Labour laws, unions and BPOs

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If the BPO sector is covered by the labour laws, it follows that disputes which arise in the sector should be settled under the relevant industrial disputes legislation. As with employees in other industrial sectors, BPO employees too have an inalienable right to collective bargaining with managements. Ranabir Ray Choudhury throws light on the nature and structure of employment in the BPO industry, call centres, in particular.

A recent study seeks to lay bare the nature and structure of employment in BPO call centres. It seeks to emphasise that the work conditions in call-centres are different from conventional industrial moulds. Shaju John
A recent study seeks to lay bare the nature and structure of employment in BPO call centres. It seeks to emphasise that the work conditions in call-centres are different from conventional industrial moulds. Shaju John

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

THERE is no question that the workforce employed in business process outsourcing (BPO) units should be left out of the purview of the labour laws for the simple reason that, as of now, there is no legislation which seeks to keep BPO employees out of the mainstream of the Indian workforce. This apart, if the BPO sector is considered to be a legitimate contributor to the economy's income-flow its contribution being included (with much fanfare) in the foreign exchange earnings of the economy there is no rational reason why the basic input behind the contribution should not be included in the accepted, conventional input-base of the national economy at large.

If the BPO sector is covered by the nation's labour laws, it follows that disputes which arise in the sector between employees and employers should be settled under the relevant industrial disputes legislation. If, in fact, the entire issue is so transparent and simple, why, one may ask, has it become such an important topic of discussion today, the subject matter of controversy being whether the information technology sector should be exempted from labour action in the shape of strikes. The immediate provocation for this controversy is, of course, the CITU action in preventing staff of the info-tech hub in Kolkata from attending work on September 29, specially when the Left Front Government in West Bengal had given the strong impression that work at the hub would not be affected, as on earlier occasions.

As with employees in other industrial sectors in the country, BPO employees too have the inalienable right to indulge in collective bargaining with managements on any issue directly or indirectly connected to their workplace. The all-important question is: Why, till now, have they not had recourse to this procedure for remedial action? Is it because BPOs have `comfortable' working conditions which negate any struggle or confrontation with managements, or is it because, there is no effective leadership on the shopfloor as it were, which can give appropriate shape to the protest?

Since the second query is dependent on the first, the effort here should be to try to ascertain what exactly are the working conditions like in BPO units. Since the sector is relatively new in India, there is as yet not much literature to fall back on to throw any proper light on the subject. Even so, in recent months some rather perceptive attempts have been made, one of which associated with the V. V. Giri National Labour Institute in Noida seeks to lay bare the nature and structure of employment in BPO call centres in particular as objectively as possible. Among other things, perhaps the most important point which this study seeks to emphasise is that the work conditions to be found in call-centres (which account for 65-70 per cent of the Indian BPO sector) are different from conventional industrial moulds.

The paper says that in the service sector, "customers in particular are considered integral to the work organisation, either due to simultaneous production and use of many personal services or due to a strong client-led definition and even co-production of the actual services. This customer-oriented nature of work often challenges the traditional conceptions of control and coordination, especially those of manager-worker control relations. Further to this, `informatisation' of work also creates possibilities for novel modes of conceptualising and organising work, leading to discernible changes in work cultures."

There are widely divergent views on what the nature of call-centre work is really like, but attention is drawn to a "wider consensus that the work in call centres characterises some deep-seated contradictions contradictions of pleasures and pains in the experience of work, and conflicts arising out of the competing logics of customer orientation and rationalisation". There is little doubt that work at Indian call centres is "unskilled, repetitive and monotonous". As the NLI paper says, "the workers are subjected to a work regime, which is based on a high degree of computer-telephony integration. The use of such technology, along with use of standard scripts allow the firms to keep the `free time' between calls to the bare minimum". The system also allows managements "to examine the performance of the employee quantitatively average call time, number of calls and so on, besides allowing the supervisors to listen remotely to the agents' call, with or without the knowledge of the employee, to ascertain whether the work is being done within the stipulated norms and standards".

Importantly, the paper draws attention to the surveillance system employed by call-centre managements which assess "the entire gamut of activities of the agent within the firm, ranging from their entry to the workplace to an interim break for lunch".

Dwelling on this aspect of work in some detail, it says the "entry of the employees is strictly restricted to their work area and the common spaces earmarked for recreation and refreshment. For each entry to and exit from the work bay, the agents have to punch their electronic identity cards... During the working hours, the agents are directed to observe punctuality in taking the admissible breaks, which are also tracked continuously, through computers. The agents are supposed to be logged in and attending calls for a certain number of hours per day, which prevents them from too many toilet and coffee breaks. For each break, agents are required to log off, while leaving the work-bay and log in again at the time of resuming work. Those who are away from the work bay for longer durations or unable to attend calls for more than certain stipulated minutes are instantaneously warned through intranet messages".

Basing itself on this premise, the paper has referred to comparisons made by some commentators with "the situations of nineteenth century prisons or Roman Slave ships", which has raised the hackles of a whole range of Indian IT personalities. To critics, such management practices have evoked scenes of call-centres being nothing more than "`modern sweatshops' or `bright satanic offices', where the exploitation of labour is ensured through increased rationalisation and Taylorisation of work". The paper also refers to what it calls the `emotion burden' on call-centre employees which results mainly from the requirement of employees being expected "to display customer oriented attitudes and feelings to facilitate a smooth interaction with the distantly placed consumers". As the paper says, employees "are required to `manufacture' relationships... Quite often, aspects such as moods of the agents (employees), facial expressions and words are subject to monitoring. The agents are even found forced to either express some feelings, which they do not feel or suppress certain feelings, which they genuinely want to share. In both the cases, the employees find the job depressing and leading to emotional dissonance".

The conclusion is: "Emotional exhaustion adds to the physical and mental strain of the workers, leading to higher levels of stress and burnout under the electronically monitored work and tightly bureaucratised work regime".

To temper these adverse effects, call-centre managements (according to the paper) arrange for "structured socialisation" of the employees such as organising consultative forums, arranging get-togethers, etc, the main objective of all this however being the "(striking of) the `right' balance between work and fun, thereby creating a `productively docile' workforce". There is also the weapon of "illusory empowerment" through the projection of the image of "superior work, vibrant ambience of workplace, attractive designations, impressive salary structure", etc, which is meant to enable employees "to cope with the pressures and pains of emotional labour".

The above characterisation of work in BPO outfits does not paint a rosy picture of the working conditions, which leads one to the second question, namely, whether employee-unionisation has not taken place as yet because of the absence of effective leadership. This may, in fact, be the case but it is also true that, if reports are to be believed, an attempt to unionise the 350,000 employees in the sector (80,000 more jobs are to be added this year) by the Union Network International (a global alliance of 900 unions) has till now not met with any success.

The obvious question to ask is: Why has this happened if working conditions in the Indian BPO sector have a lot of scope for improvement? Does the prevailing demand-supply situation have any role to play in the answer? As one outsourcing employee is reported to have said: "A union would make sense if there was no job security. Here jobs are more, people are less companies are trying all means possible to keep employees happy so that they won't leave". The entire controversy over BPO working conditions, at this particular point of time when the country is taking rapid strides towards expansion of the sector, could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the BPO establishment, as represented by Nasscom.

Tactically, it has done the right thing by rejecting outright the allegation. On a strategic plane, the emphasis on minimum standards has been most sensible as also the gradual framing and adoption of a self-regulatory agency "for laying guidelines on a range of issues, including data protection and work conditions of employees". It can be no one's case that the BPO sector is uniformly employee-friendly in the country. On the contrary, it should be the universal appeal that the sector should be strengthened further if the nation is to make the most of its IT potential.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 1, 2005)
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