CWA and Indian unions take on call centers

WASHINGTON (PAI) — The burgeoning thousands of call center workers in India who serve U.S. and multinational companies, and who got jobs formerly handled by U.S. unionists, are tough to organize. They need new types of unions to accomplish that goal, the Communications Workers and Indian unionists say.

In an Oct. 16 telephone press conference, three speakers calling from India — union leaders Ashim Roy and Vinod Shettee and Jobs With Justice organizer Anannya Bhattacharjee — described conditions, including huge amounts of pressure at work, in the call centers there. The conditions were also detailed in a joint CWA-Indian report.

“Most Indian employees have a six-day, 60-hour week, with 30 minutes each day for lunch and two breaks of 15 minutes each to go to the toilet,” said one of the two Indian union leaders. Many Indian call center workers are recent college graduates, or those who dropped out of school at age 20, drawn by relatively high salaries for younger workers — 15,000 rupees a month, or approximately $318.

“The work intensity is very high,” in Indian call centers, Bhattacharjee said. And overtime pay is infrequent, if paid at all, the union leaders said.

Shettee said his Young Professionals Collective started trying to organize the call center workers last year because a survey not only disclosed the work conditions but also showed “many were giving up their education” to join the call centers. But organizing quickly ran into problems, he admitted.

“The Young Professionals Collective did not start as a trade union because they (the workers) do not consider themselves to be part of the working class, and traditional trade unions were foreign to them,” Shettee explained. U.S. unions trying to organize professional workers — including CWA trying to organize white-collar workers at firms such as IBM — have hit the same attitudes here.

The YPC turned to other issues that could appeal to the call center workers as items that an organization, including unions, could deal with, notably stress on the job. “We organized them as a social collective,” Shettee said of the call center workers.

But the collective still faces other challenges. Indian call center workers work mostly at night. The collective’s organizers have to meet them early in the morning when their shifts end before they return home to sleep. Employers hamper things by erecting barracks for the call center workers, restricting organizers’ access.

For help, the collective turned to CWA, which worked on the report and the survey and is now sending activists to nations where call centers are being established to take advantage of lower-wage labor: India, the Philippines and Ireland.

“We cannot allow call center service, no matter where it’s done, to be dominated by low-road employers,” says CWA Vice President Annie Hill, a former call center worker herself. “Emphasizing customer service” and the fact that firms must pay higher wages, here and abroad, for good customer service “is the key,” she said.