Recent high profile crimes in India were merely a law enforcement problem. They are now an IT problem as productivity is dropping because women in India's IT sector rightfully fear for their safety. Given the large portion of the global IT market outsourced to India, this is a global problem that MNCs will have to help address.
Women employees constitute 35 percent of the 3 million person workforce of the Indian ITeS industry. Women make up nearly half the staff of Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs) units across the country. According to NASSCOM, 45 percent of the fresh hires are women. The industry operates in a 24/7 environment, so night shifts are mandatory. Most have to concede to a rotational pattern of work-shifts. Health issues, including digestion issues and sleep and posture problems, are common. Security is an added headache, which is now threatening the productivity of the workforce in all the major cities across India.
The horrifying gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi between 9:15 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. in late December has caused a 40 percent drop in productivity of the female workforce in the Delhi-National Capital Region, according to a flash study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India (ASSOCHAM) Social Development Foundation. As the horrendous details of the barbaric act spread through the media, many employees who have to work long hours and remain in the office after sunset are now insisting on leaving the office early. When this hasn't been possible, some have even opted to quit in the past fortnight. Much of the fear has arisen over the lack of confidence in public transport as well as lack of adequate security safeguards in office transport.
The ASSOCHAM report also found a rising trend in attrition of women employees. The industry body NASSCOM has been quick to reject the report and has urged the government to ensure safety, claiming the industry has already adopted best practices with regard to transport and security in the wake of crime against call center and BPO employees a few years ago. It may be recalled that in 2005, 28-year-old Pratibha Srikanthamurthy, an employee of the BPO-arm of Hewlett Packard in Bangalore, was raped and murdered by the driver of the transport vehicle hired by the company. In 2007, 22-year-old Jyotikumari Chowdhary, an employee of Wipro BPO (then Spectramind), was raped and murdered by the cab-driver and his accomplice in Pune.
The NASSCOM guidelines for BPOs and now ASSOCHAM's own set are in addition to police circulars in various cities regarding verification of drivers, process for identification, embarking and disembarking from taxis at night, presence of security guards, installation of Global Positioning Systems to track vehicles, setting up of 24-hour helplines, possession of pepper spray, and so on.
However, it is often found that organizations make changes to the basic rules along the way, depending on the projects at hand. In fact, there was a move to get approval from the government to extend the work deadline for women from 8:00 p.m.to 10:00 p.m. in order to avoid taking on the responsibility for their safety. There are other problems that affect the productivity of women employees as well:
- Unlike traditional industries that are located in clusters, the ITeS-BPO industry is spread thin across cities including residential areas on the one hand and remote outskirts on the other. It makes policing difficult.
- While the bigger companies may be able to provide transport, security, and other amenities for women who work late hours, the growing small and midsized enterprises are unable to provide similar support.
- The industry is now spreading into smaller cities where transport infrastructure, lighting on roads, and the culture of women working late into the night is absent.
- Many of the units, which handle knowledge process outsourcing, legal process outsourcing, medical transcription, and information security services, deny staff transport despite late working hours on the plea that they are not 24/7 call centers.
- Most ITeS units have teams working beyond the 8:00 p.m. deadline in order to complete projects that are invariably short on time.
In the wake of repeated incidents that compromise the safety of female employees, organizations are also known to issue a new set of rules that only rile the workforce further. Only last week an MNC was in the news for reminding women to "dress appropriately and act modestly." At times, the approach is half-hearted and MNCs reproduce rules framed for the US office, which may include irrelevant policies on gift giving during Thanksgiving.
Different sections of society are also jumping onto the bandwagon with insensitive comments and incongruous suggestions, including mandatory overcoats for women; all-woman transport services; bans on mobile phones, chow mein, and other packaged foods -- all symbols of a "Westernized society devoid of moral values"; and crackdowns on migrants who are ostensibly "prone to crime."
Surprisingly, no one in the industry is talking about BYOD, remote work, telecommuting, and work-from-home options as plausible measures to boost the waning productivity in the ITeS-BPO sector. Simple solutions that are becoming commonplace in work environments throughout the world could provide a secure, safe, and productive environment for women and men and boost productivity. At the same time, health issues could be resolved and enterprises could save money on facilities.
Given the relative ease with which this could be accomplished, it seems astonishing that people came up with banning packaged foods before working from home.