When I first began researching call center workers in India, I was surprised to come across an article on a British news website about how the Catholic Archbishop of Bangalore had expressed public concern about rapidly mushrooming call centers. While most people outside India assume that call centers and “outsourcing” must be an unqualified boon for the country, the Archbishop fretted about their impact on the lifestyles of Indian youth.
I was already in Bangalore at the time, so I contacted a Jesuit priest in the city I knew from his brief sojourn at my university in Canada to ask whether any initiatives were underway in response to this concern. Fr. John (not his real name) told me he had actually been appointed to a special “task force” by the Archbishop to start addressing this, and they were going to have their first meeting in a few days. I persuaded him to let me be a fly on the wall.
So a few days later I found myself sitting in a large meeting room in a church, sparsely furnished with wooden school desks and chairs. The Archbishop and a number of priests arrived and settled in. The bishop’s idea was for the priests assembled there, who represented twelve different parishes or deaneries, to devise some way to address different aspects of the phenomenon either in terms of regions or tasks. Since they were unclear even about the key issues, they decided to hold a conference or forum that would frame the problems needing to be addressed.
The event, to my surprise, came together within only a couple of months. The Archbishop and his team managed to organize a three-day symposium that brought together participants — Catholics as well as non-Catholics — from all over India, including journalists, psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, managers, and call center employees. At the end of the event they came up with a detailed action plan to address the key issues identified.
I left the country a few days later, having completed my planned research. Three years later — last summer — I returned to Bangalore hoping to follow up on the outcomes of this conference. I tracked down Fr. John to ask him how things had developed since the Archbishop’s big conference that event.
“Nothing” he replied, smiling sheepishly. After the initial fervor and activity, the Church had quickly become preoccupied with other pressing business. Some were dealing with recent outbursts of religious violence in Karnataka state and other parts of India. Others, like himself, were addressing the massive influx of migrants from other parts of India into Bangalore.
In my continued conversations with him as well as with other Church leaders in India I interviewed this past summer, I came to learn of many other challenges that globalization poses in addition to those associated with call centers. The issues arising from call centers, in fact, reflect and are embedded in a host of these larger issues, some of which I will touch on over the next couple of posts for Contending Modernities.
Every month, thousands of new inhabitants move into the city. The “lure” of Bangalore, particularly for young people, as the Archbishop put it in an interview, was “education, jobs, and lifestyle.” For the lower and lower-middle classes, who constitute the majority among them, the challenges are many and enormous. The cost of housing being astronomical, the best that many can do is to live in “paying guest” accommodations, renting a room or a part of a room in an apartment that a landlord may not care to maintain very well, and on terms that are often unfair to tenants. Employment contracts, similarly, are not always formal agreements, and are thus susceptible to exploitation. Health problems are an additional challenge, exacerbated by loneliness in the case of people who move by themselves to support families a great distance away.
Among college-age students, an additional concern identified by church leaders was cohabitation — or “live-in relationships” as they commonly termed it — which has recently been an issue of Supreme Court debate. The issue, they note, is not simply premarital sex. What often happens is that the couples moves in together, but keeps this arrangement a secret from their parents living in faraway hometowns. These parents in many cases end up arranging separate marriages for them, and the couples rarely have the ability to refuse. In addition to the emotional damage, they noted, honor killings are not rare, particularly in cases of romance between castes or religions.
What made dealing with migration especially challenging, said the Archbishop, was that people were simply “coming and going.” They are “like children without a father.” And he confessed a sense of helplessness. The Church did not have a “systematic plan,” or any good way to “get [people] to come and register so we can try to help them out.”
Taking on the Challenge
Fr. John was one of several priests I met who were trying in their own way to respond to this concern. By day, he was an administrator in one of Bangalore’s Catholic colleges. But in the evenings, he taught “soft skills” in a vocational training program he recently started for low-skilled migrants to Bangalore.
His classes catered mainly to people without a high school education who were looking for service-sector jobs. He focused on such basics as English conversation, how to use a computer, how to prepare a résumé, how to appear confident, and how to shake hands. Many of his students, he said, had picked up jobs in the new Starbucks-style coffee shops that are now found on just about every major city block in Bangalore. Some had found clerical jobs in one of the city’s many IT or BPO companies, sending faxes, making photocopies, and running other errands.
There is something ironic about Fr. John ‘s position. On one hand, he is personally very critical of globalization and capitalism, as were several of the priests I met at the conference four years ago. On the other hand, he feels that critique is not going to employ and feed these migrants. He found many of them in desperate conditions; they moved to the city in the hope of being able to send money to their parents back home, yet now they are unable to cover their rent. And now he wants to help them survive. Fr. John’s goal was to enable them to complete the equivalent of a high school education so that they would be eligible for basic promotions — a matter of necessity in a country in which “credentials are everything,” as one of my call center respondents put it.
While his network of contacts in different ethnic associations assisted him with recruitment, he found retaining students an unexpected challenge. He initially offered classes for free, finding donors to support his project and cover the costs of materials and supplies. But students would not attend regularly; many would disappear after a couple of classes. He later started to charge a nominal fee, which helped a little. Some students at least would come back after losing their jobs, or after a company closed down, attempting to commit to improving their chances. But the combination of long working hours and ever-new job opportunities serve as a constant impediment.
I was surprised by just how much Fr. John’s complaints resonated with that of the secretary of the (secular) union of IT and BPO workers, despite the differences in their constituents’ social class and occupational sector. The union leader told me that very few employees showed any loyalty or consistency in their commitment to the union. For most of them, he said, it is simply an “agony aunt” — a shoulder to cry on when things go sour. But as soon as they find a new job, they disappear. He wished he could help them realize that staying with the organization would improve their prospects in the long run.
But for many of these young migrants, the kind of commitment it takes to either work on a long-term educational goal or remain loyal to a collective association like a union may be a formidable challenge in the face of more immediate pressures to survive in a new, demanding, and expensive city.
In attempting to address this issue as well as others I will discuss in my next post, religious institutions such as the Catholic Church are not merely passive in the face of globalization. Though the efforts may sometimes be fitful and unsustained, as the Archbishop’s conference on call centers illustrates, the Church is trying to play a role in shaping and mediating its consequences for many young Indians in today’s burgeoning Bangalore.