Just as I was about to sit down this morning at the office and write a column on nuclear weapons, I got a really interesting call.
The conversation didn’t start out too well, at least from my perspective. It was “Anna” (I’m changing the name here) calling up for a yellow pages company wanting to update our listing. But when she asked for the name of the person she was speaking with, our exchange took a fascinating turn.
“That sounds like an Indian name,” she said. “Are you Indian?” When I affirmed that I was, she sounded jubilant. “Actually, sir,” she said, “I’m an Indian calling from Bombay.”
“Anna is not your real name, is it?” I asked. No, she answered, the company asks us all to adopt pseudonyms.
It was here that my ears pricked up. Back in 2004, I had done a story on Indian call centers, and I had visited a number of them. A major focus of my piece was the way that companies were forcing people to adopt fake identities and accents so that Americans would feel “at ease” talking with these telemarketers. So much so that there are call center training schools all over India instructing students on how to fake accents and grasp American pop culture trivia.
At that time, call center spokespeople had assured me again and again that the notion of asking employees to shed their Indianness and adopt fake personas was already a thing of the past. Here, four years later, was an example that proved that they were being disingenuous. In the case of “Anna,” the forced change was even more bizarre because she was an Indian Christian with a very Western-sounding name.
Another focus of my piece was the negative effects of working the night shift, something that call center employees are forced to do because of the enormous time difference between India and the United States. I asked Anna if she had to work through the night. Indeed, she confirmed. “I get off at 4:30 in the morning,” she said.
I didn’t want to pry too much and ask her what effect this was having on her health. Luckily for me, there’s a recent report out with such details.
“Researchers with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations have noted that heart disease, diabetes and strokes have already cost the Indian health-care system roughly $ 9 billion in 2005 alone,” reports Himal SouthAsian (the best magazine on the region). “But this number is projected to jump to $200 billion over the next ten years, and researchers warn that the outsourcing industry could be a significant source of the problem.”
“Much of this is related to the fact that most call-centre laborers are forced to work overnight to keep in-sync with the Western schedule,” the magazine adds. “This, along with the nature of the work, has led to sleep disorders, weight gain and heart disease, as well as general depression and strained relations with families and friends.”
I can verify this personally. Two of my cousins left their call-center jobs at least partly due to the strain on their health from having to constantly work through the night. Call center employees are caught in a bind.
“Anna” seemed to be in need of some genuine conversation. She was delighted that I keep up with Indian politics, and that I was aware of the latest political happenings in Bombay. (A demagogue has been stirring up hatred against migrants to the city.) She seemed even more amused when she asked me for my opinion of the demagogue, and I characterized him as a fascist.
One of my main sources for my 2004 story was Arjun Raina, a call center trainer who has written a play inspired by a true incident of a call center employee with an assumed name who committed suicide.
In a better world, Raina had told me, the call center industry would act like a global campfire, with people from different cultures being able to share stories and perspectives. Instead, he said, the corporate marketplace demands that Indians completely negate their Indianness and do drudge work while pretending to be who they are not.
My conversation with “Anna” confirmed Raina’s thesis. At the end, “Anna” and I wished each other well, and she hung up, perhaps to pause for a moment before calling up another customer for the umpteenth time with the same silly questions.