Racial slurs that hurt IndiaNEW DELHI - It is an incident being closely watched by Indian industry observers as future corporate decisions may depend on the outcome. As has been widely reported, Neelima Tirumalasetti, an American of Indian origin, has filed a suit in a federal court in Texas against a US firm.
Neelima, an information technology analyst in quality assurance, was allegedly subject to repeated racial harassment and discrimination after the company for which she worked, Caremark, decided to outsource work to India.
Her case is not only important to ensure the welfare of people of Indian origin, who are among the wealthiest, earning high salaries in the US. It is of interest to Indian outsourcing firms, which have to interact with American and European clients and customers on a regular basis.
One of the main reasons, apart from the long and odd hours of work, for the high attrition rates in Indian call centers is the abusive and racist outpourings by some foreign customers angry over jobs being outsourced to low-cost countries, with India being one of the pioneers of the process.
It is not easy sitting in a far-off land to handle queries that could range from weather, rail reservations, maps and credit card statements. According to some experts, the stress caused by abusive callers results in an annual erosion of up to 60% to 70% of the over half a million Indians working in Indian call centers.
Neelima's lawsuit alleges that after Caremark announced in December 2003 that it would be outsourcing work to IBM India, she became a target of harassment. "Caremark's investors deserve to know how it conducts itself behind closed doors," Neelima said in an interview to The Times of India. "This lawsuit is about dignity and assuring that employees are treated equally regardless of their origin, race or ethnic background."
Earlier this year, in a move to cut costs, IBM Corp added more than 14,000 jobs in India after slashing 13,000 positions in Europe and the US. Last year IBM bought out Daksh eServices, the third-largest outsourcing firm in India with 6,000 employees, at a value estimated at over $170 million. IBM has in recent years implemented cost cuts in the face of dwindling financial results and leveraging in a new global economy.
According to the allegations by Neelima, her co-workers repeatedly called her "brown-skinned bitch" and "dirty Indian" among other abuses, saying that people such as her were taking their jobs. Neelima, who is a US citizen, told her seniors of the problem, but matters only turned for the worse as Caremark allegedly removed her from higher responsibilities, denied her pay and accused her of lying about her case, including physical symptoms that led to hospitalization.
Finally, Caremark reportedly conceded her case, but said that it was "understandable given Caremark's employees' concerns about outsourcing to India".
The lawsuit alleges that Neelima suffered a final emotional breakdown after Caremark wanted her to report to a co-worker and a junior whom she accused. Caremark fired Neelima after she took her case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Neelima's case is a reflection of the pent-up anger that remains within populations due to job losses. Earlier this year, India-born PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi, one of Fortune's most powerful businesswoman, faced a fair bit of this ire when she anointed America as the "middle finger" of the world in a speech to Columbia Business School's graduating students. Americans took to deriding Nooyi, with the most vociferous comments registered on the Internet, though Nooyi explained that her meaning was entirely different from the more obvious interpretation.
A comment in an Indian paper said: "No matter how many years she has lived in the US and how much she professes her loyalty to the country, to a bigot she is a brown foreigner. And a woman to boot. How dare she criticize the United States on American soil? If you are a recent immigrant, you don't bite the hand that fed you. It is okay if you are white and your forbears got off the boat a century or two ago."
Indians were also miffed at the parody this year by a US radio station that telephoned an Indian call center. In the "call", aired on Philadelphia's Power 99 FM radio, the caller placed an order for beads and then abused the person on the other end of the line.
Despite the problems, though, outsourcing is here to stay. Estimates suggest that only 200,000 to 400,000 jobs have moved from the US since the outsourcing trend began in the 1990s, which is still a fraction of 138 million jobs in the US. The Information Technology Association of America says only about 2% of 10 million computer-related jobs have been sent abroad.
However, jobs will move out at a higher pace. According to consultancy firm Forrester Research, 3.4 million US service-sector jobs are expected to have moved overseas by 2015. Observers say one-ninth of the world's service jobs could be done from any location.
India has repeatedly urged Western nations to make a commitment not to enact legislation that prohibits the offshoring of call centers and software development.
According to a study by Global Outsourcing: "The anger in the West over job losses and fear about offshoring has made this [racist calls] a growing problem. Some people call up with deliberately difficult questions. Most just say things like, 'you are from India. You don't know anything. I don't want to speak to you'." There are reports websites have sprung up that teach Americans the choicest Hindi abuses.
Until matters settle down, Indian call centers have been trying to protect their employees by training them in Western-accented English and other methods, such as taking on Western names. But this has not been very successful. Many have employed foreigners to train as well as take calls; others have installed technology that blanks out abusive callers from known numbers.
There is no denying, though, that there will be victims of the transition and evening-out of global economic processes. Sadly, Neelima could be one of them.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.