'Virtual migrants' man India's call centers, prof finds
When Professor Akhil Gupta comes up against a personal computer problem or a disputed credit card transaction, he, like most of us, turns to a distant call center for help. But, unlike the rest of us, he has a deeper understanding of what some of the people on the other end of the line are experiencing.
Gupta, director of the UCLA Center for India and South Asia and an anthropology professor, has a particular interest in learning about the lives of call center workers in India. He is currently midway through an ethnographic study of call centers in Bangalore that examines how working in a call center can influence a worker’s personal life and — vice versa — how a worker’s personal life can influence his or her professional life.
Hundreds of thousands of young people work in India's call centers and practice "virtual migration" because they spend all their waking hours in other parts of the world through their phone.
Call centers in India have proven to be a huge boom for its economy. They have provided hundreds of thousands of young people, mainly between the ages of 18 and 25, with high-paying jobs and the possibility for upward mobility. But at the same time, life as a call enter agent has its own unique issues and challenges.
“Basically, they’re awake all night,” said Gupta, who joined UCLA in 2006 after teaching at Stanford University for 17 years and, before that, the University of Washington for two years. “They spend about nine hours on the job, plus about three hours traveling. When they’re not at work, they’re mostly sleeping or preparing to go back to work.”
This can take a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being and alter their global perceptions, he said.
“Their lives are spent talking to people in the United States or the United Kingdom. They practice ‘virtual migration’ because they essentially spend their waking hours somewhere else in the world, and then they ‘return’ home at the end of their shift. It profoundly alters how they think about their lives, aspirations, habits, attitudes and the way they deal with other people.”
These shifts in perception can be triggered by callers’ description of life in more developed nations or their treatment of call center workers at the other end of the line. Even something as simple as taking a call from a lonely elderly person who just wants to talk teaches the worker something about the world, Gupta said.
Professor Akhil Gupta received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, but later switched to anthropology when he became intrigued by questions of inequality.
“The Indian agents reported to us that they learned from their conversations that the elderly abroad are treated differently than in India, because in India they’d never be left on their own. They’d always have family to care for them.”
Gupta didn’t always have an eye for these kinds of details. For many years, he was more focused on finding engineering solutions to the developing world’s energy problems. After completing high school in Jaipur, India, Gupta studied mechanical engineering at Western Michigan University. He later went on to complete a master’s in mechanical engineering at the MIT and a Ph.D. in the Department of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford.
His goal was to find better ways to harness solar, geothermal and other sources of alternative energy to help power rural India. But this eventually gave way to his growing interest in anthropology and helping his country grow economically.
“I was interested in questions of inequality, questions of power, questions of why things were the way they were,” said Gupta. “When I was a student, economics, as a field of study, wasn’t very good at explaining these historical legacies or the role that historical legacies had in everyday life. And it certainly wasn’t very interested in questions of inequality and why the poor were poor,” he said.
It turned out, however, that his extensive training as an engineer provided an excellent foundation for the demands he now faces as a professor, center director and anthropological researcher. “There’s a certain kind of rigor it gives you — linear and sequential thinking and all of that. It’s very helpful in terms of being analytical.”
That sense of rigor proved invaluable in the writing of his forthcoming book, “Red Tape.” Slated for release in May, the book, which will be published by Duke University Press, examines rural development bureaucracies in India, specifically the practices of lower-level bureaucrats who implement rural development projects.
One of the chief questions explored in the book is why the Indian state continues to get richer and yet little is being done in terms of eliminating national poverty.
“If there was a natural disaster that killed three million people every year, there would be enormous resources flowing to that area from within the country and from the global community,” said Gupta. “The fact is three million people die in India from preventable causes, and nobody bats an eyelid. It’s not something that causes alarm. It isn’t cause for concern within the country, and there is no flow of aid from outside the country. It’s not a calamity in the sense that something hits, but it is a calamity in its effects.
“What I argue is that it’s unseen, and that it’s a violence caused by structures of inequality and structures of expectations.”