While debates continue about how safety of BPO employees can be ensured there are too many issues involved that need to be addressed.
WOULD Prathibha Srikanth Murthy be alive today if her employer had chosen to invest in a Global Positioning System technology for tracking taxis that ferried employees? Could she have avoided being raped and killed by the driver of her taxi if she had chosen to work on a day shift? Would she be alive if she had been sharp enough to refuse to get into the taxi that was not assigned to pick her up? Would she have been sharper and more resourceful if she had chosen to take up a job more in sync with her biological clock? While the country, and Bangalore in particular, debates about how the city can be made more safe for employees of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, there's a nagging discomfort in the mind that there are too many issues involved in the tragic death of the 24-year old employee of HP e-Global.
Kirthana Rao (name changed), 45, a senior call centre employee was a confident woman, until recently. "I've always had an excellent rapport with my male colleagues and respect men. But two months ago, the driver of the taxi that was dropping me home misbehaved with me. I grew cold as he made lewd remarks and vulgar gestures. "Pretending to be speaking on the mobile to my husband, I tried ignoring the driver. It was 2.00 a.m., and the roads were deserted. I had the Hoysala Police van's phone number on my mobile, but was too scared to press the send button. He dropped me home, without touching me physically. But mentally, I've become a wreck. I've been attending psychiatric sessions since," says the lady now on a day shift.Ironically, the Central Government recently amended the Factories Act to enable women to work night shifts in special economic zones, textiles and IT sectors (especially call centres).
"Scrap night shifts for women employees," shouted members of various labour unions immediately after Prathibha's murder. "That is ridiculous," said NASSCOM President Kiran Karnik. "We believe this will be a retrograde step and everyone, including women, has a right to work anytime they want."Women have been on night shifts in service industries like media, aviation, and hospitals. The difference has been, that in most such industries, women worked all through the night, and were dropped back home in the morning, not in the dead of night. Why do women choose to work in BPOs? "No other industry pays so well for my qualifications. Now, though I want to take a break from work; I can't because I have to repay my housing loan," says a traumatised Kirthana.While women constitute over 30 per cent of the workforce in BPOs in India, indications are that the need for workers is going to increase tremendously. Suddenly, cities find that they have no teachers, clerks, office assistants, even engineers or doctors - the Big Powerful Ocean has gobbled them all. Are these young people mature enough to handle a sudden influx of money? "At least at the entry levels at call centres, the qualification requirements are very simple - average communication skills, and a neutral accent. Many young kids jump into call centres thinking they are doing their families a good turn," says a senior manager who works on the regular day shift in a BPO. "Within weeks they're smoking hard to stay up during the night, they've given up family time, get themselves a credit card, and they start spending money indiscriminately.""It's unfair to say that young people in BPOs are irresponsible," says Dr. Aruna Chandar, a counsellor working with two big BPOs. "The lifestyle, the relationship problems and the issues that I encounter with the employees who come to me are more to do with the times than with the industry. Young people across the country, across all industries, are imitating what American youth did in the 1960s!" she says. "The problems are related to the socio-cultural influences of our times."
Looking at safety
"Safety is our primary concern," said the official statement from HP Global Delivery Application Services, following the murder of its employee. To their credit, BPOs have largely tried to ward off the dangers lurking in the dark. Some call centres are looking at devising innovative mechanisms like flexible shifts with sleeping arrangements in the office premises as possible solutions. At an interactive meeting between the public, BPO employees and the police, it was decided that henceforth women employees would not be picked up first or dropped last, that all cab drivers must carry identity cards, that there have to be longer contracts with travel agents who have permanent drivers. After the incident many BPO firms in Chennai have revamped their safety systems. V. Chandrasekaran of Secova eServices asserts, "Secova has always been extra sensitive to staff safety and in particular about transportation. In our case, we have only drop offs in the nights and there are no pick-ups. All drivers and employees carry a mobile phone for contact in an emergency. All drivers carry photo identity cards verified by our transport coordinator. New drivers need to come to our office first, identify and sign the registers with our security before they are allowed to function. "The Bangalore incident is a wake up call. We have reviewed our security procedures and instituted additional measures: "Our security personnel will call identified employees (last drop) in each trip as soon as the transport leaves our office and at regular intervals just to verify to ensure that everything is fine. A comprehensive `Suspicious behaviour' list has been developed and has been disseminated to employees. We have had a detailed meeting with employees and transport providers. With a combination of these measures, we believe that we have increased the security by a few notches." Archana, Manager-Payroll Services, Secova services, says, " People should abide by the policies done for their safety and they should always be alert to check if something is fishy. The employee can always clarify with administration or security to check on the cab number and the driver assigned to them if they see a new person for pick up, as the cab drivers phone numbers, names and car numbers are registered with the security."
According to the Bangalore Police Commissioner, Dr. Ajai Kumar Singh, said, an amendment to the Shops and Commercial Establishments Rules holds that companies are responsible for the safety and security to their staff. According to my grandmother, we are each responsible for our safety. "A woman is always vulnerable. If she wants to work like a man, she must learn to take care of herself first." Mentally, physically, and emotionally, women have to become tougher to be able to lead a balanced life.(With inputs from Paromita Pain in Chennai)