Posted on May 31, 2005

Indian Call Staff Quit Over Abuse on the Line

Amelia Gentleman, Observer (London), May 29

Abuse from British and American customers is driving increasing numbers of Indian call centre workers from their jobs, defeated by the strain of handling persistent rudeness.

Irate customers was cited as one of the main industry stress factors in a recent survey of call centre staff and some organisations have begun employing psychiatrists and counsellors to help employees to cope.

‘I’ve had people tell me, “Back off, Paki, and don’t call me again”, said Eugene, 27, whose former employer, Spectrumind, provided an accounts services for BT. ‘There was a lot of racist abuse once people detected from our accents that we weren’t English. I saw girls reduced to tears by it.’

Pooja Chopra, 29, from Delhi, who spent two years fielding calls for BT Cellnet and America Online, faced similar abuse. ‘People would say, “You’re a Paki, I don’t want to talk to you, pass me to someone who can speak my language”.

Workers face a spectrum of rudeness — from sexual harassment to fury at unsolicited sales calls, to open racism. Industry analysts have seen the phenomenon of racist clients grow in recent years, as customers in the UK and the US become increasingly sensitive to the political issue of jobs outsourced to India.

Shyamanuja Das, editor of Global Outsourcing magazine, which published a study on the stress factors triggering call centre resignations, said that hostility from clients was one of the factors which caused workers to quit — 25 per cent of those questioned said client vitriol was a major cause of stress.

‘The anger in the West over job losses and fear about offshoring has made this a growing problem. Some people call up with deliberately difficult questions. Most just say things like: “You’re from India. You don’t know anything. I don’t want to speak to you”, he said.

Vijay Mukhi, a call centre analyst, said websites have sprung up in the US giving phone numbers of companies which use call centres in India, and listing Hindi swear words to be used to abuse staff. ‘When you move jobs away from a country, there’s going to be a lot of pent-up frustration which gets let out on Indian workers,’ he said.

As staff turnover is a major problem, with some companies battling an annual departure rate of 60-70 per cent, organisations are taking radical steps to help staff to deal with abuse. In recent months some firms have decided to provide psychological support to their workers. Sanjay Salooja’s Delhi-based firm, Empower, has 20 trained counsellors who tour the city’s largest call centres, providing support to harassed employees.

‘Most employees are very young and don’t have the skills to allow them to cope with this kind of abuse,’ he said. Workers are already feeling the stress of having to work through the night and are under extreme pressure to meet productivity targets. ‘They are vulnerable anyway, and an abusive call really knocks confidence. They don’t want to take another call for an hour or two, and their performance is impacted.’

The idea of consulting therapists remains taboo in much of Indian society, but the stigma is waning. ‘Our research shows that about 50 per cent of workers would like the chance to receive counselling,’ Deepal Raheja, one of the programme’s psychiatrists, said.

The therapists try to help staff realise that the abuse is not personal and to put things in perspective, he said. ‘Somebody I counselled was very upset after a British customer had asked for an address near Trafalgar Square and he had to admit he didn’t know where Trafalgar Square was. His customer became very abusive, and the incident really dented his self-esteem,’ he said.

Some companies still specify staff must anglicise their names, adopting forenames such as Mary and John, to try to stave off resentment.

There are no unions yet to represent the 350,000 workers in the Indian call centre business, but unionist Gautam Mody, who is trying to launch the first call centre workers’ collective, said this was a problem that needed to be addressed urgently abroad. ‘Some workers are deeply hurt by this abuse. The issue of xenophobia cannot be resolved from this end; there must be a battle against it in the countries responsible.’

More organisations have started to let staff hang up on persistently rude customers (formerly a sackable offence), after warning them three times to mind their language. Trainers try to help new staff understand the different cultural forms of rudeness they are likely to encounter.

‘British customers can be very rude but in a polite way,’ Anita Bhuttar, training vice-president of GTL, a Mumbai-based company, said. ‘Usually they won’t use abusive language but you can tell from the tone of their voice they’re angry.’

‘I found it difficult to work for British clients,’ Pooja Chopra said. ‘They wouldn’t call you names, but you could hear the hostility in their voices. The US customers were generally much more easy-going.’