The rise of outsourcing call centres: is it ethical?

In the early 2000s, a number of UK based companies realised that by transferring their call centres overseas, they could drastically reduce labour costs and simultaneously gain access to an untapped market of graduates. Companies such as British Airways, BT and Dell were among the many organisations to relocate to India, where overqualified workers abound.

Many Indian graduates are willing to take up employment in call centres for only a fraction of what their less qualified UK counterparts demand. They have no qualms about being overqualified, and will work difficult hours, according to the needs of their British or American customers.

But why should they want to take such undesirable jobs? Were you to inform an Engineering or Informatics student at this university that such were their future prospects, they would surely be disillusioned by the fact; yet this is the reality for many of India’s engineering graduates. In 2010, the research solutions and career assessment firm, Aspiring Minds, published its National Employability Report. The results showed that “80% of Indian engineers are not fit for any job in the knowledge economy”. This is a shocking revelation that has largely been traced to India’s inward-looking education system that does not prepare students for the workplace. A Nasscom report stated that it is necessary to re-train up to 1.5 million of the Information Technology sector workforce, nearly half of all employees.

Nevertheless, in light of this situation, UK firms have the opportunity to operate cheap and efficient call centres in India, whilst providing thousands of jobs and supporting India’s economy. But should they? The benefits of outsourcing are significant, but so are the ethical problems. Alongside the rise of the Indian call centre has risen another industry: training overseas staff to lose their Indian accents, and prepare them for life at a call centre – one that can be stressful, unsociable and isolating.

One company, Orion Edutech, provides such a training programme. With over 100 training locations across India, the firm’s primary motive is erasing what is known as Mother Tongue Influence, or MTI. A Forbes article described one course specialising in Accent Neutralization, where students could be made to repeat syllables for long stretches until they lost their accent. The course organiser, a man named Deep, described the hardships of living as a call centre operator. Having to live in India, according to US time, entailed that “[he] didn’t see sunlight for 6 months at a stretch” and would not see his family for extended periods. When questioned on his social life, Deep responded “Friends? You can forget about friends.”

As UK firms have increasingly sought to outsource their call centres, there is pressure on Indian employees to neutralise their accents in the interests of appeasing English-speaking consumers. This undignified process has proven to be necessary, since dissatisfaction with accents has incentivised a number of British firms to return to the UK. Indeed, in 2016, BT recruited 1,000 UK staff following complaints that customers were irritated by having to speak with Indian staff. One call centre employee from Hyderabad explained that “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.”

Alongside the question of whether identity manipulation is ethical, is the issue of exploitation of Indian graduates, who are largely overqualified for the work they are doing and the pay they receive. Outsourcing brings jobs to those who may otherwise be unemployed, but whether it does so fairly is up for discussion.

Image: barracuadz via Flickr.com

 

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