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Geographies of Worker Empowerment in the New Economy: Labour Market Intermediaries in the Call Centre Industry (India and UK)

Geographies of Worker Empowerment in the New Economy: Labour Market Intermediaries in the Call Centre Industry (India and UK)

Over the last decade, call centres have been one of the largest employment generators in Western Europe, with many local economic development agencies keen to attract and retain them, in order to foster local indigenous growth in a world of heightened spatial competition and of eroding regional policy. However, call centres have also been heavily criticised with regard to the Tayloristic and routinised nature of work; high levels of surveillance and control of (predominantly female) workers; flattened occupational hierarchies with limited career progression; poor work-life balance; and a lack of training in transferable skills. Thus, call centres have been variously described as 'electronic sweatshops', 'twentieth century panopticons', and 'assembly lines in the head'.

Cartoon showing an exhausted man carrying a huge phone in front of a large clock However, a number of scholars have now begun to question these inherited orthodoxies. This joint research project by Dr Bhaskar Vira and Dr Al James

compared the labour market experiences of workers within an established (UK) and newly emerging (India) location in the call centre industry, an industry widely regarded as epitomising the new kinds of 'flexible' work and employment which characterise the New Economy more generally. In contrast to other firm-centred accounts of the call centre industry, this project developed an alternative worker-centred analysis to explore: (i) the lived experiences of call centre workers across the work-home boundary in different national contexts; (ii) labour mobility patterns of call centre workers prior, during and subsequent to leaving the call centre industry; and (iii) the role of different labour market intermediaries in mediating work and training practices, brokering employment relationships, and improving labour market outcomes for call centre workers in different national contexts. Additionally, the project aimed to increase the credibility of the applicants when applying for funds for a subsequent larger-scale project that extends this work to examine the movements of call centre workers into other sectors of the New Economy in India and in the UK.

Call centre workers
Call centre workers, Delhi (Photo: Al James, July 2006)

Primary fieldwork was conducted in India's National Capital Region (Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon) in five phases: July 2006, December 2006, May 2007; November 2007 and August 2008. In the UK, interview-based fieldwork was conducted over the course of 2008, with a particular focus on the NorthWest region (this region has several parallels with India's NCR in terms of organisational initiatives and concern to professionalise the Contact Centre industry, so offered a very useful comparative context for research).

The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation (Social Science Small Research Grant: SGS 32848; £11 413 July 2006 - March 2008) with additional funding provided by (i) the Smuts Memorial Fund (University of Cambridge) (£1090); (ii) £4000 from the Isaac Newton Trust (University of Cambridge); (iii) £1000 from the Economy, Development and Social Justice Research Group at Queen Mary, University of London; and (iv) £750 from the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. The project has succeeded in creating a number of rich datasets which are quite unique in this field of research (much previous research has tended to base findings on much smaller samples). In India, 40 in-depth interviews and group discussions were conducted (each between 1 and 2 hours) with call centre agents, ex-call centre workers, labour organisers, economic development officials, and representatives from a range of labour market intermediaries (including recruitment and placement agencies, language trainers, and culture trainers). Phase I of the regional worker mobility survey covered 511 call centre workers, working in 53 different call centres. Phase II covers 250 ex-call centre workers. In the UK, 16 in-depth interviews were completed with a range of labour market intermediaries in this industry. The researchers have also used a market research agency in the UK (YouGov) to administer a UK version of the India worker survey instruments which was completed in December 2008 producing a UK dataset of 546 call centre workers. In addition to the creation of these new primary datasets as part of this research project, two major secondary datasets have been obtained for the UK: the Contact Babel UK Contact Centre Operational Review 2008, and the Voice of the Contact Centre Agent report (based on a survey of over 900 Call Centre agents in the UK, conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sabio). In India, the researchers have obtained the NASSCOM-Everest India BPO Study 2008, which is the leading study of industry and labour market trends in India's call centre industry.

Main findings

(i) Geographical reconfiguration of call centre work and employment: The project examined the labour market experiences of call centre workers in India and the UK. One key element of the research findings concerns the considerable geographical reconfiguration that takes place once call centre work and employment is offshored from the Global North to the Global South, and its wider implications for development agendas. Call centre work in India generally attracts a more upwardly mobile and better educated set of applicants in comparison to the UK. It is perceived as an employment of choice within a wider Indian economic context (since the early 1990s) of considerable growth, but less than proportionate increase in job opportunities. The call centre industry in India has continued to grow rapidly over the period of the study, which has meant a continued demand for workers, and perceptions of an impending skill shortage in the sector. This has significant implications for career progression and labour organising in the industry, since it creates market conditions in which existing workers exercise reasonable individual bargaining power (RP1), and are able to move very quickly between jobs and firms (progression through interfirm 'career staircases') . The labour mobility paths that have been documented in this research suggest that the Indian experience contrasts sharply with the widely held view of (UK) call centre jobs as 'dead-end' work; instead these are perceived as opportunities for a newly emergent middle class to enjoy access to relatively high incomes, and high consumption lifestyles, while also providing workers with transferable skills that are potentially of value in the development of the wider (service) economy (RP2).

(ii) Call centre labour market organising and intermediaries: Unions in the UK have achieved some success in organising call centre workers. However, this success has not been replicated in the Indian context, where different locally-specific meanings of 'unions', call centre 'work' and 'workers', coupled with high rates of labour mobility, and employers' union substitution measures have meant that India's established labour unions have yet to organise this industry. This is particularly problematic given that many Indian call centre workers face an arguably greater degree of workplace stresses and indignities than do UK-based call centre workers, as a function of extensive night working, employment insecurity, and racial abuse from Western customers, for example. A second strand of this research project, therefore, has examined the establishment, operation and early outcomes of two nascent 'alternative' organising initiatives which are developing a new 'union' model better suited to the needs and preferences of India's mobile, young, white-collar e-service workforce (RP1). At the same time, these organising initiatives must be understood as part of a broader, complex network of labour market intermediaries (LMIs), who service the training, recruitment and mobility needs of firms and workers in this industry (RP3). Thus while some analyses have also begun to explore unionising in India's call centres, the activities of this broader matrix of LMIs in the call centre industry (recruiters, placement agencies, voice and accent trainers, etc) have been poorly documented; likewise, their role in facilitating the movement of ex-call centre workers to other sectors of India's New Service Economy (retail, hospitality, travel, aviation being the principal expansion sectors). Herein lies a second important contribution of the research findings.

(iii) (Re-)theorising UK call centres in light of the Indian experience: While there has been extensive work on call centres in the UK context, what makes this research project relatively unusual is the ability of the researchers to apply and problematise insights from the Indian case to their understanding of the UK case. Interviews with UK call centre labour market intermediaries reveal similarities with their counterparts in India, but also subtle differences. For instance, from a firm perspective, the challenges of worker turnover and 'attrition' are superficially similar, but are driven by very different worker expectations and industry dynamics. While attempts to professionalise workers in the industry are taking place both in India and the UK, the Indian call centre industry is attracting a very different talent pool to that in the UK, and there are corresponding differences in the labour market expectations of workers, trainers and certifiers of skills and core competencies (RP3). In the UK, regional agencies (such as Call North West) and other intermediaries are developing career pathways and encouraging worker mobility within the call centre industry (primarily driven by a firm level need to reduce attrition); this contrasts sharply with patterns of 'hyper'-mobility that this research has demonstrated in the Indian case (RP2). What makes this process even more interesting is that it reverses the conventional academic approach of applying concepts and insights developed in the Global North, and exploring the extent to which these work in the Global South; instead, this project has been able to genuinely reflect on the significance of ideas developed in the Indian context and then applied these to the UK situation. In addition to this reversal of typical academic convention, conversations between the two researchers have also helped them to understand the methodological and conceptual differences between Development Geography and Economic Geography, and contribute to a growing dialogue which seeks to create bridges across these sub-disciplines.

Call centre training
Photo: Al James, July 2006

Publication activities

Findings from the research project have been presented at a series of international conferences in San Francisco and Boston (Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers 2007 and 2008), Beijing (Global Economic Geography Conference 2007), and London (Annual Conference of the Institute of British Geographers 2007); and at research seminars and workshops (Universities of Oxford, Manchester and London). These papers have all received very positive feedback emphasising the contribution of this work in relation to: its alternative worker-centred analysis of the call centre industry; and its challenge to the conventional empirical confines of Economic Geography and Development Geography as traditionally defined. Building on this feedback, two journal articles have been published:

  1. James, A. and Vira, B. (2010) "'Unionising' the new spaces of the new economy? Alternative labour organising in India's IT Enabled Services-Business Process Outsourcing industry", Geoforum, 41(3), 364-376.
  2. Vira, B. and James, A. (2011, forthcoming) Researching hybrid 'economic' / 'development' geographies in practice: methodological reflections from a collaborative project on India's New Service Economy. Progress in Human Geography. doi:10.1177/0309132510394012

Two papers are under review:

  • Buiding cross-sector careers in India's new service economy? Tracking ex-call centre agents in the National Capital Region, submitted to Development and Change
  • Dead-End Work? Invisible Career Staircases in India's IT-Enabled Services / Business Process Outsourcing Industry, submitted to Journal of Economic Geography