Outsourcing Outrage

Mike McPhate, San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 17

Noida, India—While irate calls are a mainstay of customer service work in any country, many Indian call-center workers say they regularly face particular abuse from Americans, whose tantrums are sometimes racist and often inspired by anger over outsourcing.

This vitriol has fueled a “searing anger” among the Indian employees, says Vinod Shetty, a Bombay lawyer who has formed a collective for call-center workers. “A lot of trauma is caused.”

Debalina Das, 22, a computer help-line agent in the city of Hyderabad in south India, punched the button last winter for a call from the United States.

The caller greeted her with a torrent of racial and sexual slurs, accused her of “roaming about naked without food and clothes” and asked, “What do you know about computers?”

The diatribe ended with the comment: “This company is just saving money by outsourcing to Third World countries like yours.”

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Some opponents of outsourcing, often fired workers themselves, have rechanneled their rage at job-slashing CEOs toward India. On the Web forum Is Your Job Going Offshore? (isyourjobgoingoffshore.com/forums/) contributors variously describe India as depraved, as a haven for terrorists, a “giant leech” and a nation of “back-stabbing cowards.”

It is this kind of commentary that has shaped a perception among India’s customer-care workers that Americans are intolerant. “Everybody thinks like that,” said Samik Chowdhury, assistant manager at an IBM office in northern India. “Every time, it’s racism only.”

This attitude is not typical of most urban Indians, who tend to admire the United States for its strength and entrepreneurial spirit. In a recent 16-country Pew poll, India had the highest percentage of citizens with a favorable opinion of the United States, 71 percent.

The less favorable view, though, is beginning to seep into Indian popular culture. The scripts for a new sitcom called “The Call Center,” scheduled to air this winter on the leading channel NDTV, depict Westerners as arrogant, immoral and comically rude.

The show’s villain, the Indian manager of a call center, is an India-bashing blowhard, a disposition he picked up at an Ivy League business school in the United States.

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“Listen to me, you dirty rat eater,” Terrain growled, to muffled laughter in the studio. “I’ll come out there and choke the—out of you. You’re a filthy rat eater. I’m calling about my American 6-year-old white girl. How dare you outsource my call?”

Indian offices have taken measures to thwart such attacks: Agents typically adopt anglicized names, undergo “accent neutralization” and U.S. cultural training, and sometimes claim to be located in the United States. They are taught to suffer attacks politely and try to calm customers. Failing that, many offices now offer callers the option to be transferred to agents in the United States.

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