by Guest Contributor Kirti Kamboj, originally published at Hyphen
Mother Jones recently published “My Summer at an Indian Call Center,” which looked at the other side of the “these people are stealing our jobs!” outsourcing scenario. It was written by Andrew Marantz, an American who spent a summer in India and took a training course for call center agents, and focused on his experiences during this training and his views of the industry. Some parts were interesting, such as the strange and amusing anecdotes from his cultural training bootcamp, and it provided a much needed counter to the idea that the current system of globalization brings greater happiness and prosperity to everyone.
Points like this were particularly insightful:
Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis. A BPO salary is contingent on the worker’s ability to de-Indianize : to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it’s company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.
But its critique was ultimately limited, full of over-generalizations, and at times contradictory. Below are four reasons I found it so, and why I would hesitate to recommend this article.
(1) Near the beginning of the piece, Marantz quotes a 2003 Guardian article which states: “The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.” It’s factually correct that this is a marketable skill, but by labeling it the most marketable skill the article is overreaching. It also fails to make a distinction that few Indians overlook. Namely, that there’s very little money that a middle class urban Indian can earn by slipping into the identity of, say, a villager in Orissa, or a farmer in rural Nigeria. The marketable skill is the ability to slip into an affluent Westerner’s identity.
By itself, this is a small omission and overgeneralization, but there are similar ones throughout this article, forming a pattern indicative of a lack of awareness or concern for the underlying hierarchies that govern many aspects of a call center employee’s life, as well as a lack of nuance.
(2) The most interesting, as well as most questionable, parts of the article were those which talked about the cultural training call center agents are required to undergo. In this training, Marantz says,
trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call “international culture” — which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one.
While in this instance learning “international culture” is obviously corporate doublespeak for “If you sound too Indian, you’ll be fired,” to claim that there’s no international culture seems similar to the claim that white people have no culture, especially in its glossing over of underlying hierarchies. The point of this culture training, it must not be forgotten, is to give the Indians at these call centers names, accents, mannerisms, and cultural signifiers that help them to pass for Westerners, to circumvent the “protectionism” instincts of the callers. This isn’t a melding of two cultures into something no one is familiar with; it’s the attempted erasure of one to avoid instigating the anger and scorn of those from the other. Continue reading