Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj, Journalist | 1/10/2013 | 14 comments

Sudha Nagaraj Bharadwaj
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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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Susan Nunziata   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/18/2013 12:19:08 AM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@Stotheco: It is truly a travesty in the 21st century that women still have to live with such fear just to be able to go to work and earn a living. I sincerely hope in our lifetimes that we see such crimes against women eliminated. It's hard to believe that the human race has the collective intelligence to wipe out threat of viruses and diseases, and yet we are unable to wipe out this social disease: The worldwide scourge of violence against women.
stotheco   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/15/2013 5:43:18 AM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
I agree with Susan. While I feel strongly about equal opportunities and fair wages, I believe safety is more important. It is unfortunate that this is the current situation in India where many women are threatened or at risk from such crimes on a daily basis. Clearly, things need to change and these issues need to be addressed by the government.

Until then, companies can take on measures that will prioritize the safety of these women.
stotheco   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/15/2013 5:07:41 AM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
Is this not what governments are there for? They have the power and capacity to enforce changes that will improve and enhance the lives of its people. It is only to be expected that these are but few of the effects of the cases of violence against women in India.

My sympathies go out to the victims of abuse and those who were not helped by the police when they reported the crimes.
Susan Nunziata   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/11/2013 8:40:33 PM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@Sudha: Such an awful situation for these young women. I'm sorry to hear of these conditions and that there is so little being done to help alleviate the problems. if shift chnages are the best, quickest solution then I hope that companies make them effective immediately.
Sudha N Bharadwaj   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/11/2013 1:11:02 AM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@Susan,

As there is fear in the wake of the recent crime, some immediate steps to alleviate the situation is required. An all-night shift which ends at 7 or 8 am in the morning will not throw up transportation problems. It is basically the industry's greed which keeps girls back up to 8 pm extendable to 10 or more, without commitments on transport back home that is causing the fear. The recent incident is such that every human being will think twice about safety issues which may not have occurred to their minds earlier. The male-female ratio is anyway skewed in BPO, ITeS with companies preferring to hire 21-28 years old young girls, often students, migrants to cities, fresh graduates etc with low salaries. Those in higher positions are mostly men. While MNCs try to put in place best practices, all that NASSCOM preaches does not necessarily trickle down to the SMEs. Policing, lighting, transport...these issues have been raised several times. The only way ahead is for the companies to revamp the work patterns to ensure foolproof security. Otherwise unfortunate incidents will recur.
Susan Nunziata   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/11/2013 12:05:35 AM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@Sudha: I understand completely your point about having an all-male swing shift. But at the end of the day doesn't this deprive female workers of the opportunity to earn as much as their male counterparts? This climate of fear is a terrible thing and I'm saddened to hear of such unsafe conditions for female tech workers. These women deserve protection and the right to work the same hours as male workers and for the same pay -- and to do so safely. Otherwise, this is just another example of female repression by sexual intimidation. The police and government must step in and the companies they work for must step up and provide the necessary security. I hope that there is a groundswell of activisim around this issue.
Anand   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/10/2013 11:41:02 PM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
There must be some way to spare women from working up to 8-10 pm.

@Sudha, I agree with you. I think government should also take concrete steps to enhance the security by increasing police patrolling. They should create an environment where all of us can be live safely.
Sudha N Bharadwaj   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/10/2013 11:18:31 PM
Re: Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@Anand,

Not all companies handle such sensitive information...where required other steps can be taken including preference to male employees for night shift on a rotational basis. There must be some way to spare women from working up to 8-10 pm. A bridge shift of male workers can be worked out. Solutions can be found to keep the workforce happy and motivated.
Sudha N Bharadwaj   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/10/2013 10:58:03 PM
Re: Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
@tekedge, It is already reaching a feverish pitch. The number of sexual harrasment cases in Bangalore's IT companies is in the news now. Though the Labour Department has received 700 complaints in the last one year, their hands are tied as the IT/ITeS companies are exempted from the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act. There is pressure on the industry to commit to some Orders of their own as the exemption expired in August. A news report said there are two complaints per day in Bangalore alone.

 
Anand   Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety   1/10/2013 9:27:21 PM
Re : Productivity Plummets in Indian ITeS-BPO Sector Over Safety
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.

@Sudha, I agree with you that BYOD, remote work, telecommuting and work-from-home will help boost the waning productivity in ITeS-BPO sector but this will also create new challenges to the companies like ensuring data-security. We have seen many incidents of data-theft in the past and these incidents might increase if remote work option is enabled for the employees.

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