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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 23:42 GMT
India's call centre staff speak out
By Sunita Nahar
BBC News, Calcutta

IBM headquarters in West Bengal
IBM is at the forefront of hi-tech in India

Pinky Kumari and Hashmi Zeyaur-Rahman work as call centre workers for IBM in the information technology sector in the Indian state of West Bengal. Both are very happy with their jobs.

While an average Indian takes home some $300 a year, they can earn $3,000 a year or more, depending on their experience and education.

They work a nine-hour shift, they get medical facilities plus free transport to and from work and enjoy access to an in-house, shop, restaurant and health club.

With their state-of-the-art offices and cutting-edge technologies, firms such as IBM and Wipro say they are literally pampering their workers.

That's because the huge turnover of staff and the shortage of skilled workers are the biggest problems facing the industry, says a Wipro spokesman, Tamal Dasgupta.

Companies like Wipro want to train and retain their employees, so they offer highly competitive salaries and working conditions.

But all that glitters is not gold in India's information technology sector, which employs a million workers.

Stressful hours

The general perception among industry insiders is that in the organised sector, employees are largely well-treated - although there may be the occasional grievance from workers, who after many training opportunities, are found unsuitable.

But this, they say, is not the case with some private companies trying to get a foothold in the flourishing industry. They cut corners and are exploiting their workers.

Pinky Kumari and Hashmi Zeyaur-Rahman
Pinky and Hashmi are satisfied with their working conditions

Thirty-year-old Sarat Das works at one such private company in West Bengal's burgeoning IT sector.

He says when he started working, he was told he would only have to do eight hours per shift. But he sometimes ends up working 10 or 12 hours and often doesn't get paid for the extra time.

Sarat says night work is stressful and no refreshments are provided by the company during these unsociable hours.

Arijit Upadhyay is the owner of a private call centre company called Poligon. He employs 35 people.

Mr Upadhyay says he follows the labour laws but he knows companies who are violating them, making their employees work gruelling schedules.

Yet despite this, no national trade union for call centre workers exists in India, while moves to set up regional unions have proved controversial and drawn little support.

'High staff turnover'

In West Bengal, an association known as WBITSA was launched earlier this month by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions - a body affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one of the largest groups representing workers' rights in the country.

Only 500 members out of some 40,000 IT workers in the state have joined WBITSA so far.

Workers at Wipro's call centre
Wipro says it looks after its workers

The association's president, Amitava Nandy, says some workers in the IT industry are hired and fired illegally. The high turnover of staff is proof that this is happening, he says.

And some workers are not only being deprived of their overtime wages, but there have also been cases of sexual harassment and even rape reported in several states.

However, he says companies have been discouraging call centre workers from joining a union.

That is why WBITSA was formed as an association, so that both managers and employees could join without fear of victimisation.

But companies like Wipro deny any pressure on their employees. According to Nasscom, an IT trade organisation, both companies feel unions are not needed as they have some of the best welfare benefits and human resource policies and practices in India.

Little wonder, Nasscom says, that people who get jobs in the IT industry are envied by others.

Strike fears

Wipro's spokesman, Tamal Dasgupta, says India has achieved a significant milestone in the call centre industry - and all this has happened without unions.

He says unions in India stand for lockouts and in the past, this has led to the flight of investment from West Bengal. Reliving such memories may not be encouraging for new investors.

Indian analysts believe that is one reason WBITSA may have called itself an association and not a union.

Wipro spokesman Tamal Dasgupta
Tamal Dasgupta says Indian IT workers do not need unions

It did not want to upset the communist government of West Bengal, which, in a radical shift from the past, has been wooing foreign investment and warning that it will not tolerate any planned strike action involving the IT sector.

For IBM call centre workers Pinky Kumari and Hashmi Zeyaur-Rahman, WBITSA is totally irrelevant. If they've got grievances, they take them up directly with their management.

They say they have good relations with their managers. Besides, unions are always associated with a political colour, be it red or otherwise, and they say they don't want politics in their professional lives.

Even Sarat Das, who works for a private IT company, doesn't want to belong to a union with political affiliations. He says if there were to be a strike in the IT sector, it would ruin the industry.

Sarat joined WBITSA because it is an association. He says he wants a union which will fight for workers' rights and is not 100% sure if WBITSA will, in the long run, be able to help workers who are being exploited.

WBITSA says all is not well on the IT front in India and is convinced it will draw more support.

But as far as some insiders are concerned, you hear of these so-called unions in the media one day and the next day they are gone.

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