Mom returned from the market with loads of clothes and shoes – Puja shopping. While I was excitingly trying them all, she said: “I met Neelam Aunty (name changed). We talked for quite some time. She was asking about you. I told her that you were working at a call centre. And she exclaimed: ‘Chheeee! Chheee! Chheeeeee! Ask her it’s a shabby sector and not to work there anymore’. I could not speak further. You disgusted me!” I packed the newbies back and quietly left the room.
Mom was getting old, plus she could not have worked due to my ailing sister. I was the only hope for a single-parent family. But, I wanted to study. So, I welcomed to work for a Call Centre: good money, financial security, plus night shift – so I could easily continue with my regular studies at day time. I remained sleep deprived until I completed two graduations and two post-graduations –three of which in regular set-up, as I aspired to live a dignified life. Still do!
Six out of seven years of my work experience have been more or less in about six call Centres: for a month or less in few, to about three years in others. Luckily, in the several companies I had worked, I got promoted or was given different responsibilities too fast also – in the last one, I was off-calls in four months, and was looking after site’s customer service score for the next three years.
I started working at eighteen, during the concluding teenage, when I did not even complete my 12th. Still remember, how ambitiously I listed down a wish list of 47-goods to gradually purchase from an internship stipend of Rs. 8000/- a month. Call Centre industry, if has empowered me to be addressed as ‘Mam’ (which I have always opposed), to remake my house from 2 Semi-Pakka room sets to three floors for self and tenants, with my own personalised room now; it has also gifted me a 3% spine disability (office cab accident that was never compensated).
To everyone who knew us, I was growing exceptionally, well above my family standards and was only committed to social change: speaking in English, knowledge of computer, confident in public speaking, talking about social issues all the time. Thus, perhaps the Aunt could not digest me working at a Call Centre. But, where was her advice when I was helplessly conflicting between my responsibilities and aspirations? Why couldn’t she provide me an equal alternative during these six years? Because, there was none! Or she got scared on foreseeing me as another Nirbhaya (Delhi 2012 Rape victim, who too worked in a Call Centre to support her family while she studied physiotherapy)?
Although, I could myself see some traces of ‘exploitation of labour’ (Marx) in Call Centres, but it remains a refuge for a major Indian youth population. Call Centres in India are the assured employment options for all the English speakers (even average):
- who graduate from schools and colleges with average marks,
- who cannot afford further education,
- who cannot afford to live in a city in pay-outs of other jobs meeting their skills,
- who support big families,
- for civil service aspirants who try to meet their financial need while preparing,
- for the many engineers, the MNCs and technology companies cannot accommodate, yet have to repay the student loans
- for all those to whom the government cannot promise a secure future… and so forth.
Even interns at Call Centres get a minimum wage unlike in development sector, who would only explore advocacy mechanisms for labour rights.
Now, I have left the Call Centre industry to work in social sector. But, this sector too keeps reiterating the same tenets that of a BPO to me; somehow not letting me feel any different. Be it ‘empathy’ for the customers versus victims, or ‘root cause analyses’ for low customer satisfaction versus the social problems. By the way, ‘positive phraseology’ taught at both the sectors condemn the use of problem, but ‘issue’, since the latter is attached with a solution. Further, an ‘action plan’ is designed in both the sectors and ‘success rate’ is measured at definite time intervals – with different tools though. Call Centres have taught me to ‘analyse and prioritise’ in multiple-issue cases, to ‘change approach’ when Plan A fails to work, to seek ‘feedback’ throughout, to ‘look at micro issues at a macro level’ yet drive change at micro level only (local-regional-national); and, most importantly: ‘to TALK’. All of which I am going to use now at the social sector. So, why would two sectors working primarily on the same principals, have such pole-apart acknowledgements? One should think before vaguely stereotyping – this ‘waste of time’, ‘time pass’ or ‘Chheee Chheee industry’ is fuelling many gas stoves and restoring many smiles, which many highly reputed sectors also cannot very well do.