressive