Unmarried women doing night shift work in call centers in India

The rape and murder of a woman call centre employee in Bangalore in 2005 received media attention worldwide (The Times of India, 2010). Though the cab driver was convicted in Oct. 2010, the crime raised questions about the trustworthiness of the transportation provided by call centre organizations to its employees.

The night shift work of call centres in India demands mobility and access to public space for its employees as they need to be outside their homes during the night. Night shift work, especially when it goes tragically wrong, illustrates the relation between space and gender and how it shapes the concerns and values placed upon women.

The employment of unmarried women in call centers is being accepted, despite being predominantly a night shift job, and its consequent changes in control over women’s mobility in India. The number of women who are employed in the call centers, and traversing the urban space in night, is significant in number. This underlines the need to examine the negotiations made by these women and their parents in developing trust towards mobility of the women agents in the night hours Apart from providing employment opportunities to women, the information and communication technology (ICT) industry has to address the logistics of transporting women agents during night hours. Extant literature on call centers concentrates on issues related to labor processes, health and gender discrimination within the boundaries of the organization (for instance, Ng & Mitter, 2005, Remesh, 2004); but understanding of the role played by the transport facilities to the unmarried women agents is inadequate.

The present paper attempts to fill this gap through qualitative interviews conducted with unmarried women call center agents and some of their parents. It especially focuses on cabs and cab-mates (driver, security guard and male colleagues) as witnesses to the social processes happening during the night hours. The transport facilities provided by the call center are able to instill trust among the parents of the women agents due to the presence of others in the cabs who witness the actions of cab mates as well as the action of people outside the cab.

Apart from using relevant literature on public space and manufacturing respectability, the paper supplements the understanding using Nevejan’s YUTPA framework (for details, Nevejan, 2009). YUTPA is an acronym for being with ‘You in Unity of Time, Place and Action’. The concept of YUTPA revolves around development of mechanical, electrical, electronic and digital technologies that mediates the interaction between people over time, place and distance. The technologies bring a witnessed presence among interacting members in negotiating the truth and trust. This framework is used in highlighting the role played by the cabs in the lives of the call center agents.

Empirical qualitative data was collected over a period of five months, January-May in the year 2009, through semi-structured in-depth interviews with fourty five women employees of call centres located in Gurgaon, a suburban locality of Delhi city, India. These interviews were conducted as a supplement to six elaborate case studies being investigated by the first author as a part of the doctoral thesis. Ten interviews with the parents of the women agents were also conducted. Women call centre agents were selected through snow ball sampling technique. The interviews, which were conducted at respondents’ homes, were open-ended, taped and fully transcribed. The questions ranged from their experience of travel by the cabs in the night to their perception of the safety measures adopted for their safe access.

The age group of the women agents is 21-28 years. All the women are unmarried and have been working in call center since atleast one year. These women are either staying with their parents (those who belong to same city, where the call centers are located) or they are staying in paying guest accommodations in Gurgaon (those who migrated from tier II cities to work). One woman is staying with her male partner in a live-in relationship (co-habitation without marriage). All the call center agents in the study use the transport facilities provided by the organization. Majority of these women belong to a class where their income contributes to the family’s income or expenditure. Eighty percent women are Hindu and the rest included Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.

Shelly Tara , Vignesh Ilavarasan