The mass transfer of call centre jobs from Europe and North America to India is bad for the subcontinent, a leading Indian newspaper writer has warned.
India's call centre industry has boomed in just three years
The huge growth in India's call centre industry was highlighted again last week, as British company Norwich Union announced they would be cutting 2,350 UK jobs and relocating them.
But author Praful Bidwai said that in effect the centres reduced the young Indian undergraduates to "cyber-coolies."
"They work extremely long hours badly paid, in extremely stressful conditions, and most have absolutely no opportunities for any kind of advancement in their careers," Mr Bidwai told BBC World Service's One Planet programme.
"It's a 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."
In just three years, the number of centres has risen from 50 to 800 as Western companies have sought to take advantage of cheaper operating costs - estimated to be about 30-40% lower than in the UK.
Average call centre salaries in the UK are about £12,500 ($22,000) a year, compared with £1,200 ($2,100) in India.
There is a kind of irrational exuberance about the prospects of this kind of low-paid, low-value-addition work
But Mr Bidwai said that call centres were exploiting young English-speaking Indians who "have an undergraduate degree and nowhere else to go."
"The tragic thing about India and the Indian economy is that in the last couple of decades, the GDP growth rate has actually improved, but joblessness has actually grown."
The call centre industry is seen by some as a vital part of India's economic development.
But Mr Bidwai said it had little value to India's wider economy.
"It's a couple of billion dollars a year at the moment, which isn't a hell of a lot, even by Indian standards," he argued.
"Our exports of textiles, for instance, are much, much bigger.
"There is a kind of irrational exuberance about the prospects of this kind of low-paid, low-value-addition work which creates this content both here and in the West, where people are losing jobs.
"People in India... [find] the job isn't really worth their while.
"Very large numbers of them suffer from a range of ailments - for instance sleeplessness, serious depression, ear infections - so you have a very high rate of [staff] turnover."
He also said the Indian government was pinning too much of India's future on the industry as a "catch-all" solution to the country's problems.
"It's being hyped-up. Some of our leaders are looking for shortcuts to the sort of hard task where you actually address the basic needs of the millions who are in a state of depravation," Mr Bidwai stated.
"They're looking at call centres as a kind of magic wand, and I think that's actually evading and ducking the real issues that confront the country - those are to do with poverty, equal opportunity, illiteracy.
"Those have to be addressed centrally."
The criticisms were acknowledged by Assim Hander, recruitment manager at Excel, a Delhi call centre, which includes Dell computers among its clients.
But Mr Hander said that it was also important to stress the benefits that the centres had brought.
Norwich Union is the latest company to announce the transfer of jobs
"You also have to look at the positives," he told One Planet.
He said that the call centre industry had been beneficial "in terms of the employment it has generated - and the number of people it has generated it for."
And he said that it was for the undergraduates to at least be employed.
"I would say it's a positive. Let's take a scenario where there was no call centre industry in India. What would these people be doing?
"Today, there is the demand for 150,000 graduates to be employed in an industry which was none-existent five years back."
He also said that although the industry has been mostly concentrated in Delhi, the jobs were now being spread throughout the country.
"Because of the fact that the demand for call centre executives in increasing day by day, the supply from Delhi is getting lower and lower," he stated.
"What we have done is to... move into smaller towns. Over the last three months, almost 60% of our total hiring has been done through these outstation offices."
Here are some comments we have recevied. If you would like to send a comment about this story you can use the form below.
Please BBC, don't lose your rational coverage by quoting Praful Bidwai and other pessimists. Please compare the salaries offered by call centres with other industries. Call Centres are really a good opportunity for Indian Economy.
I am an Indian in Germany, India should not fall prey to such low paid and valueless jobs from the west. I see no growth in the local Indian economy with the creation of jobs that exploit manpower. Moreover these conditions are going to shortlive and it not in the far future that many Indian workers in the call centers would be let without jobs. Job from the west be it for any purpose is not a reliable and sustainable way to development in India or any Asian country for that matter..
Kannan Pasupathiraj, Germany
I think that call centres in India are a great way of reducing operational costs and also a great way of improving job opportunities in India but I have one question? Where are the people who worked in call centres in the UK going to work or doesn't anyone care. It seems company's in the UK can do as they please for the sake of the bottom line and nobody seems to care. I am working out my notice at the moment until my role moves to India. Merry Christmas - try not to think about being on the dole for the new year.
Steve Wall, United Kingdom
I am working in UK but as high end qualified IT professional. I think mushrooming of call centre business to India is absolutely low value addition job. But then I don't say we won't do these types of jobs because a huge unemployed country needs this. Our aim should be to get high-value added jobs as well. In business of call centre there is no growth of an individual in technical front. They shall always be by and large remain white collared peons.
Pawan Bhargava, UK
Would you rather have graduates roaming the streets jobless or would you rather have them get some interim employment, be financially independent and be able to plan a future? No one's telling them to not move on or are they?
Malini Arora, USA
I think the author of the article does not understand the unemployment scenario in India. People with degrees do not get jobs, so the call center jobs are a boon to those who are unemployed. The author talks about all those problems associated with working in a call center environment, but those are the things people have to pay for to get a job. And people are willing to take the chances. Money flow is not that easy in India as it is in economically developed countries. I would like to ask the author to do more on field study rather than come to such superficial conclusions based on articles and television news shows.
It seems BBC has its own axe to grind...so what does it do? Simple, quote Praful Bidwai. Praful Bidwai is one person who always finds fault with anything thats good thats happening in India.
Rajeev Kumar, India
It is good for the short term as it provides employment to the unemployed but in the long term we must not depend on such foreign corporations who are likely to move on once another places seems more attractive to them.
Aruni Mukherjee, England/India
Instead of comparing the annual incomes, compare the purchasing parity - the lifestyle you can lead with $2,500 in India is equivalent to a lifestyle of $30,000 in the US... for an industry to be employing over a 150,000 graduates who would have been otherwise simply jobless is a lot of good news to any sound economist!
Vivek Jain, US / India
I am Indian, but I sympathize with those in the UK who complain about jobs going to India.
At last we have got an article which looks at working conditions of those people who are doing these lousy jobs in India. Mind you, in India people are very unhappy with the job market. People don't want the West's jobs - they just want jobs.
Ramnath Parkar, Norway
Hard work with low pay by western standard is not a news in developing countries. Actually the situation in India started improving after economic liberalization during the 90s. The concern should be are the employers denying their employees anything in violation of the laws or violating anybody's human rights. Are these employees exploited any more than other workers with similar education and skills employed in other Indian or foreign businesses in India? If not, let the market work.
Dilip K. Bhattacharya, US! A
Pathetic that you cant fight with us on quality of workforce that you are trying these kinds of media blitz. May be you should throw out your high school dropouts and go for a more professional workforce.
If call centers are that bad, people of UK and US should be glad that these jobs are going to India. At least now they can no more be "cyber-coolies".
This is nonsense. This is creating jobs in the developing that are far better paid that other local jobs. Hopefully the money they get paid will be spent boosting the economy while the taxes generateed will the redistributed to the poor. The money saved by the companies will be pasted to consumers in the first world whose shares and pensions will go up value. It's win, win, win. The only people going to lose in the short term are those who lost their jobs in the UK. We ought to concentrate on creating new jobs for such people.
Matthew Freedman, UK
I think call centers are very good opportunity for young Indians to get work experience. With this experience and money they saved, they can go back to school for higher education. Also, these opportunities will motivate more and more young Indians to attain a degree, which they thought is useless couple a years ago. As you can already see that most of the people move on and look for new and better opportunities after a couple of years of Call center experience. They are using this experience to hone their communication skills and earn money for higher education.
Mithun Bondugula, USA
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