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Oct25
Indian Slave Ships?

A few posts ago, I talked about "Indian Sweat Shops", which is the practice of call centers to attempt to maximize the output of their agents, even if it involves abusive practices, poor labor relations, or untolerable conditions and environment.  I mentioned that this policy did not start in India, but was found more commonly in the US when the industry was in its infancy.  But as the industry matured, there became a better understanding of best practices and the employment rate dropped, so agents had  other options if their current job was explotive.

I was reminded by some agents in US call centers, that this practice has not disappeared.  It is still out there in the US and I would say you could find call centers around the globe who are abusive towards their agents.  I think in India, you might currently find more because the industry is nascent and because there is still an ample supply of labor.  Hopefully as the market matures, and trained agents find they have other options, abusive call centers will find it hard to employ enough skilled agents and the market forces will motivate them to change their practices.

However, I cringed when I saw an article entitled "Indian Slave Ships", in where a study of Indian call center labor practices were related to the practices found on a slave ship.

"The labour practices call centres follow are even much older. Take, for instance, the monitoring of workers at the workplace. 'Work is monitored on the spot and after working hours with the help of specially designed software, computer network and closed circuit cameras,' the study says. 'The degree of surveillance required at work is even comparable with the situations of 19th century prisons or Roman slave ships.'

"In addition, all interactions among employees in office are continuously recorded or taped, and randomly checked by the team leader or manager. Mistakes in work lead to immediate warnings and they are recorded in 'warning cards' that form part of the daily ratings of agents. If an employee commits three errors in a day, he or she is warned and gets zero in his or her daily rating. Three consecutive zeros lead to counselling or even dismissal ..."

I find the comparison a stretch.  Comparing the monitoring of agents to the surveillance of a slave in Prison or on a slave ship?  Call Centers can be held liable for what happens in the interaction between their agent and the customer.  Constant monitoring allows for better training and is a protection for the agent and for the call center against unsubstantiated claims by customers. 

Non-compliance aboard a slave ship probably resulted in physical punishment.  Non-compliance in a call center leads to a warning or at worse a dismissal.  The comparison is a weak one.

Update: November 8, 2005

A great response to this is found in this post in the Indian Economy Blog.  Here is an excerpt:

All this criticism is terribly misguided. Contrary to being a form of economic imperialism, as its critics claim, India’s BPO industry is an indication of what is possible for a country to achieve with free markets. India’s call centers make use of one of its comparative advantages — cheap, English-speaking labor. More importantly, it empowers the estimated 350,000 people who work in this industry, instead of “stripping them of their dignity,” as a common canard goes.


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