AGENCY OVER IDENTITY
A GLOBAL EXAMINATION OF THE CALL CENTRE INDUSTRY IN INDIA
LYNNE WEST, DECEMBER 2015
Not everything or everyone is globalized, but the global networks that structure the planet affect everything and everyone (Castells, 2008).
Advancements in information communications technology (ICT) and global interconnectedness have afforded corporations the ability to outsource costly, repetitive and light-skill work to labourers in developing countries. As these transnational conglomerates penetrate the globe, western consumers enjoy a greater variety of material goods at lower prices while raising the standard of living in many poor areas of the world.
The Internet affords immense economic advantage and efficiencies; it facilitates change on every planetary level, and has brought cultures of the world together. It is the architect of the global village that media theorist Marshall McLuhan spoke of in the late 1950’s—a tribal society interwoven by electronic technology.
However, and as also predicted by McLuhan, electronic technology also brings dissention. While certain scholars profess the dissonance is a result of an adjustment in global economics as poorer countries catch up to the rich ones (Eriksen, 2007), much of the discord comes from transnational shifts in work terms, changes to social systems, identity masking and abrupt swings in cultural norms brought about by a new age of imperialism, where “capitalist monopolies share the world among themselves” (Fuchs, 2010), and where the primary impetus of globalized communications technology is to build the “private wealth of an elite group of people” (Sumner, 2005).
Outsourcing, or employing individuals in developing nations, allows corporations to achieve flexible accumulation—the ability to gain maximum profit with minimum cost (Sumner, 2008) —with little concern for western society’s health and safety regulations, labour codes, and pay equity. Much is demanded of foreign workers including physical and psychological abuse. This is exploitation—a practice that is morally, legally and culturally unacceptable in western society.
ICT’s facilitate back-office work or BPO – Business Process Outsourcing – and have altered the service sector to a point where boundaries, production and consumption have been redefined (Abraham, 2008). An excellent example of this occurs within in the fast growing call center industry. No matter the geographic location, they provide a seamless, intellectual service that transcends time, distance and space. They represent a place where the instantaneous movement of information occurs from every quarter to every point at the same time (Molinaro, McLuhan & Toye, 1987).
According to media theorist and cultural critic, Neil Postman, the advantages of technology are never distributed evenly (Postman, 1998). This is particularly true in India, where the call center industry has had a tremendous impact on Indian society. The results of this industry boom, however, are lopsided in many respects; economically the industry only benefits the five percent of the English speaking middle to upper class population, but does little to combat the country’s real issues: poverty, inequality and illiteracy” (McIntyre, 2013, Satpathy, 2010). In 2013, the first complete census of India’s population indicated that one in six Mumbai residents continue to live in slum conditions that are unfit for human habitation (Johnson, 2013).
Not only are the advantages of technology askew, another of Postman’s thoughts is well represented in the call center industry in India: “Culture always pay a price for technology” (Postman, 1998).
Economics over Identity – India’s Cultural Myth
“The ideal strategy for a global economy would be to put every factory it owned on a barge and float it around the world, taking advantage of short-term changes in economies and exchange rates…” Jack Welch, General Electric’s chief executive from 1981 to 2001.
The boat arrived in India in the early ‘90’s following the liberalization of India’s economy. Moving away from a socialistic, selective and state-controlled economy known as “License Raj,” and into a market based system, India quickly became a major global economic force. Coinciding with the advent of the Internet and other sophisticated ICT”S, between 1974 and 2015, the GDP in the service sector leapt from 35 percent to 57.9 percent surpassing its two other economic segments, agriculture at 17.9 percent and industry at 24.2 percent. When corporations such as General Electric established India’s first call centers, the boom started, creating an industry that today employs 1.2 million people (Statistics-Times, 2015) and accounts for 70 percent of all revenues in India’s BPO market (Batt, et al, 2005).
Unlike outsourcing businesses that export material goods, the call center industry provides services with “full-scale reproductions of identity and culture” (Satpathy, 2010). Due to the growing resentment in western society towards job outsourcing, Indian call center workers are required to mask their identities and geographic locations. The night shift work required to accommodate differing time zones creates an estrangement from call service workers from their families and community. Working long hours in stressful, often hostile environments such as fielding complaints from disgruntled customers such as airline passengers with lost baggage, is physically and mentally taxing.
Examples of cultural immersion fluctuates from watching American soap operas and reading lifestyle magazines to following community events and newspapers, and are part of the identity masking process. Speech therapy is an example of personality alteration and is used to eradicate all evidence of the mother tongue influence.
Call center work is repetitive and employees are constantly monitored to ensure they remain on script. These employees operate in two distinct worlds. They are trained to “embody American identities and cultural cues” (Satpathy, 2010).
The more time Indian employees work in the industry, the more educated they become about the differences between themselves and their western world contemporaries. They learn their wages are lower than western workers, and that the hours they spend on the job are much longer. While western workers are given forty-five seconds to refocus between calls, the Indian worker is given ten seconds (McIntyre, 2013).
The awareness of the inequalities creates a psychological dissonance, which can be likened to the “estranged labour” phenomenon Karl Marx described in his studies on personal property. In this vein, the property owners are the corporations who outsource work to India and the property-less are call center employees (spark notes, nd.).
Call center work in India is a highly sought after profession, but with the growing awareness of inequality, call center employees are sensing an “estrangement from the world,”—a feeling that the product of their work is “hostile and alien” (spark notes, nd.). The more they realize their jobs are not so “privileged and desirable,” that the employees only value is in providing to the property owners an in-authentic self, and that improving the corporate image and ensuring the global north is “comfortable,” the more the resentment festers (McIntyre, 2013).
But the money is good as is the seduction of a hedonistic western lifestyle. Indian employees stay at their jobs, becoming more and more dependent on the property owner, while the owners grow ever more powerful, threatening job loss in the event of non-compliance.
The result, and as is happening in India with its younger workers disengaging more and more from traditional religious beliefs, attitudes, and collective, family-based social structures, is a loss of their species-being—their life purpose. Sleep disorders, depression and family upheaval are in the rise.
The call center worker has become caught in a vicious cycle of resentment and need; each feeding upon the other. All the while, in the daily task of identity masking, of applying agency over identity, the people of India are losing their cultural identities and the workers are losing themselves.
Call to Action
In conclusion, globalization and the Internet have created McLuhan’s global village. As the village grows, so will the tension between identity, social and cultural norms. India’s call center industry is a call to action—a cautionary note—of what can happen when our species-being becomes a mere commodity. Where agency is preferred over our identities and where the new imperialism is at the helm, soul-less corporations such as GE remain poised, ready to set their barges afloat at the first threat of inclement economic weather. I hope India is ready for the storm.
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Written for Island Parent Magazine when the British Columbia government was considering car seat legislation for kids between the age of 4 and 8.