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Why Unions Fail in Organising India's BPO-ITES Industry

Call centre employees do not want to be part of trade unions because they associate the latter with "blue-collar workers" and not with their own perceived upward mobility. Also, their work schedules and the highly modernised self-contained work islands they inhabit encourage them to think of unions as unnecessary.

Why Unions Failin Organising India’sBPO-ITES Industry

Call centre employees do not want to be part of trade unions because they associate the latter with “blue-collar workers” and not with their own perceived upward mobility. Also, their work schedules and the highly modernised self-contained work islands they inhabit encourage them to think of unions as unnecessary.


here is a growing debate on the status of call centre workers, who form a significant chunk of India’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)-Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) industry. It follows the release of a report by a government-sponsored labour institute V V Giri National Institute of Labour that compares India’s, BPO workers to galley slaves in Roman ships and brands call centres as “sweatshops”. Some Indian writers and columnists – like Praful Bidwai and Chetan Bhagat, the author of One Night at a Call Centre – have criticised call centres for exploiting Indian workers and making them work as cyber coolies. For Bidwai, “call centre work is…dead end, it’s a complete cul-de-sac. It’s a perfect sweatshop scenario, except that you’re working with computers and electronic equipment rather than looms or whatever”.1 And Bhagat has blamed call centres for “corroding a generation” because the work makes “call centre employee lose their self-esteem”.2

Kiran Karthik, the IT and ITES trade body Nasscom’s president, has called the idea of a call centre union preposterous because workers do not desire unions in this sector, as they are content with their work conditions. Azim Premji, the CEO of Wipro, has cautioned that the demand for a union in the sector will lead to a loss in India’s image of competitiveness in the global economy. These represent two of the main arguments made by the industry

  • that the conditions of workers are so good that they do not want to join a union and that a union in the industry will corrode India’s image as a favoured destination for outsourcing of BPO work. There are some, however, among the industry management
  • including Raman Roy, “father” of Indian BPO industry – who support unionisation as long as unions “control the menace of attrition that is emerging as a stumbling block to BPO sector’s growth”.3
  • The second point that those in the BPO management make is that the introduction of unions into the BPO sector will lead to decrease in the flow of outsourced work into India. In a recent face-off on the editorial page of Times of India, Bangalore, Neeraj Bhargava, CEO of WNS Global Services, argued, “Unionisation will drive away customers and kill the golden goose”.4 While this is a valid point to an extent, the main reason that offshored BPO work is coming to India is to save costs. And while the establishment of unions will drive up the cost of labour over the longer duration, there is no fear in the short term that the cost of work will become so high that the companies will not come to India. Both the extent of the market and the depth of experience in India make it impossible for the industry to loose work to other countries in the short term.

    Unionisation Efforts

    The unions trying to organise BPO workers are finding it a difficult task. There have been two efforts at unionising the call centre industry. The initial effort was in 2000; the second effort is ongoing. The initial effort resulted in the formation of Information Technology Professionals’ Forum (ITPF) on November 19, 2000 in Bangalore. The Union Network International5 (UNI) – a Global Trade Union Federation comprised of 900 different unions with a total membership of 15 million, majority of whom work in service industries – supported this effort. The ITPF gained recognition as an official organisation from the Karnataka state government as a society.6 The most interesting feature, however, of this effort – which has since expanded in the years following to include chapters in seven additional cities across India, – is that the organisation was registered as a society rather than union, which was the eventual goal of those behind the initiative. In fact

    Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006 the IT workers themselves preferred the society designation. They felt that the nomenclature of union would have adverse impact on their status as also future employability as most of the organisations engaging IT workers would have reservations in having any link with unions since their image in India was not very positive. The employers too had expressed reservations since that may adversely affect the flow of contracts from the west [Sinha 2004: 12].

    The ITPF has metamorphosed over time, drifting away from its beginnings to become just another professional organisation. The ITPF chairman states the nature of the organisation in the following terms: “ITPF is against any unionisation of IT professionals within the industry. ITPF is but another organisation like Bangalore Management Association (BMA), All India Management Association (AIMA), Lawyers Association, Chartered Accountants’ Association, etc, registered under the Society Act not under the Trade Union Act”.7 The insistence that the ITPF is not in any way related with unions is the result of two factors: the BPO industry management began calling the organisation to ask whether they were connected with any union and the workers in the industry associated with the ITPF – and this being the more important of the two reasons – did not want to be associated with a union organisation, because they associated that with blue-collar work.

    The second initiative – which is ongoing

    – is again supported by the UNI and is run through its Asia Pacific Office. It began in July 2004 when two branches of Centre for Business Processing Outsourcing Professionals (CBPOP) were launched in the south Indian cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore. The initial year following that was used to drum up support among workers in the industry, during which time the average attendance of meeting at the Bangalore CBPOP centre was reported to be 22. At the formal launch of the Union for the Information Technology Enabled Services (UNITES) in Mumbai on September 18-19, 2005, it was claimed that CBPOP, as a result of that initial activities, had the support of 2,000 workers. The initial plan for the new union was to help register local unions under state laws in five places – New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.

    I interviewed UNITES members in Bangalore, including the head N R Hegde, and observed a union meeting. The meeting was meant for the benefit of a documentary film-maker, who wanted to meet union members. The organisation had a hard time gathering up enough members for the meeting. In the end, only six members showed up and one of the members seemed more interested in spreading the message of the “Art of Living” movement, a Bangalore-based spiritual movement whose founder preaches an approach of yoga that is supposed to be helpful in de-stressing. Hegde and others in the UNITES acknowledged the difficulty in overcoming workers’ reluctance to take part in something that they think is not in keeping with their white-collar status.

    Again, the person leading UNITES – although he has 25 plus years of experience in organising telecom sector – does not have much knowledge of the youth who form the majority of the workers in the BPO industry. The first evidence of success of the effort has come in the signing of a collective bargaining agreement between UNITES and BPO company Excel from Chennai in June 2006. At this point the agreement covers 65 workers from the company, but there is a provision to extend it to other workers in Excel at

    Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

    other facilities. Although it is touted as a breakthrough by UNITES,8 there is some concern about the deal because it covers a domestic BPO company that provides services to the domestic telecom players. These domestic telecom players are unionised, and therefore it is easy to pressure the BPO through them. It is a decent beginning, but whether this is a bellwether of further unionisation in the sector, remains to be seen.

    Why Unionisation Efforts Fail

    A certain story often related highlights the role of BPO companies in employing both exclusivist and inclusivist strategies in preventing unionisation. D’Cruz and Noronha (2006)9 argue very persuasively that unionisation has been kept at bay because BPO companies have used exclusivist strategies – for example outsourcing security and transportation to outside contractors, fragmenting organic basis of solidarity among workers – and inclusivist strategies, such as open human resource policies that project a flattened hierarchy at workplace. While I agree that these policies prevent unionisation, I hold the reason for the failure of unionisation to be more structural. First, unionisation has failed because the new middle class

    – with its employment base in increasingly globalised private sector – that came into being in Indian since the post-liberalisation has benefited from the global integration of India’s economy. The new economic arrangement has secured legitimacy from this class quite unlike the pre-liberalisation, where the old middle class was dependent on the public sector. Second, the new middle class identifies with an image of a professional that the BPO work provides them. Third, the temporal changes associated with BPO work make it harder for unions to organise.

    The economic growth in post-liberalisation India has disproportionally benefited the middle class, especially those in position to benefit from new opportunities given their educational preparation. While employment growth rate has certainly picked up, joblessness has increased simultaneously, because job growth has been outpaced by labour population growth. The post-liberalisation reforms and the associated ideological underpinnings sold as a package for explaining India’s growth during the last decade and a half, however, have complete legitimacy among middle class youth: the character of job growth – concentrated heavily in service sector – favours those from the middle classes at the expense of lower classes. In the BPO sector, which is made up of those who speak and read English, it is the middle class youth that have benefited the most.

    The BPO workers, given their beneficial positioning in the new arrangement, associate unions with the pre-liberalisation economic order. They oppose unions, which they associate with the pre-1991 era of slow economic growth and limited opportunities. They associate unions with blue-collar work, strikes and demonstrations – something that, as products of upwardly mobile middle class, they abhor. At UNITES Bangalore one of the points mentioned by the organisers regarding call centre employees’ opposition to unions was that they associated unions with “old economy” and “blue-collar work”.10

    They associate their work with upward mobility, clean work clothes, shiny buildings absent in India till 10 years ago. Their identification with this new professional identity resembles those of Barbados’ informatics workers who embrace their “professional identities” although their work is highly regulated and deskilled.11 The workers in the sector – who are known as call centre executives and who gets addressed as “sir” by the large number of auxiliary employees working in call centres – do not square their own self-image with that of a galley slave.

    In India this identification with a “professional” identity mix with a complex new middle class identity, which is based more on escaping India rather than identifying with it, as was argued in these very pages few months ago. The new middle class with its employment base in the globalised private sector is more prone to be connected with the outside than the inside. A BPO job for the new middle class is a way of leaving India, without ever leaving India physically. They speak English with their overseas customers; they learn American culture in their selfcontained islands of workplaces. For them their work is a way of setting themselves off from the masses that, if circumstances change, will engulf them.

    Lastly, there are real concerns about whether the unions can even organise effectively given the structural organisation of BPO work. Most of the call centre employees work nights and sleep during day. They even maintain this schedule over weekends, when the only groups that they are able to socialise with are other call centre employees who keep similar schedules. This has given rise to a call centre tribe, which stays up weekend nights and socialises to get rid of the buildup of stress that comes out of the stress at work. How can one approach the workers when they are picked up from home and driven into the innards of the building where they work

    – and after work, are picked up and dropped outside their home? The tired workers who sleep during the day much rather catch up on sleep them spend time on any other issue.

    I lived with call centre workers for eight months during my dissertation field work in Bangalore and I interviewed hundreds of call centre workers as well as other BPO workers. Although they feel overworked and stressed, they are not interested in unions. BPO companies certainly have policies that actively discourage unionisation, but the main reason for failures of unions is structural transformation of the country’s middle class since post-liberalisation. In my Bangalore paying guest hostel, all five BPO workers – from Bengal and Kerala – were dead set against unions. These workers are not exceptions but the rule. They do not think that their work conditions are the best, as the management people allege; but they do not want to unionise. Unions will find it tough going.




    1 Call Centres ‘Bad for India’, BBC News, December 11, 2003, available online at 3292619.stm, accessed December 3, 2005.

    2 ‘Call Centre Guys Lack Self-Esteem’, Times of India, October 25, 2005, available online at http://infotech. indiatimes. com/articleshow/ 1273794.cms, accessed December 4, 2005.

    3 ‘Trade Unionism Hits India’s BPO’, United Press International, November 8, 2005, available online at http://www. upi. com/HiTech/view. php? Story ID=2005 1107-0940415279r, accessed December 4, 2005.

    4 Neeraj Bhargava, ‘Unionisation Will Drive Away Customers and Kill the ‘Golden Goose’’, Times of India, Bangalore, December 4, 2005; Section: All That Matters; p 6.

    5 See

    6 Pravin Sinha (2004), ‘Dilemma of Organising IT Workers: The Case of India’, Union Network International, available online at http:// www.union-network. org/uniapron.nsf/0/ 0978058 ebdc9a485c1257035003fb65c/ $FILE/Dilemma%20of%20Organising%

    Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

    20IT%20workers%20by%20Pravin%20 Sinha, %20India.pdf, accessed on December 5, 2005.

    7 M K Swaminathan, ‘From the Chairman’s Desk: IT Professionals’ Forum India, available online at module= pagemaster &PAGE_ user_op=view_ page &PAGE_id=8

    8 See ‘Unites India Signs First Agreement’ at uniflashes.nsf/89d5d55 be4abd 30ec1 2567bb0057e34a/d44c7952 b0eebe4cc125719c 003508 a2?Open Document

    9 Premilla D’Cruz and Ernesto Noronha (2006), ‘Organising Call Centre Agents: Emerging Issues’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 41, No 21, May 27.

    10 The structural glazed building which dominate in Bangalore and other places where call centre work are a product of the movement of work from the US to India, leading the companies to build facilities which will look natural to the visiting American executives who were outsourcing work to India.

    11 Carla Freeman (2000), ‘High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work, and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean’, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

    Economic and Political Weekly October 14, 2006

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