Critical review of
Taylor, P., Bain, P. (2005). ‘”India calling to the far away towns”: the call centre labour process and globalization’, Work, employment and society, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 261-282.
Summary of the reviewed article
The article under review analyses the work organization and labour process in call centres and describes the latest developments of voice service offshoring to India. In view of the connected fears for the UK employment, Taylor & Bain analyse the political and economical factors leading to the migration. They compare the work organization in Indian and UK call centres and conclude that the Indian call centre industry reproduces a labour process that has already proven to be problematic in other countries. Moreover, they state that due to cultural differences, the well-known problems can be found in India in an extreme form. Herewith, they question the common opinion that offshoring of voice services is unproblematic and state that cultural and linguistic differences are not readily overcome.
Analysis of findings and practical implications
Taylor & Bain describe that on the first look the call centre industry seems to be a typical example for a genuinely borderless economy in view of new technologies and globalization. This means that massive cost savings can be achieved through service offshoring to locations with lower labour costs. Therefore, the paper identifies the possible cost reduction as the most important economic factor for the offshoring of call centres to India and refers to several studies suggesting that 40-80 percent savings can be achieved through migration to India (Nasscom 2002 and Nasscom 2003). In addition to this, call centre agents in countries of the developing world are generally supposed to be quicker, highly numerate, motivated and well educated. In combination, those factors led to offshoring and the devastation of the European service sector. One of the main findings of the paper is that mainly high standardized, low-value processes are sliced off from the UK/US call centres, being then transferred to India. This leads to an extreme kind of work organization there.
In contrast to this, the authors state that cost advantages alone are meaningless as one factor of crucial importance for offshoring is the substitutability of labour, i.e. the quality of the labour force in the foreign country. This is particularly true for the offshoring of call centres, where the labour process is significantly important (Holmann 2004 and Malhorta et al. 2004 and Sewell-Staples et al. 2003). This is why most call centres were initially located in rural areas in the home countries before they finally migrated to the developing world. This relocation happened mostly without recognising differences in the prevailing circumstances as well as related adjustments of the scripts and procedures. Also, the target group stayed the same, i.e. customers in the developed world.
The described developments led to linguistic and cultural problems in addition to the general problems of call centres: High pressure, stress and attrition as a result of repetitive, extensively monitored work with infrequent brakes (Deery et al. 2002 and Holman 2003), often leading to high absence rates (Taylor et al. 2003). Taylor & Bain state that – in contrast to the used technology and approach – background and experience of Indian call centre agents differ from those of their UK counterparts. In particular, the repetitive and stressing character of call centre work in combination with cultural influences might cause problems concerning the motivation and self esteem of Indian call centre agents and their status in society. Additionally, in order to serve customers in the developed world, night shifts for Indian agents are required. Also, long working hours with overtime are common, accompanied by long travelling times. All those factors cause health problems, both psychologically and physiologically. This is especially true for women, who constitute half the workforce in Indian call centres and underlie huge family and social responsibilities.
As a consequence of the identified problems, the authors highlight the importance of recruitment and training in the fields of social skills, competencies and language. The latter should be in special focus as accent training is one of the most important criteria for high service quality and successful contact with customers in western countries. A possible loss of identification and a potentially long training process have to be considered when starting the training process (Politt 2004). The paper also suggests moral doubts about the offshoring of services to developing countries for the requirement of developed nations. With this it addresses a lack of recognition of the requirements of the developing countries for the sake of the well-being of industrialized countries.