Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Real "Outsourced"

If you have watched the American TV sitcom "Outsourced" about a luckless fellow sent to India to run a call centre, an article by Andrew Marantz in Mother Jones is a healthy antidote. Here are some interesting bits:
Nishant, now 26, moved to Delhi at age 18. His first job was tracking down Americans with delinquent bills. "In training they told us, 'It's easy. These guys have the money, they just don't want to pay.' They told us, 'Threaten their credit score, Americans can't live without good credit.'"

On his first day, Nishant donned his headset, dialed the number on the screen and was connected to a 60-year-old woman in Tennessee. She had an outstanding hospital bill for $400. "I told her, 'Just pay this, what's the problem?' She told me, 'You don't understand, I can't pay.'" They talked for 45 minutes, and the woman cried as she told Nishant about the Iraq War and its toll on American families. "By this time I'm crying also," Nishant said.

The same day, he was connected with a man living in a trailer. "I told him, 'What's a trailer?' He told me, 'It's this tin shed; it gets 90 degrees; we don't have our own washroom.'" Nishant learned more about America that first day, he told me, than he had in his whole childhood.
And here's the soul-destroying aspect of these "westernized" jobs in India:
Today, almost half of BPO employees are women, many of whom outearn both of their parents. Free-market cheerleaders, conflating rising wages with rising spirits, are quick to applaud India's "maturing" markets. But the truth is more complicated: Studies show that once people move out of poverty, increasing wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.

Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis. A BPO salary is contingent on the worker's ability to de-Indianize: to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it's company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.
This bit is amusing because it is reverse racism:
During our second day of culture training, Lekha dissected the Australian psyche. It took about 20 minutes.

"Just stating facts, guys," Lekha began, as we scribbled notes, "Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly." Next to me, a young man in a turban wrote No college in his notebook.

"Technologically speaking, they're somewhat backward, as well. The average person's mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic." This drew scoffs from around the room.

"Australians drink constantly," Lekha continued. "If you call on a Friday night, they'll be smashed—every time. Oh, and don't attempt to make small talk with them about their pets, okay? They can be quite touchy about animals."

"What kind of people are there in Australia?" a trainee asked. "What are their traits?"

"Well, for one thing," Lekha said, "let's admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is—please don't mind, ladies—'brown bastards.' So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call."
And I found this bit about revolution from the inside interesting:
Most customers are well-behaved, they assured me. Still, each agent had a stockpile of best- and worst-call anecdotes. "I remember quite well this guy who just called me up and said out of nowhere, 'You fucking Paki,'" Arnab told me during a break. "We don't take those things personally; it's part of the job. So I just said, very calmly, 'Yes sir, if I am a Paki, then this Paki would be helping you fix your computer.' By the end of the call, he apologized and gave me a five-star feedback rating."

With his pomaded hair, pearly white teeth, and habit of clapping me genially on the back, Arnab could have passed for a US congressman. Only after several conversations did I learn that as a doctoral student at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, he had been a Marxist student activist. He worked in BPOs because his family needed money, but his dream was to organize the workers. "Not all at once," he said. "Just steadily, over time, I'm thinking how to bring down the system from the inside. Meantime, I'm happy to cash their paycheck."
I suspect Arnab will be "revolutionized" by his work experience rather than him succeeding in bringing "revolution" to the working masses. (And if you read the article, you will find out that Arnab accepts the embrace of "the system". Sadly Arnab ends up alienated and unhappy.)

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