Though security for women employees working night shifts in IT-BPO sector has come a long way after several shocking incidents, the taboo associated with the shift timings is yet to wear off from society's mind

Around 10 years ago, at 10 p.m., a friend of mine was walking home from the bus-stop, a distance of about a km, in Yelahanka — a suburb in Bangalore. A man touched her cheek as he passed by, leaving her stunned, frightened, humiliated. Shaken, she wept on her way home.

Fast forward to 2005, when in a shocking incident, Pratibha Murthy, 24, an employee of HP GlobalSoft call centre in Bangalore, was raped and killed by the driver of her pick-up cab.

Or to July 2006, when Tanya Banerjee, 32, an employee of AVIVA-24/7 in Bengaluru was killed by a colleague when she refused to marry him. She was living alone in the city.

A year later, in 2007, on the way to work, Jyoti, 22, a BPO employee in Pune, was also raped and murdered by the office cab driver and his friend.

Are women physically safe in their workplace and out of it, especially when they are working on night shifts? Going through this dismal roster of incidents — some of which made national headlines — puts things in some perspective. Yet, all the outrage that followed these multiple rape and murder cases did result in shaking the IT-BPO industry and goading the police to take action and review the safety of women working in these sectors.

The last few years have seen some positive changes. Rajiv Beriwal, who is employed at a Bangalore call centre, says, “Most companies now have security guards in office vehicles when women employees are being dropped off or picked up, especially in the night.”

Paroma Roy Choudhary, senior customer care executive at Accenture's Bangalore call centre corroborates. She often works in night-shift and says that her company now has strict policies regarding the security of women. Female staff is provided with security escorts each time they take a cab to work or back home. This is a benefit also enjoyed by women employees at Ocwen Financial Corporation. Women on the night shift are provided with security escorts to and from work when there are no other male colleagues in the cabs.

A 2006 report commissioned by the National Commission for Women found that thanks to these measures, call centres provide the most secured atmosphere for its female workforce. This study was based on interviews with 272 women working in various night shift positions in the hotel, medical and textile sectors.

This view has been endorsed by feminist scholar Reena Patel in her book, Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry. Ms. Patel has been researching on the issue of working women's safety since 2003 when she learnt that female employees working in night shift in India's call centres were being pulled over by police and accused of being in prostitution. She says, “Despite safety concerns related to women working night shifts in call centres, the women I interviewed reported that call centers are far safer than other local industries because they are held to higher sexual harassment standards. One woman revealed that in her company, a Fortune 500 computer firm, both men and women received sexual harassment training. She also noted that this kind of training is not provided in other industries and, in fact, she suggested that because the call centre sector is under such public scrutiny, especially by the media, they have become far more conscientious when it comes to women's safety.” And why not, considering this sector employs a sizable female workforce?

There can be no disputing that this extensive focus on women's safety and security at work has had constructive outcomes — not only has it helped to heighten awareness among women employees and sensitise employers, it has also fast-tracked justice in cases like those involving Murthy and Jyoti. In Murthy's case, the court handed a life imprisonment sentence to the accused in 2010, while Jyoti's killers have been given the death sentence this year.

But Ms. Patel also highlights a negative impact. She says, “The demand for female night shift workers disrupts notions of a woman's traditional place at home, particularly when it comes to the middle-class. Similar to an ongoing feminist research that illustrates how women's bodies are used as a site of proclamations for or against globalisation, the Bangalore rape case was a source of concern about call centres as a rapidly expanding, exploitative, ‘second shift' in the global economy. One of the ways in which this concern is manifested is through security concerns for female employees. While not undermining the importance of public outrage over such crimes, some of the women I interviewed thought that the focus on such cases was being used as an excuse by families to prevent women, whether they were daughters or wives, from working in the industry. In fact, one interviewee put it this way, ‘Women get raped in college. Does that mean we should not send them to school?'”

(Women's Feature Service)

Keywords: womensafetyBPOnight shift

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