Friday, November 28, 2008

Don't Let Them Take What's Yours.....

Joe, co-CEO of Office Tiger in Chennai, India

I wrote here a bit about having a lot of computer issues over the past week or so. I needed some time to think about one element of it though. To solve the problems, I had to call Earthlink multiple times to get the dial-up established. It's a temporary measure - for more reasons than one.

My call was forwarded, of course, to a call center in Chennai, India. The people were certainly nice and tried to be helpful but that' s not the point of this post.

The point can be summarized in this short sentence: Shame on Earthlink!

The call center is not just a call center. It is Office Tigers which is an American corporation that hires hundreds of young Indian men and women to provide telephone support to American customers.

The first thing that happens to these young people is that they are stripped of their names. Raj and Praya become Spencer and Jessica. It is a condition of employment.

They are not allowed to wear their native clothing. Instead, they have to adopt western business dress. The men wear slacks, white shirts and ties. The women have a bit more latitude but they are still discouraged from wearing saris.

They have "pump 'em up" meetings, pushing American corporate values of efficiency and profit uber alles. Again, attending the meetings is a job requirement.

Being who I am, I can't keep my mouth shut. While talking with one technical support person, I told her that I was aware that she couldn't respond to my comments but to please listen.

I said, "Don't let them take what's yours". I told her that I know India is a beautiful country with a wonderful, deep and rich culture. I asked her to not lose herself in that job. Enough said.

She was silent for perhaps 15 seconds or so. She said, "You are the first American who has ever said that."

I told her about having seen the documentary and that I was very aware of the practices of Office Tigers. I also told her that cultural respect is something important to me.

She helped me solve the problem I was having and we hung up. But I know I made an impression.

I think it's extremely socially irresponsible of Earthlink and other companies that are using a service that strips human beings of their names, their customs and their culture.

Shame on you, Earthlink!

I'm not happy about being an Earthlink customer right now. As soon as I can get something else, I'll dump it like yesterday's garbage.

Maybe it's time to start speaking up about this kind of thing. Most of us are annoyed when we reach a foreign country for customer support and technical services but it goes a bit deeper than that. The people are being treated like chattel. They are being treated like property, as though their sole purpose in existence is to be pleasing to their American overlords.

That's not acceptable in this day and age.

And another thought: Don't Americans need those jobs?

While I don't usually support the idea of boycotts, I do in this case. Earthlink and all the rest of them need to lose their customers until they bring the jobs back to the US ~ and at the very minimum, boycott Office Tiger!



Anvilcloud said...

Who knew?

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I never knew about Office Tiger.

SUEB0B said...

That's really a good point, Chani. I'll bet the owner thinks he is some kind of civilizing force, turning people into a lean mean American-style machine. But they should not have to lose their culture to work for an American company. It is interesting that one of the thing socialist dictatorships always try to do when they take over another country is to take away the people's language, customs and dress and make them conform.

In Amnesty Intl, I read about many cases where people were imprisoned just for speaking their native language, wearing their own dress or even using their own names. Weird to see a corporation behaving exactly the same way, except the punishment is firing, not prison.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

This is nothing new. Consider the missionaries and their attitudes toward all the native peoples they try to convert.

In the 19th century, Native American children were taken from their parents and shipped to boarding schools far away where they were deprogrammed, given "Christian" names and punished severely for speaking their own languages. When they returned to their tribes as young adults, they were alien to both cultures and didn't fit in anywhere.

Carol said...

Hooray for you for speaking your mind. You will never know the impact that your words made, but I sincerely thank you for showing this woman that some Americans are not only aware of what is happening, but also care.

I don't usually have the opportunity to speak with someone at a call center, but the next time I do, I will remember your example and speak my mind. Thank you!

Christy said...

I've heard of this and I know there will be a backlash.

Once when an Indian "Steve" was helping me, with my KY accent, he asked me if I was "just a housewife".

I thought--he's probably highly educated, yet he is serving me, through a twist of fate.

That must be disgusting to him, at times.....

So while I wouldn't ever DO it, as a corporate exec., and I think it is stupid, I think things will play out correctly--either they'll be won over by our culture, like you where won over by Thai culture, or they'll rebel (that's what I think).

It is patently wrong of the corporation, but then again.....don't all businesses subtly discrimate on looks/accent/background?

I'm sure in India with the remnants of the caste system, they understand this quite well.

At least they have a choice.

thailandchani said...

Christy, I think the primary difference is the coercion factor. No one coerced me into accepting Thai culture. In fact, they couldn't have cared less whether I did or not - and they didn't attach my willingness to my ability to support my family.

That's the crucial difference in my mind. The call centers opened up in areas that were poor and offered jobs, then they coerce the new employees to accept the culture.


Z said...

Well said, Chani. One of the things that annoys me most is that the people in these call centres have to give a false name, just in case you can't, in Western countries, get your head around Sunitha or Rajesh or Kamala.

Another, that you didn't mention, is the hours they have to work. India is 5 1/2 hours ahead of Britain and half a world away from the US. Therefore, they have to work through the night to serve us during the day.

Interestingly enough, while all younger men and all businessmen I've ever seen in India wear trousers and shirts, many businesswomen in Indian companies wear a sari, though often with a Western-style tailored jacket over the top and this is smart and professional correct business attire. These same women might well choose to wear Western dress at home.

Anonymous said...

I don't think these guys are all that "horrible". They are providing jobs, nobody is forced to take them, and they are catering to a western market (hence the western names). People in the west already criticize the Indian call centres for speaking with an accent they can't understand - I suppose it eases confusion.

Why aren't these jobs in America? Because Americans are not willing to pay the prices that 100% American-filled positions (in manufacturing or services) demand.

The owner of Office Tigers may be of a very different mindset from you, but I don't think the company deserves to be boycotted. Here is an interesting article.

Cheers. :)

Z said...

it is an interesting article and I hadn't known that Office Tigers is entirely based in India (actually, I'd never heard of them before today). My objections to Indian call centres are still valid, however, as many British companies outsource their call centres to India. One of the main ones is BT -'British' Telecom, the main telephone company that used to be a nationalised industry. I deliberately use an insurance company that employs only in this country and accept that it may cost me slightly more.

As for names, there are many Indian people in this country, probably more in percentage terms than in the US. But would it be acceptable if someone in a call centre with any *foreign* name (such as Scandinavian, Mexican, Eastern European) had to be called Mary or John, just not to worry the customers? Where does this put your new president elect?

Excuse me writing such a long comment please, Chani - I just want to add that you treat all polite people with respect. I can't think why someone who disagrees with you and makes a good opposing argument feels unable to put his or her name to it.

Billie Greenwood said...

What a great idea to express your sentiments to the call center worker who assists you. At least that individual would know how I feel...and you can bet your life that s/he would tell co-workers about that call. Thank you, Chani. Until justice comes, we can resist the oppression. You are wonderful.

LittlePea said...

Sorry Anonymous but these jobs aren't in India because of American consumers who don't want to pay for customer service, they are there because corporations don't want to pay American wages. As someone who has watched my husband's job(not in customer service but IT-same story) get sent overseas to people who will accept 1/4 of the pay he expects, outsourcing is a business plan no one will EVER see me defend. These companies are making millions of dollars and don't give a rat's behind whether or not Americans are getting good or bad customer service so long as they can provide it as cheaply as possible. They are taking advantage of people and I agree wholehearted with you Chani, it's disgusting that good people who just want reasonable employment are expected to give up the parts of themselves that make them unique in the world by their employers. I'm glad you said what you did to her. Hopefully she now understands that not all Americans see her just as a cheaply paid 'unit of production' just because her employer does.

Christy said...

I think you have a great point, there Chani, about the coercion.

It reminds me of women coerced to be strippers, or work at Hooters.

Sure, they have a choice, but really, do they?

They are not giving up a national identity, but they are often forced to dress in ways that are foreign to them.

So.....yes. The economic coercion part does bother me.

I guess like those strippers, those Indians go home and try to act "normal".

Wonder if it works?

thailandchani said...

Anonymous, thanks for writing your opinion. I always appreciate an alternative view.

I must say it sounds like a fairly typical response, perhaps coming from a position of privilege. When people have to work to support their families, they don't always have the freedom to make the choices you are implying. They do what they have to do. My position, quite simply, is that if American companies go into foreign countries, they need to respect the culture of those countries.

What they are doing, as far as I'm concerned, is a violation of a very fundamental human right... that of autonomy.

The values they are force-feeding the young people at the call center are destructive. That kind of value system needs to be contained where it originated, not spread throughout the world like the virus it is.

Sorry I didn't read the link. I'm on dial-up so I'm not doing anything that requires a heavy page load.


thailandchani said...

Hi Christy :)

It's interesting that you draw that parallel. This past week, there was a spot on Nightline about a 19-yo woman who took a job as a hooker at the Mustang Ranch. She'd been trying to get a job other places with no response, no interviews, no job offers.

It brings up an interesting conundrum. At what point is it choice and at what point coercion by circumstances?

In India, where jobs are not plentiful either and the wages are meager, a corporation comes in and promises really exceptional wages for the region and begin training these young people. The young people are, of course, grateful because it means their families will be fed, kids will go to school and it provides some kind of hope for the future.

Ah, but the overlords say "you must think like us, behave like us, become like us. You must value what we value and take to heart our way of life.".

What's the difference between that and the 19 yo who chose to become a hooker?


Jen said...

I think the overlords are disrespectful to everyone when they take this tack... if they are outsourcing jobs they should be honest about it, and that includes having people with their real names, real accents, etc.

I hate outsourcing.

I also hate the fact that people need to take outsourced jobs. We need to have countries work together to build strong individual economies so that the world can be stronger by each region and we can regain our cultural diversity.

This may sound like overly-optimistic pablum, but I truly believe it.

molly said...

Very interesting discussion you started here Chani! When the English barged in to Ireland one of the ways they tried to Anglicize the natives was to force the children to speak English in the schools. Every time a child spoke a word of Irish a knot was tied in a string around their neck. Depending how many knots were in the string at day's end that's how many lashes the child got. The language almost died out, so it was an effective technique!

It is shameful to try to stamp out another peoples' culture.

On the other hand, it is infuriating to get someone half way around the world when you make a service call, when unemployment is through the roof in our own country. And shame on the companies that shamelessly do it , and the government that stands idly by.....

Diane said...

The outsourcing issue is appalling. I've dealt on numerous occasions with call centers located in India and while I am sure the people I'm dealing with are intelligent, as am I, the language/accent barrier provides for so much frustration. I wasn't aware of the other issues (name change, dress, etc) and while I find it disturbing (and generally unnecessary), I know I have been forced to conform to the ideals of the companies for which I've worked, as there have been times in my life when I simply had no choice. In the end, though, as I said, I agree with your issues about outsourced jobs.

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree with a previous commenter that the names are only for work. The employees are not "stripped" of anything, but asked to take on a name that is easier for American customers to pronounce. It's the customer service industry which is set up to cater to the customer. I don't think it's unreasonable.

The company could have been more sensitive to cultural standards and allowed Indian dress, but every workplace has a dress code and I suppose one could see the Western dress as a uniform. I see nothing wrong with expecting a certain kind of dress in a workplace. And it's not like the company is telling workers what to wear outside of work.

Meetings are meetings, come on. I see nothing wrong with promoting efficiency and corporate values that will make the company more productive. A company's job main goal is to create more profit. That's what enables employees to keep working. I don't see how promoting efficiency is culturally insensitive or limited to an American value.

"They are being treated like property, as though their sole purpose in existence is to be pleasing to their American overlords."

I will disagree with you on that. I think you are jumping on the soapbox too soon and I don't think it has anything to do with Office Tiger or their practices. Sometimes, people see a lot of injustice in their lives, so it conditions them to believe that everything is unjust. But what they are really doing is projecting on to the situation their own beliefs about reality.

I don't think anyone should boycott Office Tiger, at least based on what you have posted here. We may not like the fact that companies outsource to other countries, but what about outsourcing that comes to America? No one really complains about that because Americans are being hired. But there are companies that outsource to the US, most notably Japanese and Korean automakers.

Outsourcing is not completely evil if you actually examine the effects it can have on developing stronger economies. I know that a lot of the Indian workers are paid better in comparison to the other jobs available in that market. They are not living like slave labor as their incomes enable them to live a middle class lifestyle. Some are paid extremely well that they can send their kids to private school and buy nice homes. Where does the rest of their salary go? If not saved, it goes into the marketplace creating a higher demand for goods produced in India. Having a consumer base enables other companies, locally-based companies, to grow in India, making the economy stronger. At some point, the economy will be strong enough so that people won't have to take outsourced jobs, but local jobs. The recent growth of the middle class in India is in large part due to outsourcing. I don't see outsourcing as a permanent thing for India, but a bridge to economic development for the country.

I'm betting that the workers of those companies are not as outraged as you think. They may have stress over some difficult customers, but they probably enjoy the new wealth that their jobs provide them. At the end of the day, they go home, change into what they want to wear and use the names that they want to use. Maybe later on, they will save enough money to leave their companies and start their own businesses.

Every company has their own set of values. I see nothing wrong with promoting those values as long as they don't infringe on the human rights of the workers. Employers have a right to expect workers to dress and behave a certain way. I'm sure UPS workers do not like their uniform, but it's their uniform. The dress code is set because the employer wants the company to be represented in a certain way. Since Office Tiger markets itself to American companies who want to outsource to India, they want employees to represent what is considered professional in American companies. I'm sure a lot of CEO's tour the facilities to see how the operations work. A professional image is required and reasonably expected in the workplace.

blooming desertpea said...

I agree with you, Chani, on both topics:

- If you go to another country, you need to respect their culture and their values or whatever is theirs.

- American positions should be filled with American employees. It's your own economy that you would want to be strong ...

Fran said...

What a great post and comment thread. Time is short, but I wanted you to know that I was here and that I think it is GREAT that you did what you did.

Anonymous said...

Z - sorry that using the "anon" function offended you. My name is Melissa.

Chani - You are right, I am a person of privilege. I have had the privilege to live and work in many countries around the world, including India! But financial privilege? Not so much, in fact, not at all! :)

But it is my very experiences of working in different countries and cultures that has given me my viewpoint. There is nothing I enjoy more than learning about new cultures, learning the local language, making friendships with local people.

However, the three things that are being pointed to as being so terrible are really not that terrible. The name thing is simply for ease of customers, I believe. There seems to be quite a bit of outrage in the U.S. regarding these out-sourced call-centers (exhibited amoung some posters here as well), so why draw further attention to their foreigness? I can imagine that these young people have a bit of a laugh picking out their western names - and it hasn't actually changed their name has it? They still have their real name, which everyone uses except for the poor customer on the other end of the line who is trying to sort out their lousy internet! ;)

As for clothing, I have spent time in factories and other establishments in India, which were solely owned by Indians, where the workers were also required to wear western-styled dress.

These are both very superficial aspects of "culture" anyway. I believe culture is more about inherent values and worldview. Dress and names have little to do with what culture is actually about.

As for the western-style of management, I'm not quite sure how this is cultural imperialism. In the U.S. we went through a phase of Japanese-style management - it was not offensive, but simply learning different and perhaps more effective ways to accomplish the task at hand. It didn't change the "American-ness of the worker" - it simply gave them a new perspective from which to perform their job.

One thing you can rest assured about, is that Indians are one of the last cultures on the planet that will lose it's culture. The Indian diaspora has been extremely effective at maintaining their Indian culture - and this is several generation removed from "home-grown" Indians - I've seen this to be true not only in the West, but also in Africa and other parts of Asia.

We're simply talking about a work-place here. For me to consider boycotting a company that is providing a huge number of jobs and therefore opportunity to young people in a poor country in the name of cultural imperialism is actually quite bizarre.

I think there are far greater things to be upset about in India - grinding poverty, human trafficking, the rise of HIV/AIDs, widespread corruption. The list could go on.

Every culture is unique, every culture has inherent rights and wrongs, and one thing for certain is that culture is not static. However, in the case of Office Tigers, I think that their impact on removing the "Indian-ness" of Indians (a broad notion in itself given the diversity of culture within the country) is so negligible (if at all) that it is not really worth a mention, let alone a boycott.

Thanks for the interesting discussion though, your blog always leads to things that are thought provoking.

Cheers :)

Woman in a Window said...

Chani, who knew, for sure? I always assumed that when I'd get bumped overseas I was talking to colourfully adorned individuals. I remember asking someone one day what the weather was like there, thinking I was talking to someone in North America and then they gave me an honest answer. Ma'am, I'm in India. It's hot. And then my heart flooded with awesome for them and their family and their life and their culture. Don't companies know we are not as intolerant as one might think. Don't they know we'd love to be linked with people around the world, but respectfully, not as chattle as you say. Shame, for sure!

Christine said...

they make them change their names?! that bothers me on so many levels....

Defiantmuse said...

what was the documentary you saw about them? I'm curious.

I don't agree with outsourcing on so many levels. The main one being these are jobs we need here and companies need to just suck it up and pay higher wages. Too many companies are simply focused on the bottom line and how to make as much money as possible no matter who it harms.

And making them change their names, even if it is just during work? Gross. Telling them how to dress at all when all they're doing is helping people over the PHONE? Meaning the customers never even see what they're wearing? Wtf? I don't get it.

3brainer said...

Outsourcing happens because they can make bigger profits for the company by paying less to the workers. I'd like to see these jobs here where there are plenty of unemployed folks who could and would do the job. As to name changing, well, even if you get an American in tech support or at loan office etc... they almost always give a fake name. The dress is just a uniform, and I suspect many of the Indians working for Office Tiger are happy to have the job, even with the suit and fake name.

There are better reasons for boycotting Earthlink-- like the fact that it is run by Scientologists.

Nonetheless thanks, Chani, for speaking to the HUMAN on the other end of the line.

Sherry said...

I knew this kind of mistreatment was fairly common in the manufacturuing sector, but was unaware that it was also in play in of all things, the service sector. This is just plain idiotic, and I'm so glad you alerted me of the practice. I'll remember it the next time I'm sent overseas for assistance. Thanks Chani for your caring.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about that, although I had noticed some call centers in India used Western names. How do you know which companies use Office Tigers? (For instance, when I've called Dell Tech support, I noticed they had Indian music when I was on hold and I worked with someone name Raj.)

Angela said...

Oh my god I had no idea. That is just so wrong in so many ways. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Chani.

painted maypole said...

how do we know which companies DON'T use services like this? that's the hard thing about boycotting... who is left? I do ask, seriously, though, because I think that information would be helpful, if we knew what the options are.

I didn't know about office tiger, so thanks for enlightening me

SuperP. said...

I love that you are not quiet, Chani. I love that about you.