So, are call centres the new job haven for the educated women of India? Do they provide the opportunity of flexitime, allow you to work at hours that don't force compromises with home and family? Do you get fabulous money just to answer "a few phone calls"?

Yes, call centres are the big draw today, particularly for urban graduate women who are fairly fluent in English. Young women straight out of college, and sometimes undergraduates, flock to them. They are given extensive coaching to develop the right British or American accents. And they are given new identities - Ananya is now Alice, Kavita is now Kate and Sashi is Sara. And yes, call centres employ women on night shifts, leaving the entire day free. The eight-hour night shifts are usually designed to suit the three time zones of the US, since it is this country which is serviced by clients of most call centres.

India's NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) McKinsey report puts the number of employees in call centres at 30,000 in 2001, as opposed to one-third that figure in 2000. By 2008, the call centre industry is expected to generate a huge turnover in the region of Rs 200 billion. The industry is referred to as a 'sunshine sector' and the more established regular call centres service clients like Dell Computers and foreign banks like HSBC or Standard Chartered. Just as medical transcription heralded a new wave of technology-enabled jobs about five years ago, the current boom in call centres is realising the accumulated job needs of a depressed economy otherwise hit by downsizing and voluntary retirement schemes.

"The call centre's revenue model is based on sales performance. And that is why the call centre industry focuses on women - they assume that the male buyer would most probably buy if a female executive sweet-talked him into doing so".
The response operations of establishments offer helplines to field their customers' queries; call centres fulfil both local needs as well as outsourced transcontinental operations. Multinational work comes from companies in the US, UK, Australia and other parts of Europe. Although perceived as a recent phenomenon, companies such as American Express and Titan began their in-house back-office operations over a decade ago, as did hotels and banks.

The facility of Indians with the English language and the convenient time zone differences, in times of substantial technological advances, are major reasons why the industry is scaling new heights in India. Estimates put the number of women employed in call centres at about 30-40 per cent of the workforce. As a nascent industry, independent researched data is still scarce but insiders believe that the number of women working in call centres will go up exponentially once the job gains greater social acceptance.

Shalini, a senior woman executive in a call centre, says: "Call centres are seemingly booming sources of business, but in my opinion, they are glorified telemarketing shops. There are other types of call centres around the globe, but the ones that are being outsourced to India are the telemarketing types. They are called outbound call centres and their revenue model is based on their sales performance."

The money's not fabulous although it does seem so at the beginning. As one collegian said, "Well, I can get Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 as a starting salary." But pay hikes are heavily dependent on one's ability to take calls, to service a client effectively and to meet the targets set for one's team. And the number of phone calls one has to answer or make are not merely a 'few': an average of 250-300 telephone calls in an eight-hour shift is normal.

Why do most call centres prefer women? Do they find them more amenable to the working hours and presume they have a better temperament for the job? As Shalini points out, "The call centre's revenue model is based on sales performance. And that is why the call centre industry focuses on women - they assume that the male buyer would most probably buy if a female executive sweet-talked him into doing so. It is more difficult for the male psyche to rebuff a nicely cultured female voice at the other end of the line! It has nothing to do with temperament, preferences, or the like."

Meera Radhakrishnan, who has worked for 13 years in the call centre field, agrees. She is currently Technical Director with the Chennai-based Information Exchange India Ltd. "This is not a place for great ambition. A patient temperament is a must," she says. "Psychologically, it is seen that women have a natural advantage in their ability to deal with customers who are sometimes short-tempered and use abusive language. Also, callers display a certain willingness to be more civil and are less likely to bang the phone down when they are dealing with women."

According to Radhakrishnan, earlier there were small groups of 5-10 people working, but now hundreds work in factory-like facilities. "The main advantage to companies outsourcing work is not just costs, but people. Unlike abroad, there is abundant availability of people for recruitment in India. I interview an average of 200 applicants a week, half of whom are women. Of these, only four or five are naturally talented, about 10 can learn and change, while the rest do not have the right qualifications. I must clarify that IQ and degrees are the last things required. The job entails talking while your fingers work, it needs a certain aptitude. Which is why it appeals to a large pool of young people who are not necessarily very highly qualified. They are told to wear a smile on their voice," she says.

However, women are by no means the only employees of call centres. The industry also attracts young male graduates. Vinod is senior manager at one of Delhi's leading call centres, netting a coveted monthly salary of Rs 100,000. He says the young people he works with actually find the concept of night shifts refreshing - they prefer to work such hours.

The bottom line is - whether you are a trainee working phones at the floor level or in senior management, everyone works hard for 12 to 14 hours (despite shifts officially being for eight hours). But, he rues, the strenuous work hours have effectively barred him from enjoying a normal social life. According to a senior government official at the Ministry of Labour in Delhi, there are no regulations that govern employees of call centres. Thus there are no mechanisms for labour inspectors to conduct inspections to check the working hours and the general working conditions of the employees.

Wouldn't the absence of such regulations encourage exploitative practices? Sure, there is an element of exploitation in the fact that call centre employees work long shifts during unearthly hours, agrees Vinod. "At some stage, the long hours and the stress factor begins to weigh on them and they quit. No one wants to be in this job permanently as there are not many senior management positions available."

Everyone, it seems, is desperately making a quick buck. Rules, regulations, health and stress be damned.