Mom returned from the market with loads of clothes and shoes. While I was excitedly 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 are working at a call center and she exclaimed: “Chheeee! Chheee! Chheeeeee! It’s a shabby sector, ask her not to work there anymore”. I could not speak further, I was disgusted! 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 the idea of working in a call center. It offered good money, financial security, night shifts, so I could easily continue with my regular studies during the day, and the opportunity to grow. As I wanted to live a dignified life, I was sleep deprived until I completed two undergraduate degrees and two post graduate degrees – three of which were regular courses.
Six out of seven years of my work experience have been more or less in about six call centers where I spent an average of six months in each center, and close to four years in the last one. Luckily, in the several companies I had worked, I got promoted or was given different responsibilities fast. In the last one, I was off-calls in four months and was looking after the site’s customer service score for the next three years.
I started working at eighteen, during the concluding years of my teenage, when I hadn’t even finished my 12th. I still remember, how ambitiously I had listed down a wish list of 47 goods that I wanted to gradually purchase from an internship stipend of ₹8000/- a month.
The call center industry has empowered me. I have upgraded my house from a two semi-pakka room sets to three floors for my family and tenants, and I also have my own room now. The industry has also gifted me a 3% spine disability (an office cab accident that was never compensated).
Everyone who knew us saw that I was growing exceptionally, and had gone well above my family standards. I knew how to speak English and knew how to operate a computer. I was confident in public speaking and could talk about social issues. These were probably what that Aunt couldn’t digest about me working at a ‘call center’. Where was her advice, I wonder when I was helplessly switching between my responsibilities and trying to achieve my aspirations. Why couldn’t she suggest a better alternative during the last six years? Because there was none!
Although I could myself see traces of exploitation of labour (Marx) in call centers, it continues to remain a refuge for a major chunk of the Indian youth.
Indian BPOs are assured employment options for all the English speakers, even for the average ones. They are also an assured employment option for those:
Call centers are one of the very few industries that follow the basic wage rules of India, unlike the development sector that only protests to safeguard labour rights. Many media organisations also, either don’t pay anything to their interns or pay much lesser than the legalised basic wage to the trainees and take good amount of work from them, for months.
I have really not missed BPOs ever since I left it to join the social sector, except for the night shifts and the reduced pay. This sector keeps reiterating the same tenets that resonated in BPOs.
Empathy for the customers there and the victims here, or ‘root cause analysis’ for low customer satisfaction and now, social problems; ‘positive phraseology’ followed in both the sectors; condemning the use of the word ‘problem’, and replace it with ‘issue’, as the latter comes with a solution. Further, an ‘action plan’ is designed in both the sectors and the ‘success rate’ is measured at definite time intervals – with different tools though.
Call centers have taught me to analyse and prioritise in multiple-issue cases, to change approach when Plan A fails, to seek feedback throughout, to look at micro issues at the macro level yet drive change at the micro level (local-regional-national); and, most importantly: to talk more and assume less. All of which I am going to use now in the social sector. So, why would the two sectors working primarily on the same principles, are understood in a way that’s poles apart? This ‘waste of time’, ‘time pass’ or ‘chheee chheee industry’ is fueling many gas stoves and restoring many smiles, which many highly reputed sectors also cannot very well do.
So, all the aunts out there, need to stop stereotyping!