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Organising Call Centre Agents: Emerging Issues

Organisations in the information technology enabled services sector have been very successful in using exclusivist and inclusivist strategies to keep unions at bay. These strategies have reinforced the notion of culturalism that aims at winning the "hearts and minds" of employees, by managing what they think and feel, and not just how they behave. The objective is to illustrate how these management strategies play out in call centres in India. The article is based on interviews carried out with call centre employees in Bangalore.

Organising Call Centre Agents: Emerging Issues

Organisations in the information technology enabled services sector have been very successful in using exclusivist and inclusivist strategies to keep unions at bay. These strategies have reinforced the notion of culturalism that aims at winning the “hearts and minds” of employees, by managing what they think and feel, and not just how they behave. The objective is to illustrate how these management strategies play out in call centres in India. The article is based on interviews carried out with call centre employees in Bangalore.


all centres have emerged out of the major changes that have taken place in the sphere of work and employment in last two decades or so. A fundamental feature of this change has been the economic restructuring bolstered by the phenomenon of outsourcing resulting in the increase in the number of jobs in the service sector. One such sector that has grown rapidly due to these changes is the information technology enabled services-business process outsourcing (ITES-BPO) sector. The services offered include customer interaction, back office operations, transcription, content development and education/ training/research. It has emerged as one of the key industries for investment in the country. Exports are estimated to have doubled from $ 3.1 billion in the year 2003-04 to $ 6.3 billion by the end of the year 2005-06. In terms of total employment, the projected figure was supposed to have reached 4,09,000 for the financial year 2005-06. This growth in the Indian ITES-BPO segment is driven by a steady increase in scale and depth of existing service lines and the addition of newer vertical specific and niche business services. [National Association of Software and Services Companies or NASSCOM 2006].

At the organisational level, this process of economic restructuring buttressed by outsourcing has been accompanied with a more “customer focused” strategies increasingly used by employers to achieve competitive advantage in global and national markets. The introduction of new employment practices, organisational structures, information and communications technologies, production systems and management techniques have enabled organisations to focus their strategies on customer satisfaction [Belt 2002]. For instance, in the call centre space, software developments have allowed for extremely complex routing of calls, as well as the integration of customer data, products and process information across the entire range of organisational activities and services. The development of management information systems generates real-time statistics on a range of activities, such as the number of calls, transactions and sales, as well as work process related measures, such as average length of calls. On the employee relations front, the expansion of call centres made employment more flexible. Call centres have been used to escape from existing collective agreements or challenge them, disembedding them from the traditional regulatory constraints, and moving in the direction of the more liberal employment model. Indeed, union avoidance has been the core management strategy in call centres [Shire et al 2002; Arzbächer et al 2002].

The reaction of the Indian ITES industry to unionisation seems to be no different. Recently, fear seemed to have gripped the BPO industry, this was not related to losing business but to unions being formed in call centres. The media highlighted the possibility of investment shying away from the Indian shores as labour groups begin to organise employees in this sector. Some feared that unionisation would kill the fledgling BPO boom in the country while others exhorted one to imagine the situation where BPO workers holding red flags picketed these sophisticated organisations. The media argued that there was no room for complaints against the BPO outfits as they provided exceptionally good environment and good salaries. The move to unionise workers was seen as a retrograde step which would spell disaster for the industry. It was asserted that third party intervention did not augur well for the industry. Advocates of this philosophy often negate the role of unions while emphasising that sophisticated human resource management (HRM) strategies have a significant potential to take care of workers’ interests. Thus, the ground has shifted dramatically from a pluralist to a unitarist perspective of the employment relationship.

This new relationship between employer and employee, marginalises the role of unions in the workplace or emphasises overt union avoidance. Peetz (2002) states that simplistic policies focus on exclusivist strategies, while a more sophisticated approach embraces both inclusivist human resources management techniques as well as exclusivist methods. Exclusivist strategies include firms casualising and outsourcing staff, the outright refusal to negotiate with unions, while inclusivist strategies involve the use of employee involvement schemes and human resource initiatives. Nonetheless, each of these actions has a real and symbolic dimension. The real dimension is the physical manifestation of the action, while the symbolic dimension is the meaning that is attached to the action, and conveyed to a target audience about the relationship between an employee and the employer. The message it gives may either be inclusivist, that is telling particular employees that they are an integral part of the organisation; or exclusivist, that is, indicating that particular forms of behaviour or unions, are not welcome. Inclusivist actions seek to increase employee distancing and separation from the organisation of unions, whose values are inconsistent with those of the organisation. The symbolism that is associated with more sophisticated decollectivist actions aims to shape employees’ notions to conceive of themselves as belonging not to an employee focused collectivity – a union – but rather to an employer – focused collectivity – the organisation. This symbolism also aims to shape the reference groups with which employees associate, away from wider notions of occupation or class, to narrow conceptions based on their immediate work environment and their organisation. It will also shape employees’ expectations, so that demands for wages will not be based on movements in community standards but on improvements in personal productivity.

In the context of call centres, researchers in the west provide evidence of the use of both inclusivist and exclusivist strategies. Commitment to organisational values was seen by management as antithetical to trade union membership. Management has endeavoured to increase commitment via employee involvement schemes that focus on improving management-employee relations and thereby deflecting the perceived need of call centre agents to involve unions in representing their interests [van Den Broek 2003]. The latter also provides evidence of exclusivist strategies used in Australian call centres. Customer service representatives who had unitarist tendencies and were antithetic to workplace trade unionism were recruited while those with union backgrounds or those who previously worked in highly unionised firms were blacklisted. Moreover, recruits were pressurised to sign individual non-union contracts at the appointment or promotion stage. Nonetheless, the impact of these policies on unionisation has not received the attention that it deserves. A few studies have addressed the issue, though parsimoniously.

Rose (2002) states substitution policies may have little effect on the level of commitment shown by an employee to his/her organisation. For example, a relatively opulent working environment in a non-unionised setting together with the provision of certain benefits such as free private medical and dental care do not detract from the “sweatshop conditions” which prevail. Management control is not uncontested and that the nature of the work can provide opportunities for unions to organise. Much of what management wants to achieve conflicts with the employees’ interests. Performance targets, minimising the agents’ time away from the telephones and minimising staffing levels result in work intensification, besides, lack of career and promotion prospects and monotony giving rise to resistance, including union representation. The “new” issues of service quality, discretion to deviate from standards and recognition of social skills are added to the more traditional bargaining issues of pay, working hours, holidays, etc, [Taylor and Bain 1999]. However, Todd et al (2003) state that management control strategies such as close monitoring and nature of the work can make it difficult for unions to gain recognition within the call centres. Management would not want “outsiders” intruding in such a culture of control and surveillance, unless they believed that this would assist with the achievement of those goals. Our objective in this article is to illustrate how these management policies play out in the context of call centres in India. The article is based on the interviews carried on with employees working in the contact centres in Bangalore.


The present paper draws from a larger qualitative study whose focus was to understand subjective meanings and interpretations of work experiences of employees in the ITES-BPO sector in Mumbai and Bangalore. The conversational interview was used to explore and gather experiential narrative material that would serve as a resource for developing a richer and deeper understanding of the experience being studied. Though unstructured, the process was disciplined by focusing on the fundamental question that prompted the research. Yet the clarity of the research question did not preclude exploring issues that emerged during the interview, since the researcher was aware that they could generate important insights into the phenomenon under study.

Participants in the study were people who had experienced the phenomenon. Potential participants were identified through snowball sampling and contacted via the telephone. Once the researchers introduced themselves and explained to the participants how they had come to know of them and their contact details, the purpose of the phone call and the study were explained. Potential participant questions were answered – these questions essentially related to the purpose of the study and the length of time for the interview. If they agreed to participate, a convenient time and place were set up. Permission to record the interviews was sought, and since participants were explained that recording the interview helped to maintain the accuracy of their accounts as compared to compiling field notes where accuracy could be compromised due to faulty recall later, they agreed. All interviews were conducted in English and were later transcribed by a research assistant. Forty call centre employees were included in the study.

During the period of data collection, interviews were translated and transcribed. The researchers then read these transcripts carefully and repeatedly, immersing themselves in the data [Crabtree and Miller 1992]. This approach did not involve prefigured categories but allowed the researchers’ intuitive and interpretive capacities to prevail. Immersion allowed the researchers to identify themes, categories and patterns emerging from the data [Marshall and Rossman 1996]. Proceeding in this manner, the researchers developed various understandings (such as concepts, causal linkages, processes, and so on) of the phenomena under study. These understandings were used to inform further data collection, through which they were tested and challenged. Based on newer data, they were further developed, thereby feeding back into the analysis [Marshall and Rossman 1996]. Iteration thus formed an integral part of the research process. When all the data were collected, the researchers immersed themselves further in the transcripts and the preliminary findings. They not only identified more patterns, themes and categories in the data and looked for interpretations at this level, but also subsumed under major themes, those themes, patterns and categories and their linkages within and across respondents, that held together in a meaningful yet distinct way. Interpretations based on this level of analysis were made.

Work ContextWork ContextWork ContextWork ContextWork Context

Recent research has described call centres as “electronic sweatshops” [Fernie and Metcalfe 1998] and “assembly lines in the head” Taylor and Bain that emphasise factory-like division of labour [Taylor and Bain 1999; van den Broek 2003], with jobs being characterised as dead-end, with low complexity, low control, repetition and routineness [Knights and McCabe 1998; Taylor and Bain 1999]. Call centre agents are mouthpieces who follow scripted dialogues and detailed instructions and their work is closely monitored, tightly controlled and highly routinised, thanks to extensive reliance on highly sophisticated computer technology [Deery and Kinnie 2004]. The pressure for quantity versus the aspiration for quality imposes conflicting role

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

requirements on employees. The challenge is of trying to get closer to the customer while reducing costs, prescribing standards and meeting targets [Houlihan 2000; Korczynski 2002].

Data from the present study highlighted that in the Indian context, agents working in call centres were trained to believe that the customer could hear their smiles and sense their moods, therefore it was mandatory to enthusiastically communicate with the customer no matter how irate he/she was. Interacting with an abusive or irate customer was seen as being an integral part of the agent’s job at a call centre. When customers identified the agents as Indians, they had to face the ignominious situation of callers hanging up. Agents were helpless and disappointed when customers reacted this way due to the loss of jobs in the west. However, racial overtones of callers were to be handled with a professional finesse. It was therefore important to have a neutral accent or take on pseudonyms. Emotions were to be set aside and agents were urged to attend the very next call with equal attention.

Agents’ performance was closely and constantly monitored. The evaluation parameters in call centres included the number of calls taken per shift, the average handling time per call and the maintenance of prescribed procedures while in an outbound call centre they were evaluated on their ability to convert calls into sales. Call barging allowed supervisors at various levels such as team leaders, project managers, operations managers as well as quality analysts to listen to employees taking a call. Further, call recording meant that all calls were recorded and any call could be pulled out of the archives at random to be evaluated. Through both these processes, employees were given feedback about their technical and social performance. Though monitoring for quality was not objected to, the constant pinpointing out of deficiencies at times irritated agents and affected their productivity. Those in outbound sales were constantly haunted and abused by their supervisors. They were constantly reminded that their worth lay in making money for the company.

Working for overseas clients whose customers were located in the US, Canada, the UK or Australia meant that participants had to work in night shifts in order to respond to different time zones. There were participants who were able to adjust to night shifts after an initial period of discomfort. But there were others who found it difficult to manage night shifts, experiencing health problems such as loss of appetite, changes in body weight, chronic fatigue and drowsiness, decreasing vigilance and irritability on account of disruption in eating, digestion and sleeping patterns, as a result. Some stated that a major part of their salary was spent on paying off doctors as their immunity system had suffered. Therefore agents were preoccupied with getting enough of sleep so that they could effectively perform at night. Sometimes even sleep seemed to elude them, as numerous disturbances from friends and family during the day seemed inevitable. Their work routines programmed them for the entire week. Even on holidays they felt the need of following similar schedules to those followed in the early part of the week so that they did not suffer from sleeplessness. Shift work also affected family life. Some call centre employees stated that they had not seen or had a meal with other family members for weeks on end. When they were awake the family slept and when the family worked they slept.

Unscheduled breaks during the working hours were not permitted while scheduled breaks were tracked by specially designed software. Participants had to log in and log out at specified times. Though normally, during a shift, slots were provided for two 15-minute breaks and a break of half an hour for lunch/dinner, breaks were decided by the team leaders on the basis of call levels or call queue. Delay even by a minute to take their seats after a break resulted in yelling and use of abusive language for everyone to hear across the floor. Long queues in the cafeteria forced them to choose fast food or skip their meal/snack in order to log back in time. This also affected their food habits and nutrition intake. Participants mentioned how such strict observation of time meant that they could not log out of their systems or leave their seats even to go to the restrooms (if it was an emergency, they had to seek permission from the team leader to do so) or get a breather. Talking non-stop not only tired the call centre employees but made them victims of parched throats. Long hours at work extended by the ordeal of road travel had an impact on their health and left them with no time to take care of their family chores or attend to several important matters. For no fault of theirs organisations expected employees to compensate for the delays caused due to traffic snarls. Asking them to stay beyond the shift hours and to work on off days was also not uncommon. Employees were expected to be able to adjust to sudden change in shifts and were at times abruptly summoned to office. Change in shifts affected their biological rhythms more so when there was not enough rest provided for between shift changes to make these adjustments.

Agents were denied leave even in case of serious ailments or problems. When the call volume was high people were expected to report to duty no matter how ill the person was. Instances were cited of those who were denied leave by the management and were threatened with termination letters. They were not always paid overtime for the extra work they put in. In fact extra work was required to be done to impress one’s superiors who would ensure further growth in the organisation. A confirmation letter did not mean anything, employees could be terminated at any time without proper notice.

For managers, employees required to have a foremost responsibility to their job rather than to the family. Skipping company outings in some cases was equated to lack of commitment to the team and team bonding. Agents’ pleas of their inability to spend quality time with members of their family were ignored by managers. As a result, in an effort to juggle between family and work resulted in agents depriving themselves of sleep. Their weekly breaks were spent entirely with the family or to handle households chores like washing soiled clothes that had accumulated during the week.

Bain and Taylor argue that these working conditions should be enough reason for union formation in call centres. However, our interviews with agents reveal that this may not be so. We argue that the Peetz (2002) formulation does partly explain the complex phenomenon, but other forces like organisation culture and employee identity, besides the context, do also account for the problem.

Trade Union Formation: A ChallengeTrade Union Formation: A ChallengeTrade Union Formation: A ChallengeTrade Union Formation: A ChallengeTrade Union Formation: A Challenge

Unions as alien and unnecessary entities: At the very outset most of the agents ruled out the possibility of forming a union. Many did not know what the term union meant and how unions functioned. When explained to them they found the idea strange and alien. They nodded with disbelief at suggestions of unions being formed in call centres. Call centre employees believed that union formation would never take place in the sector for several decades to come. For those who had some understanding of the word, union, the formation of a collective would be unfair, since the organisation had been upfront about the working conditions at the time of recruitment, it was not right for employees to later form a union, because they could not cope. Footloose capital: This attitude towards union formation was all pervasive even though job security was a major concern. In their opinion, it was beyond the union’s ability to assuage this constant tension of keeping ones job since the threat of job security was greater from the ban on outsourcing than from being fired. A union would only exacerbate the situation of job insecurity as it would lead to work stoppages affecting the clients, the company and the agents themselves. This was something that none of the stakeholders could afford, more so the agents, as it would render them unemployed. The footloose nature of capital today made agents wary of any action that would result in job loss. Having been abused by agents in the west they knew that their jobs were also at risk. Technology today enabled transfer of a process from one city to another or even from one country to another. Formation of a union in Bangalore would result in a shift to newer locations like Chennai and result in a job loss. Agents were also aware of competition from countries like the Philippines and China. Bangalore had to be a preferred choice for investors and union formation would only shun away investment and leave the youth stranded. Agents therefore preferred to bear with the strains and pressures rather than form unions. The formation of unions would destabilise the industry and disturb the present status quo which in their opinion was not unfavourable to them.

There is a difference between the manufacturing sector and the BPO sector. BPOs can always move, other countries are waiting to grab opportunities. So if a union is formed in Bangalore and a strike called, people won’t join. And the companies will shift to Chennai or other place. They can do it so easily. Every small thing is documented and so it is easy to shift. I don’t think unions will help.

Omnipotent MNCs: It was natural therefore to deny outright that call centres in India had problems. Issues that concerned many seemed to pertain to minor problems such as drops and pick ups, queues in canteens and quality of food. An image had been created of an MNC being omnipotent – capable of handling any problem situation. Call centres were considered to be generally reputed multi-billion dollar companies with an approachable management, good human resources (HR) policies and concerned about the welfare of its employees. In any case, a union had no role to play in an organisation where people were satisfied and demands were met. The metaphor of a beautiful picture was used to describe call centres. There were opportunities for growth which no other industry could offer. The perception that prospects were there for everyone, made them believe that there was no difference between them and their superiors. Calling each other and one’s superior by the first name gave agents a sense of oneness with the organisation and a seeming appearance of a less bureaucratic structure. On the other hand, they surmised that government offices were hierarchy-based and were housed in ramshackle buildings as compared to the bright air-conditioned offices which they worked. Agents believed that employers did all they could to help them to overcome the stress by providing them with destress rooms, games that help them to unwind, lavish outings, cultural programmes, doctors on call, etc. Call centres also had reasonably priced cafeterias with nutrition experts, recreation rooms with bean bags, computers with internet access, music systems, televisions, carrom boards, table tennis equipment, at times badminton courts along with a gym. Keeping with international standards, the offices were modern, meaning good looking and well furnished unlike government offices which had cramped space and a heap of files. Working out of such buildings gave them a sense of being valued – an asset to the company. The locality at which the company was situated, the exteriors and interiors all added to the sense of being professional. Therefore, unions could only be established in small contact centres with 45 to 50 seats, having no basic facilities such as these or grievance procedures for employees to voice their complaints. The HR department: Rendering unions redundant: In call centres run by MNCs, team meetings or skip level meetings were arranged to provide a platform for employees to air their grievances. In some call centres an email was enough for their managers to sit up and take notice. If the immediate manager did not consider their issue, they could take it up with the next immediate senior manager. Agents believed that they could even talk to the CEO or send him/her a mail. However, this was rarely required to be done as their problems were immediately resolved. A simple complaint to the team leader or operations manager would set things right. Individual dialogue with ones superiors were encouraged to address grievances. Even personal problems were discussed. People were encouraged to express their frustrations and feelings so that performance did not suffer. They could also raise issues in the surveys that regularly happened. For some agents, the HR department was like a union taking up issues on the behalf of the employees. Problems with the operation managers could be reported to the HR which would then take up the issue with the concerned authorities. This was reinforced by the belief that there was almost no or only a minimal hierarchy between the agents and the management. The informal atmosphere of using first names and provisions for games and sports was proof of this. Therefore a union which could take up the issues on behalf of employees was not required. They often believed that the numbers reflected their performance. Performance mattered and it was natural that those who did not meet the standards should be told to quit.

I have never seen unions in call centres. Probably because in a good company, if you complain it will be solved. So they don’t need to make a union and fight together, because the company is affected. Unions are never seen because they give you whatever you want. You have some problem with the cab, you can go and tell the team leader (TL) and TL will take the issue to higher authority. If the cab driver is drunk, they will take him off. That’s the way it works.

Maintaining Larger InterestsMaintaining Larger InterestsMaintaining Larger InterestsMaintaining Larger InterestsMaintaining Larger Interests

The unitarist tendencies on the part of employees surfaced when they pleaded against the criticism of the call centres. The call centre management was always right and they favoured efforts that improved the functioning of the organisation. Agents argued for an alternate organisation that would enhance the call centre industry’s intellectual and financial capabilities rather than be a debilitating influence. The mandate of such an organisation should be to maintain the agent’s employability. Its objectives need to coincide with the interest of the corporate organisation’s goals. Any research that raised questions about call centre management was to be set aside. Research results that were not in line with the corporate organisations perspective were required

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

to be circumvented. Only research that improved the functioning of the corporate organisation was to be encouraged. Organisations should carefully scrutinise the agenda of the researcher. Any research findings that did not further the interest of the organisation should be seen as being subjective and not objective. Publicity that denigrates the companies was to be negated or ignored. Every organisation had problems and call centres were no different, therefore, highlighting the problems of call centres only provided uncalled for adverse publicity. Just as “insider trading” on the bourses was detrimental to the share markets so was the formation of a collective deleterious to the organisation. Only organisations which would help employers achieve their objective rather than scuttle them would be encouraged. Even innocuous programmes such as health awareness would be looked at with suspicion. Programmes like six sigma that contribute to the efficiency of the company need to be encouraged. Employees should entertain questions from outsiders only after due authorisation by the management. They were sure that management would resist an outside organisation interfering in its affairs with its employees as it would be restrictive.

Role of ‘Professionalism’Role of ‘Professionalism’Role of ‘Professionalism’Role of ‘Professionalism’Role of ‘Professionalism’

The industry also provided them with a life style that they could not otherwise dream of. Compared to employees in other industries they were well paid, dressed well, acquired credit cards, enjoyed their weekends and visited discos and pubs. Though it was true that the companies outsourcing work enhanced their profits it was also true that their salaries were higher than those they could have earned in any other industry. The difference in the salaries that they earned with those of their counterparts in the west, were explained away as differences due to the standard of living. The call centre agents tried to differentiate themselves from their government counterparts who they derided as having no work and were good for nothing. Unions were meant for those who avoid work and to shield poor performers, which in their view was being unprofessional. Government employees formed unions because their management did not take care of them. Nomenclatures such as “cyber coolies” or “slaves on Roman ships” used to describe their working conditions were abhorred. Call centre agents preferred to be slotted along with the software professionals, rather than with slaves or factory workers. Unions were only for the working class while they were professionals. Their education required them to behave in a way that was not unbecoming of a professional. They could not be seen slogan shouting and picketing on the streets. Joining hands with corrupt union leaders was a complete no. They considered themselves to be intellectuals those who derived their power in exchanging knowledge. The agents considered themselves educated and professional and unlike their government counterparts able to handle stress and pressure. Artefacts of the organisation, typically associated with high status, supported the notion of professionalism, strengthening agents’ identification with the organisation’s goals and compliance. The atmosphere in the call centre was informal but professional. The agents were open and frank with each other. Taking on anglicised names also made them feel that they were like the Americans, British or Australians who were highly professionalised as compared to Indians. Agents had developed a confidence to speak to foreigners as compared to other Indians not working in call centres. They were indebted to the customers for providing them with jobs. They were there to meet clients requirements and not to form unions. People working in call centres met clients expectations, were dignified, confident and responsible for handling several thousand dollars per day. All in all they considered their jobs to be of high status and themselves to be professional who did not require to be unionised.

I know it’s not a factory that we can get together and ask for something. We are professionals. We are there to serve the client, how can you form a union? They have unions in government organisations, if something goes wrong, they will go on strike and prevent others from working. I think it’s all a mess. I think this type of industry does not require that. Every six months, you have your appraisal. If you are good enough, show your performance and earn the position. That’s what I feel.

Moving On: Quitting and Attrition as SolutionsMoving On: Quitting and Attrition as SolutionsMoving On: Quitting and Attrition as SolutionsMoving On: Quitting and Attrition as SolutionsMoving On: Quitting and Attrition as Solutions

In the agents’ opinion the unions could not resolve their issues or handle their grievances. This notion stemmed from the view that their frustration like disagreements with one’s boss could be dealt with effectively by simply quitting. Call centres had mushroomed around every nook and corner and better jobs or higher salaries were easy to come by. They therefore preferred to smoke and relax to overcome their immediate frustration, stress and pressures, and when an opportunity came by, quit. Some agents suggested that it was management that needed to organise against such behaviour of employees rather than the employees against the management. It was management that was being exploited and not the employees. This method of resolving their frustration was not only a problem for management but also put brakes on union formation. The realisation of the power of a collective to resolve these issues had not emerged. The fear of being fired also deterred them, especially those who in some way were dependent on call centres for their earnings. Since mass recruitment regularly happened, mass dismissals was not impossible for not toeing the line of the management. The protective labour laws were not effective or did not apply in the case of call centre employees making it difficult for them to join unions. Joining a union meant losing their jobs, besides creating complications. The competition between teams and team members also acted as a divisive force. The HR policies of pay differentiation also did not help in union formation. People with similar experiences and competence could get different salaries. It all depended on how people negotiated. Sometimes an agent could be paid more than a team leader or a quality analyst. Those from Kerala had an added reason to believe that formation of unions would not attract investment to Bangalore. They were not keen that Bangalore be turned into another Kerala which failed to attract investment. Thus, union formation received a setback as the workforce was unstable and moved from one organisation to another. All this fuelled attrition and kept unions at bay. The comfort of being employed in the most profitable business, the certainty that call centres were here to stay, as labour in the US would not become any cheaper in the years to come, also allowed the agents to move ceaselessly. Lack of household responsibilities and social and family disapproval of their jobs were other reasons that made their stay in the call centre industry temporary affecting union formation.

Because of the high attrition rate in the industry, today you see your colleague here and tomorrow elsewhere. To form a union, you have to stick to the company for certain period of time which never happens. Moreover, we may be working together today, but tomorrow my colleague may be promoted. He will manage me. He can be my TL. Ego problems will arise, you can never have unions in these organisations. In a factory you work for 10-15 years. You depend on that factory to bring up your children, but it is not like that here. First of all, the person does not stay here more than a year and everyday new people are being recruited. So it is not easy to get together everybody to form a union. If you form a union, the companywouldnothesitate to throw you out in a minute. They may lose an associate, but get rid of the negative effect on the company.

Immaturity and gullibility were other reasons for union avoidance. A young workforce lacked maturity. Except for a few who had put up some resistance, most employees stated that unions were not required. Shift working, different processes, stress and constant work pressure did not leave time for union formation or to meet as a group. The only time everybody met was when the company sponsored team outings. Those who had the inclination of forming a collective did not know how to go about it. They only formed informal clusters with no common agenda of improving conditions of work but to have a good time.

Resistance: An Individualised andResistance: An Individualised andResistance: An Individualised andResistance: An Individualised andResistance: An Individualised and
Fragmented ResponseFragmented ResponseFragmented ResponseFragmented ResponseFragmented Response

The discussion thus far pertained to forces that impede the development of any kind of collective, however, this does not rule out the possibility of individual resistance. The agents used various methods to take breathers or enjoy a conversation with their friends. For instance, in a technical call centre employees in order to get some time off would make the customer perform unnecessary tasks like restarting the computer when it was not required. Even customer satisfaction surveys were tampered with; agents played around with alphabets in the email address so that the survey did not trigger or triggered the wrong address or quietly inserted their own email ids so that they could mail a good feedback about themselves. In some call centres agents also resisted attempts to increase the working week from five days to six. Good performance enabled agents demand professionalism also from the management. Just as they were expected to be professional, the same was expected of the management. Agents decried any slip in the quality of infrastructure or adequacy of transport facilities. Companies who also dabbled in software were expected to provide similar facilities to both call centres employees and software engineers. Those who saw the call centre employment as a passing phase in their career refused to be cowed down by unreasonable demands of performance made by the organisation. Customer abuse was dealt with by simply laughing it out with their friends or by making fun of the customer. When the situation got acute they spewed out the choicest abuses by putting the caller on mute. The agents were able to decipher when their calls were being monitored and accordingly took care of their performance during those times. In short, in their own words “they played the ‘game’ once they got a hang of it”.


The exclusivist and inclusivist human resources taxonomy provided by Peetz (2002) does allow for some understanding of the situation, but it does not capture the context and the complexity in its entirety. Union formation was also inhibited by the prevailing labour market conditions, poor awareness about unions, a vicious public opinion against any form of employee collective, an extremely young work force that would be influenced by the unitarist perspective and the construction of the employees identity. Changes in these factors over a period of time could see the emergence of unions.

However for now, organisations in the ITES sector have been extremely successful in using both the exclusivist and inclusivist strategies to keep unions at bay. These strategies have reinforced the notion of corporate culturalism that aims at winning the “hearts and minds” of employees by managing what they think and feel, and not just how they behave. Programmes of corporate culturalism, human resource management and total quality management have sought to promote a corporate ethos that demands loyalty from employees and it excludes, silences or punishes those who question its creed. Through the strengthening of culture, the space within organisations for expressing and developing awareness of, and allegiance to, alternative norms or values is reduced and, ideally, eliminated. People willingly perform jobs because their sense of purpose and identity is tightly coupled to the core values of the corporation [Willmott 1993]. Similar was the case of our participants who had developed a unitarist perspective and wanted criticism of call centres to be aborted at all cost; of course this was related to their own anxiety of keeping their jobs, given the footloose nature of capital.

When corporate culturalism is entwined with identity of the employees, it becomes a potent force by which management controls employees. In fact, Alvesson and Willmott (2002) state that management is about regulating people’s identities – establishing standards for how employees should define themselves. Identity regulation is increasingly pervasive and an intentional modality of organisational control. It is considered to be a less obtrusive and potentially more effective, means of organisational control than methods that rely upon “external stimuli”. Management has increasingly regulated employees “insides” – their selfimage, their feelings and identification. When an organisation becomes a significant source of identification for individuals, corporate identity then informs (self-)identity work. This study shows how agents identified themselves as professionals, akin to software engineers and detested even an iota of suggestion that equated them to government employees, leave alone the word “slave” as used by some researchers. D’Cruz and Noronha (forthcoming) show that being professional is at the heart of organisational control which allows for placing primacy on customer satisfaction and calls for managing the dichotomous self to enjoy the privilege of being a professional but at the same time enduring the possibilities of monitoring and surveillance. Having stated this, though the participants were against collectivisation, control was not totalising, they resisted managements’ bid to rule their hearts and minds as well as bodies. Within a limited sphere employees used their own ingenuity to overcome existing control mechanisms so that their employment remained intact.

Our study reiterates Russel and Houghton’s (2004 ) argument that unions can also draw strength from the fact that lack of knowledge about unions or the fact of never being approached by a union representative provides an opportunity to organise. To overcome this handicap will require nothing less than the highly visible, daily presence of effective unionism in the immediate workplace. Given the unitarist views of employees, unions would do well to consider the employability of employees in keeping with the viability of the organisation. Tackling attrition

Economic and Political Weekly May 27, 2006

is one area in which unions stand to benefit the most. Unions could be seen as positively contributing to the organisation’s goals, and at the same time, they could help in organising the workforce. As Russel and Houghton (2004) once again emphasise, employees who may be more committed to the organisations in which they work, as signified by intentions to stay, are more likely to be union members than those with less organisational commitment. For the moment issues like monitoring, call barging, stress, nightshifts, breaks, long hours, sickness and so on though important do not have the possibility of immediately mobilising employees. This is once again borne out by Russel and Houghton (2004) who state that grievances such as routineness, intensity, exhaustion or stress which relate to the labour process and job design in call centres had little to do with union membership. However, these issues could be of major concern once labour stabilises; for at the moment, employees see quitting as the only answer to the drudgery of call centre work.



[This is a revised version of the paper presented at the ‘National Workshop on Organising Strategies for ITES Worker’, April 14-16, 2006, Hyderabad, India.]


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