If you want to buy a computer or some other electronic item, or access information of all kinds by telephone, chances are you've spoken to someone with a trace (or much more than a trace) of an East Indian accent. You have been virtually transported to India, where young people paid a decent wage by local standards operate out of cubicles like those pictured here.
Have you been unceasingly polite during conversations that go nowhere, on-line help that leaves you sitting on the floor of a room full of disconnected wires, and a pervasive over-all sense that you are simply not being understood? I haven't.
And it seems that I'm not alone, although I hasten to add that my chronic verbal irritation has never descended into personal abuse. But this sort of thing is cumulative, and has serious health consequences. The call-centre industry in India currently employs 1.6 million people, mostly in their 20s, and they're suffering--badly--from the stress of dealing with difficult and sometimes downright abusive customers. "Teenagers straight out of school and college, looking to make a fast buck, are collapsing in front of their computers," says the Indian Health Minister. Staff have been shocked by the sheer ferocity of the verbal attacks they regularly receive. The government is launching a health strategy for the workers to help them cope.
The union that organized a study of the employees, carried out by Strathclyde University in Glasgow (we're all part of the global village, after all), reports that 77% of the employees felt "very" pressured, and 45% identified difficult customers as the direct cause of their stress. "I'm worried that stress and illness will turn them into zombies," says Kathik Shekhar, general secretary of the Union of IT Enabled Services Professionals (UNITES Professionals). Insomnia, ulcers and heart attacks are an occupational hazard. Some companies offer 24-hour help lines and a host of amenities to help ease the burden.
The Strathclyde report, to be released later this month, reinforces findings from the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations that the outsourcing industry is most at risk for heart disease, strokes and diabetes. And there is a gender gap: 75% of women report suffering from work pressure, as opposed to 59% of the men. Could this stem, at least in part, from sexist as well as racial abuse?
Meanwhile, unionization is progressing at a snail's pace: only 15,000 workers in the industry, out of 1.6 million, are presently members of the Union of IT Enabled Services, which represents other workers informally. "There is no need for a union," says the chief operating officer of 24/7 Customer. The age of the electronic sweatshop, the global typing pool, the knowledge-economy proletariat, is upon us--or rather, upon employees like Nidhi Aggarwal:
Aggarwal, an English graduate, said she planned to quit, tired of wishing customers a good morning only to hear: "Oh, I'm through to India am I? Put me through to someone who can understand English, you f****** cow."
Working in service industries is never a bed of roses, but try to imagine yourself working in a second language, attempting to be on top of the manuals that go with the product or products that you are retailing from a shared cubicle, and answering calls like that one on a daily basis. If this isn't squarely a management problem, I can't imagine what is. In my experience, any topic much off the beaten track results in a lot of sheer incomprehension and sometimes more problems than I started with, but this reflects, not employee incompetence, but company corner-cutting and inadequate training.
But there is a larger question here, one that goes well beyond the global marketplace and the sweating of knowledge workers. Rudeness and abuse are a health and safety issue, pure and simple. We don't tend to try to imagine the effects of our irritation on real people at the other end of the line: we want something, and we want it now, and we don't seem to be getting through, and no, we don't want to be put on hold, and that's that. Marx talked about the kind of alienation experienced by a worker who seems to become a part of the machine he or she operates: perhaps it would help if we didn't treat people like machines that aren't working properly, and I direct this to myself as much as to anyone else.
It is difficult to know what to do about an imperfect system that doesn't deliver the goods. Take Dell Computers--please. I have purchased quite a lot of product from these folks. Not all of my attempts to obtain service from them have been crowned with success. And my Linksys--that was the one that left me on the floor of my home office, surrounded by disconnected wires and malfunctioning software, the problem several magnitudes larger than it had been before my call. It's not inadequately trained employees who are at fault. It's the parent companies, who are outsourcing to off-shore companies that want to maximize profit, and are well out of our reach.
Let's start with the companies that are within reach. And let's give whatever encouragement we can to the Indian employees who are trying to get unionized. Don't like unions? Be prepared for yet more calls that make things worse and leave you furious. If there was ever a win-win scenario, this is it.
In the meantime, let's all be a little nicer on the phone now that the obvious has been explained to us by a study. Words have consequences. Our rudeness makes people sick. It can kill them. And--one more thought--it might be happening to service workers right here at home. So I plan to keep the one New Year's resolution I made--to be civil at all times to them, wherever they live and work, despite the numerous frustrating barriers and filters between us that are no fault of theirs. What about you?