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"Der ferne Agent"

Indische Call Center sind und bleiben ein Thema - vor allem für englisschsprachige Länder ausserhalb Indiens. Nun kommt aus Indien eine ausführliche Studie über Arbeitsbedingungen und Entwicklungen der dortigen Call Center Branche (speziell in New Delhi), die selbstverständlich die indischen Verhältnisse als Vergleichsbasis hat - und auf diesem Hintergrund individuelle Arbeitserfahrungen zu systematisieren versucht. Die (englische) Studie "CHRONICLING THE REMOTE AGENT: REFLECTIONS ON MOBILITY AND SOCIAL SECURITY OF CALL CENTRE AGENTS IN NEW DELHI" von Taha Mehmood und Iram Ghufran wurde im August 2005 auf der Konferenz "New Global Workforces and Virtual Workplaces: Connections, Culture and Control" des National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore vorgestellt und diskutiert.


Taha Mehmood / Iram Ghufran

This paper, through personal stories, work narratives, and anecdotes, seeks to explore the issues of mobility and social security in the international call centre industry. The text is largely gathered through encounters we have had with call centre agents, their families and friends. The research was supported by Sarai-CSDS as part of their Independent Fellowship Programme in 2004.


The call centre industry, first making its appearance in the mid 1990s in India, grew by leaps and bounds, embracing and consuming upwardly mobile middle class urban India. Modern steel and glass structures in the tradition of IT sector offices were an added lure to a mostly young and vibrant work force. The primacy of a variety of American and British accents, attractive salary packages, an inflated lifestyle characterised the industry's image.

Co terminus with these, emerged stories of randomness and monotony of the work, frequent change in shifts and product campaigns, high attrition rates and the frequently changing alias, shadowing this virtual flight to America and Europe. Stories of ill health, frustrations and a career that led to No-where land abound business magazines and newspapers. Yet an ever-rising flood of youngsters, together with housewives, retired army officials and school teachers joined the fray.


Jamie's father hails from Baroda, a small city in Gujarat. He started his career with a Pharma firm in mid seventies as a Medical Representative, earning two hundred and fifty rupees a month. In the early nineteen eighties, he changed the line to Fast Moving Consumer Goods industry. As a sales representative his job was to set up a primary market for the battery maker, Nippo Company. He would travel by State Transport Corporation buses, hopping into and skipping out of small and medium sized, rural and semi-urban towns of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Talking to dealers, offering schemes in cash and kind, telling them about the premium value of Nippo batteries over other batteries, clinching some deals and traveling on.

In the subsequent decades of eighties and nineties, he changed many companies, changing the product line with each switch. He sold a range of products from washing machines to batteries to hair oil, toothpastes and facial creams. But two things always remained constant: His job profile, which was always to set up primary markets in rural and semi-urban areas; and his paycheck, which increased every time he switched companies.

In the late nineties he landed up with a job with a Multi-National Company which manufactured consumer durables. His job was still the same, but he took home around forty-five thousand rupees a month. Despite an experience of a quarter of a century in direct sales behind him, he was still stuck at middle level management. Lack of an MBA degree was often cited as the reason for his non-advancement. The Gujarat riots forced the TV maker to close shop, leaving Jamie's father desperate, in search for a job. After sixteen months of a trying search, disappointment and frustration, he found a job with a start-up local hair oil and broom manufacturing firm for seven thousand rupees per month as salary. For two years, he worked as sales manager for Gujarat region, tottering small villages and non-descript roadside towns; talking, conversing, persuading and cajoling the local dealers he now knew so well, to buy a new product. After two years, the company asked him to leave as they were planning to hire a younger sales manager with an MBA degree.

Jamie Johnson feels quite perplexed that his father, at fifty-four, despite being a postgraduate in Pharmacology, is struggling to find a job. Jamie always wanted to have a career in media, preferably to work for an English language news channel. But he didn't have the requisite training, command and control over English, a language that constantly eluded him. His quest for mastery over English made him join an international call centre. For him the job was a stop-gap; the calling was of a television news anchor. He was twenty-one when he joined the industry at a salary of seven thousand rupees a month. He joined the industry to learn the soft skills, be trained in American and British accents, hone his confidence and move on. But four years and five call centres later, he feels that he should spend some more time here before eventually hopping on to an English language news channel. Despite being 'just' a graduate he earns around forty thousand rupees a month, plus perks. He now wants his unemployed father to join the call centre industry.

The life worlds of Jamie and his father are symptomatic of the tectonic shifts that the job market in urban India has witnessed in the last few decades. However, these shifts were neither spontaneous nor premeditated. On the contrary, these changes arose from the ruins of earlier notions of 'white caller' work. The vortex of the call centre carries with it memories of instability of work, vulnerability of labor and the arbitrariness of the contract of wage and tenure. The circulation of a 'white caller' professional within an industry changing companies, product lines, job profiles and routines is not an unknown phenomenon in the Indian work scenario. The emergence of Information Technology enabled service sector, of which the international call center industry forms a major segment, has redefined work in ways that calls for new approaches to look at changes in work cultures.

Jamie, even with a far less formal education than his father, earns a competitive salary. He earns in four years what his father was able to earn after putting in twenty-three arduous years of service. For his father, post graduation in pharmacology, a degree considered rarity in his times, was of no help for a major part of his career. From the nineteen nineties onwards his work profile was stunted because of a supposed 'lack' of another specialised degree. Jamie changed as many jobs in the first four years of his career as his father did in the first decade of his working years. Jamie feels that if he sticks too long in one organisation, it might harm his career in the long run. According to him a change every two years is considered healthy as it denotes productivity, a yearning for growth, a need to accept new challenges, and a will to learn and execute different job requirements. Staying with one company, on the other hand, may be taken for slackness and lack of ambition. The move by many call centres to employ middle level professionals may hint towards a well-formulated tactic to tackle high attrition rates.

The tottering nature of work and leisure is not limited to agents alone. The winds of capital movement produces fluctuations in the wide spectrum- from investments to wage rates. As the market develops, the industry responds by changing the venue, rituals, protocols, and profile of call centres, leaving the nature of work invariable.

*The Matrioshka Doll*

A dusty, broken track just off the inner Ring Road leads to a cluster of unplanned localities and government colonies. Bhagwan Nagar, mixed locality and urban village, lies a kilometer or so inside. A /rickshawala/ charges 5 rupees for a ride to Bhagwan Nagar from the main road. There used to be a '/pucca/' road, but it was dug up last year to lay cables and sewer lines. There is talk that it will be repaired after the monsoons.

Shops selling everything from hosiery to toys to household products to hardware, PCOs and cyber cafes, property dealer offices and chemists line the road. An odd electrician, a furniture maker and a number of juice stalls selling fresh mixed-fruit juice, a few /paanwalas/, and small and big /dhabas/ that spill over to the streets, add to the vibrancy of this area. Fruit and vegetable vendors create space for their wares on non-existent pavements, leaving pedestrians and beggars and a local madman to jostle for space with an increasing number of cycles, /rickshaws/, autos, taxis and cars and animals on the road.

Buildings that have seen better days, newly constructed houses smelling of fresh paint and a few remnant structures of the former village, on the brink of collapse, propped up with the support of wooden facades, make Bhagwan Nagar a rich collage of architectural styles reflecting a temporal spectrum of many decades. As land value increased and incomes improved, floor was added to the house and rented out to a steady stream of migrant workers, itinerant professionals, students, petty businessmen, small industrialists and daily wage earners keen to make home in a well connected locality with cheap rents. In this much contested and congested space also lies Microgate, an all night internet cafe. Our regular haunt in a bid to stay connected.

Microgate is located in the basement of a three-story building, easily one of the better constructions of the area, sandwiched between a general grocery store and a /saree/ boutique. Narrow steps lead to a tin door, which is usually open at all times. A neat black and white A- 4 size poster an advertisement for Biology and Zoology tutorials for class XII is pasted on the peeling green paint of the door. A few more steps lead to the dimly lit cafe. The inside mirrors the congestion outside. The ten feet by ten feet basement hall is divided into four sections: A small reception area next to the stairs, a cubicle with a table and a revolving chair for Guddu, the owner, a small empty space, where the technical and managerial staff of the cafe sleep at night, and a hall, which is the main cafe space.

This area is further partitioned in four rows with space for sixteen computers. Coloured printouts of computer games like Tom & Jerry and Road Rash are pasted on the wall. Dysfunctional air conditioners adorn the side walls, seeming taxidermies of extinct priceless birds. A low hum of conversations can be heard as one enters the cafe. A cheap metallic wind chime at the door gives incessant background music to the steady beat of fingers moving on keyboards. The atmosphere reeks of stale air and human sweat. However, in the mornings Guddu lights a daily stick of incense, as offering to the Gods to bring more business to his cyber cafe. Guddu provides better services than many cafes of the locality. There is round-the-clock supply of water, electricity and internet connectivity at Microgate. Some say it is because his mother is positioned as an important worker with a leading political party.

One night, a couple of weeks ago, we used Microgate's services to send off a few urgent emails. It was late and by midnight we were the only customers. Some of the staff were dozing on makeshift beds in the sleeping corner and most of the lights had been switched off. At about 1:00 PM however, people started trickling in young men, in one's and two's, sometimes a helmet in hand. They began taking position on the vacant seats, behind the till now blank screens. Before long, a semi-American accent was confirming participation in Pope John's funeral.

A few months before, a middle level manager of an elite international call centre contacted Guddu. The proposition was to share some load of that call centre in return for sum of forty thousand rupees a month. Guddu agreed. He hired some out-of-work and some working agents who had prior experience of the industry on 'payment on performance' basis, from 2:00 AM till 10:00 AM.

With no frills of dinner and snacks, pick-up or drop, and no facilities like toilets, cash coupons or tickets to multiplexes, Guddu operates an 'international call centre'. He manages a complete gamut of campaigns and products, just like any other Business Process Outsourcing unit in Noida and Gurgaon. For the agents of this international call centre, there is no accent training, minimal process training, and a more informal relationship with the boss. Unlike many other premium call centers, less monitoring, supervision and surveillance takes place here, even as the work contract is more fragile. The call centre aspect of the operations of the cyber cafe has been closed since last week for about one month now, as the contract has expired; and while Guddu finalises his deal with the next company, his team of agents has moved on.

Guddu's call centre marks the transformation and shift in an eager industry, searching for and finding newer avenues of business. This lofty stagger seems to displace the logic and rationality of a trade composed of highly systematised processes, in an overwhelmingly fragmented manner. The outsourcing of work processes within the outsourcing industry and the subsequent mushrooming of a parallel international call centre industry in the city is an indicator of a leveling of work contracts and wages in times to come. Located on the fringes, Microgate may appear flirtatious, but it is a marker of a desire by the industry to widen its base into larger entrepreneurial services.


The management at Glocall Services, an international call centre, found it difficult to maintain order at the main entry point of the office building. They had given the contract for security, its fourth one in the last seven months, to Leo Securities.Mata Prasad, a security guard posted at Glocall, tries to avoid main gate duty largely due to his complete inability to manage the thronging crowds of workers passing through the gates. Agents would often come in two's or three's, some times in larger groups, and always in a rush to reach their seats before the login time begins. For them, Mata Prasad with his entourage of security guards was an unwelcome speed breaker. He along with Vinod, inside the guard hut to distribute and collect access cards, Bashir at the metal detector and Jai Kishan, the walkman-totting, pot bellied supervisor were nothing more than a road block, an obstacle to be overrun in the mad rush to reach the campaign floor in time. They would badger, mock, ignore, coerce, grimace and do almost anything to scuttle past the narrow passage way at the entrance. For Mata Prasad and his colleagues, the time of shift change was a challenge. Their duty was to make sure that order prevailed, that agents were checked, their identities confirmed, and their bodies scanned for any undesirables. He knew that his agency was failing on all four counts. And if something was not done quickly, it wouldn't be long before he would be out on streets sipping sugary lukewarm /chai/ and waiting for another contract to come his agency's way.

His prayers were soon answered in the form of ping-pong balls. The security agency, after giving much thought to the problem, installed a new system. The six feet broad entrance gate was partitioned into four sections: visitors, agents, management and women. At the head of each was a small cardboard box containing four ping-pong balls white, pink, red and yellow. Agents had to move through their respective partition, and as they would reach the main entrance gate, Mata Prasad, along with his colleagues, would be waiting for them by the box. Agents obeyed blanket orders issued by the management to display their identity cards at all times. With the new system at the gate, an agent would pause for at least ten seconds to pick a ball from the box. This would halt the line, giving Mata Prasad enough time to check his ID card and tally the photograph on it with his face. If the agent was lucky, he might dig up the white ball, which would mean that he could go straight to his floor with out being checked. A pink ball would mean a complete body check. A yellow ball would mean body-scan through a metal detector and a red ball stood for the entire process a body check, followed by a manual metal detector scan and subsequently passing through the metal detector door.

Agents never knew how many balls of which color are placed in each box. The unpredictability of the system became its chief selling point to the management and staff. For John Baker, and agent at Glocall, the line up at the gates was just another addition that restricted his movement inside the call centre. Apart from his campaign floor, the cafeteria, the stairs, the foyer, the lobby and the loo, most of the six-floored building was out of bounds for him.>From the logins, logouts, the AHT's, the canteen breaks, to bio-breaks and commuting schedules, everything was timed. Barging of calls, supervision of his person through CCTV cameras, regulation of work by the Team Leader, tedious repetition of a script over two hundred times a day, coupled with daily monitoring and evaluation of calls taken by each agent was a routine that defined his halting drifts and impermanent stays at four call centres in the last three years. A training workbook at his Centre reads: /Change negative thoughts to positive thoughts. 'If it goes down again, I'll scream!' can be written as, 'I can't control when the computer blinks out, so it's not worth getting upset about. Besides, I'm ready for it. I have a pad of paper and my notes handy, so technical difficulties wont disrupt my calls that much.' 'Sheesh! I get all the crancky customers!' can be written as 'Its really a hard task to handle this customer but I will solve his problems and hope I get a better one in the future.' /

Hazel recalls how, after a year in a prestigious international call centre, she ended all her non-work conversations with 'Thank you for calling. It was a pleasure talking to you ma'am/sir'. Her call centre conversations entered the realm of sleep and room mates assert that she talked to her customers in her sleep. For Hazel, the call centre was a learning ground. She quit her job a few months ago and now runs a call centre placement agency in partnership with her sister in Okhla.

The phrase 'NOT ALLOWED' figures quite frequently in an agent's vocabulary, as strict rules monitor her movement across time and space. The agent, though largely immobile, moves through cables and Internet, browsing/sifting/excavating tonnes of data that is vital, tempting and dangerous. The density of panoptical gestures in a call centre seems to be closely linked to its profile and the nature of data that flows through it. The site of an international call center is often fraught with micro-managed processes. These processes ensure rationalisation of surveillance practices, manufacture and enforce codes of conduct, restrict movement of agents in and around the space of a call centre, create procedures of access, normalise mechanistic functioning of the body through predetermined routines, and segregate and control temporality of work shifts by minutely isolating each phase of an agent's time and constantly enforcing and appraising modes of performance.

In sharp contrast to the protocols of imperceptibility lies the cubicle or a workstation in a hall, with rows upon rows of seats arranged systematically. A typical cubicle of an international call centre mirrors multiple subjectivities. As the clock ticks, its hands churning away time and shift, agents change and new, different, known and unknown ones occupy the same seat. The interior of the cubicle or the look of a workstation reflects the persona of the agent. A disfigured can of beer, a family photograph, a key chain, a toy car, a miniature bell, stickers with motivational messages, a friendship band, a birthday card all these are mute testaments to the presence of the working individual. As an agent occupies a cubicle, she marks the space through these mementos of her self, subjugating the seat by an impression of her identity. These inscriptions, although temporary in nature, convey her desire to assert her presence amidst prevalent practices of indistinguishablity.


As agents move through shifts, workstations, campaigns, processes and companies, with their movement measured in time, distance, currency and rank, they carry with them unique experiences of work and leisure, of negotiation and compliance and of engagement and attrition. The call centre whispers its secrets, regales its jokes, recounts its mundane details, and exaggerates its adventures through these agents, who are the carriers, custodians and transmitters of their narratives. Their stories find motion and mount on the existing networks of cables and communities, entering the realm of the virtual and the real, the drawing room and the chat room, the blog and the diary. The telling sometimes adds romance, spice and luster to the narratives; while some wither away, unrecognised.

Dave works as an engineer with an automation company in Delhi. He had just returned from Orissa after completing a preliminary survey of a coalmine, when we first met him. He very matter of factly recalled his first and last day on the floor of Raksh International.

Wednesday June 09, 2004 5: 55pm

Dave Singer logs in. His Team Leader walks past nodding his head in recognition and possible approval. It is Dave's first day on the floor. The first time he is to be on air, live. He was one of the top performers in his training group and has now been allotted one of the top performing teams in the campaign. The process deals in customer care for ANZ digital scanners 'the scanner that shows the true picture'. It was a technical process with an AHT of 17 minutes. The team comprises of a few newcomers and a large number of old hands. The Team Leader has recently been promoted to the post and has an experience of over two years as a calling agent.

6:02 pm

The first call. Dave's heart beat shot up. He takes the call after being poked in the ribs by a colleague. On hearing the complaining New Yorker on the other end, he forgets his accent and the standard opening line of 'Thank you for calling ANZ services. This is Dave. May I have your case ID or telephone number starting with three digit area code? With the Team Leader (TL) and half a dozen agents staring down at him, noting every move, gesture and stumble in voice with disdain, his nervousness increased and after a brief, awkward conversation with the customer, a Mr. Patrick Shiner from Brooklyn, Dave, bypassing all protocols ended the call with an abrupt 'Bye! Call me later.'

Dave did not have much time to recover before the screen showed him the second call. He avoided meeting the TL's disapproving gaze and gradually confidence returned. When he looked up from the screen next time, nine hours had passed. At the stock-taking meeting, the TL gave him a verbal trashing, appraised his soft skills, while recommending him back to the training programme for two months.

In the cab that morning, while going home, knowing that he had an exceptionally bad start, other agents tried to lighten the mood. One senior agent, Phil Rogers narrated his own experience of how he froze on his first call and how two colleagues had to wrestle the receiver from his hands at the end of the call because he was too terrified to let the let the instrument go. An agent named Neil Anderson recounted how he once gave a wrong alias to a customer. Instead of saying Neil Anderson, he said, Neil Robinson. The customer almost jumped with joy mistaking him for Neil Robinson, a famous baseball player. With the precise intention of avoiding dead air, Neil promptly replied that his name was Anderson and not Robinson. The customer said that she was positive she heard Robinson.

Literally thinking on his feet, Neil replied that he recently got married and changed his last name. Neil Anderson, age 25, was a manic workaholic agent. He had only three loves in his life Marijuana, Wills Navy Cut and making sales. He ran away from home at age fourteen because his mother didn't allow him to carry on with the legacy of his father and grand father, to work as a fighter pilot. At fifteen years of age, he started his career selling Hawkins pressure cookers as a door to door sales man in Calcutta. He joined the call centre industry with a direct sales experience of five years. From selling the complete edition of Encyclopedia Britannica to Super Clean washing powder, he had sold a complete range of fast moving consumer products.

When he joined the industry he couldn't get used to the idea of being tied to a chair for hours. So he devised a way to deal with this, and after some years of sustained above-average performance, he came up with a time-tested maxim. 'You can't do calling unless you do dope'. He believed that one couldn't make sales unless one is on a high. His job was to sell toy models of Harley Davidson bikes to a targeted constituency of ex-US army personnel. He made a few friends while calling and would often spend hours talking to them about comparative advantages and disadvantages of various models. Predictably, when he became a team leader he very carefully selected agents who matched his personality traits. His team's sales performance was trailing the leader within three months of the launch of the process. This was an achievement, considering that there were about a dozen processes on his floor.

Soon complaints of agents doing dope on the floor, under the table, in the loo, on the stairs and in the canteen area started circulating around. It wasn't long before the operations manager called on Neil and shared his thoughts about sacking the whole team including the TL. Neil in a fit of anger, mouthed the last quarter's sales results, gave reasons for the high motivation level of the agents, and explained the rationale for above-average accomplishments. The manager left without saying a word. Last heard, Neil, bored with selling credit cards had moved to another call center in Pune.

The narratives of call center workers like Neil, Hazel, Dave and Jamie reappear as anecdotes registered in the collective memory of other agents. As they recollect stories of virtual flights, of unformed friendships, of the moment of attrition and of sketches of resistances and cooperation, they circulate a valuable experience of work and in the process create a virtual and mental archive of labor and work practices in the new economy. Their narratives weave a complex tapestry of the everyday and night in a call center.

The industry marks an important transformation in the nature of service sector work where the color of the workers' collar is indeterminately mottled, where for every GE and Daksh there is a Microgate, where for every anomaly there is a ping-pong ball, and where despite containment, stories and tales seep out of unnoticed crevices and circulate.

International Conference on New Global Workforces and Virtual Workplaces: Connections, Culture, and Control, August 22-23, 2005, Bangalore, India / Sponsor: National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore India / Indo-Dutch Programme for Alternatives in Development

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