New Delhi: Every time her client hangs up, the young woman from Hyderabad goes to the washroom and weeps. Then she dries her eyes and returns to her desk — to pick up her phone and her fake American identity and drawl once again.
She is one of the many workers in call centres who face racial abuse from people viewing them as “job thieves”, says a new study on business process outsourcing (BPO) centres in India.
“It is a post-recession reality. Western clients are extremely cagey. If they think you are an Indian, their biggest fear is you are stealing their job and that everything is being outsourced,” said its author Sweta Rajan-Rankin, from the University of Kent in the UK.
The study, released earlier this month, is based on ethnographic research with two global outsourcing firms operating call centres in India from 2010-12. In 2012, an estimated 3.3 lakh Indians worked in call centres which provide customer-related services, second only to the Philippines, which had 3.5 lakh such employees.
“Abuse? (It) happens almost daily… maybe one or two times in a day. During some point in the call, some people say ‘You Indians!!!’ etc,” the study quoted a BPO employee as saying.
The researcher said the study was also relevant in the context of recent developments in the United States and UK.
“In terms of the current context, with Brexit in the UK and Trump in America, recession, pulling back of services, we have seen a resurgence of national politics… you might see much more customer abuse, much more racial abuse,” she said.
Rajan-Rankin said in the 1990s, when the companies came to India, they used “complete masking”, that is, ensured that the Indian identity should not be revealed at all.
“The reason for this is companies in the US are risk- averse… and want to portray to clients that customer service is taking place in the same country where the service is being provided,” she told PTI.
To help employees take on a westernised identity, many are sent to the US where they are trained in voice modulation and accents, as well on cultural reference points, such as baseball or film and TV shows like Baywatch and Friends.
“The rules of call agents don’t allow them to disclose that they are working in India, no matter what. As a result they get enormous amounts of abuse, which is often racial in nature,” said Rajan-Rankin.
Almost all the employees interviewed for the study said they were verbally cursed and abused.
“Narratives around identity masking of call agents are rooted in attempts to stem racial abuse from western clients who may perceive them as ‘job thieves’,” Rajan-Rankin said.
She cited the case of the young woman from Hyderabad.
“Every time she would take a call, she would go to the washroom and cry. And then she would come back to take another set of calls,” she said.
Not much had changed in the industry in these five years, felt Manorma Rathour, a BPO worker contacted by PTI, who said some of the abuse stemmed from a caller’s disbelief over an employee’s western identity.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to convince the client about our identity. They are not willing to accept that we are calling from their country, so they shout and yell,” she said.
Abuse went hand in hand with stress, pointed out Dr Shweta Sharma, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia Asia Hospital in Gurgaon.
“They face a lot of health issues, including increased stress and increase in weight,” she added.
Sharma also said there were instances of employees taking to substance abuse to cope with the stress or to stay awake through the night, their usual work hours.
However, while the study noted that there was exploitation, abuse and emotional harm, it also looked at the creativity and imagination involved in making identity manipulation work.
Some employees said they did not let go off their new identities, even after office hours.
“I often call myself Hazel in social gatherings and my friends and even parents do that sometimes. Hazel has become an important part of my personality,” Rathour added.