India’s New ‘Call Girls’........P Jayaram in New Delhi
The Straits Times/aANN Conservatives decry ‘life of sin’ at call centres but employees say it’s a myth
Is economic independence making the young men and women working at India’s mushrooming call centres promiscuous? Has the graveyard shift become a licence for a ‘life of sin’?
Conservatives, particularly in IT hubs like Bangalore, Hyderabad or Gurgaon, say ‘yes’. But others say the so-called promiscuity in call centres is just a reflection of the sexual revolution happening in society.
The devil-may-care lifestyle of the young call centre employees is becoming folklore, and writers, Bollywood and TV commercials are reflecting it.
But call centre employees themselves say reports of their libidinous activities are a myth created by a Western media hurt by job losses in its countries.
Srilekha Bhattacharya, 27, who works in the sales section of the call centre of a multinational company in Delhi, says their high-pressure jobs leave them little time for anything else.
"We have daily and monthly targets to achieve. This is a high-pressure job and there is a strict code of conduct for the employees," she told The Straits Times.
"We even have a dress code. Revealing and indecent dresses are out."
And Neelam Singh, who works as a senior group leader at a business process outsourcing centre, or call centre, of a leading Indian company here, said: "The so-called promiscuity among call centre employees is a popular myth."
Her male colleague Sameer Behl chips in: "What’s popularly believed to be happening in the call centres, if at all true, is nothing more or different from what’s happening in society.
"The floors are monitored by CCTV. There is 24-hour monitoring and employees are not allowed to take in their personal belongings, including mobile phones."
But at the same time, there have been persistent reports about the drains of a call centre being clogged with condoms and women workers carrying contraceptives to their graveyard shifts.
And with an estimated 1.3 million people working in call centres across the country, an announcement by the Andhra Pradesh AIDS Control Society earlier this month that state authorities had asked all call centres to install condom vending machines has further fuelled rumours about these ‘places of sin’.
The move follows AIDS expert Suniti Solomon’s claim that a new epidemic is looming in India’s call centres, where she said young staff are increasingly having unprotected sex with multiple partners during night shifts.
She said at least three or four call centre workers visit the AIDS centre she runs in Chennai every week to get tested for HIV after having unprotected sex.
India has the third-highest number of HIV cases—2.4 million—after South Africa and Nigeria.
There are no figures of call centre workers infected with HIV, but a survey of them last year found that 38 per cent believed premarital sex was morally acceptable and a quarter regularly had casual sex.
Adding to conservative India’s outrage is the alleged public behaviour of call centre employees, particularly female workers.
Meenakshi Iyer, a 46-year-old Bangalore mother of two teenage girls, told The Straits Times: "I feel embarrassed to take my girls to restaurants frequented by them. They dress indecently, smoke and drink.
"Many of them come from semi-rural backgrounds. Good salaries and the freedom of living alone in the city make them lose their balance."
It is unclear whether women working in call centres drink more heavily than the average woman, but these days, they are certainly not unique in visiting bars.
Just a few years ago, it was only the vamp in the Bollywood films who drank.
Today, tipsy women tottering out of pubs on high heels are a common sight, as women, encroaching on traditional male territory in the workplace, pick up the traditional male habit of winding down with a drink after work.
As 29-year-old Neelam Mann, a project manager and self-confessed pub crawler, put it: "I love dancing when I’m drinking. Drinking makes me happy, chatty and uninhibited."
But the change in women’s lifestyles appears to be having an increasingly negative impact on their health.
Mukta Puntambekar, project director of the Muktangan De-addiction Centre in Mumbai, said women hardly came to the centre for treatment two years ago.
"Now we treat four to five cases a month," she said. "The number of inquiries from female addicts has gone up to 20 to 22 per month."
Meanwhile, the carefree life of the call centre workers, mostly fresh out of universities and earning a starting salary of 20,000 rupees to 25,000 rupees (US$402 to $502)—more than what a government doctor or university teacher makes—has raised conservative hackles for other reasons too.
Dr CNR Rao, one of India’s leading scientists, said IT had turned his native Bangalore into an ‘awful city’.
Comparing the call centre employees to "coolies who work for wages but do not produce great intellectual material", he said they are wasting their potential.
Writing in Outlook magazine last year, he lamented: "There was more poetry and music here before the IT boom."
He added: "If IT is going to take away our basic values, then you can burn Bangalore and burn IT."