Human Development & the Globalizing Economy article

Catholics in the call center

BRANDON VAIDYANATHAN

In 2005, I visited Bangalore for the first time in ten years, and was astonished at the major facelift the city had undergone. The once quiet and easy-going “garden city” was now a thriving metropolis, dotted with an ever-growing number of shopping malls, coffee shops, glass-paneled office towers, KFC and McDonald’s franchises, and Pepsi billboards.

Besides these usual symbols heralding the arrival of globalization, one new development struck me as peculiar. Hailed as the key to India’s future, it was the Business Process Outsourcing or Offshoring industry, commonly referred to as BPO.

The burgeoning BPO

While I was aware that western corporations had started outsourcing various service processes to India from telephone-based sales to document processing to customer service, I was clueless about how widespread the industry had become. BPO jobs had become all the rage. People—young adults mostly—were flocking to join nocturnal call centers catering to clientele from the US, UK, or Australia. Call Centre Training colleges and companies mushroomed in cities, advertising a viable alternative to the standard middle-class career routes of engineering and medicine.

But the phenomenon had insidious aspects: many of these companies required workers to undergo “accent training” and “culture training” to provide a “seamless experience” for customers, i.e., masking the fact that they were speaking to someone in India. People in the West began expressing security and privacy concerns about Indians handling such confidential information as credit card numbers, not to mention anger about their jobs being shipped overseas. Meanwhile in India, journalists, scholars, and social commentators expressed concerns about new forms of imperialism and identity tensions, and the rise of a new class of young, “westernized,” hedonistic, financially irresponsible quasi-professionals with bleak career prospects outside this fledgling industry.

BPO culture and the role of religion

A couple of years later, when I was looking for a topic for my Master’s thesis, this seemed just the thing to investigate. At this time, a good deal of research had explored the labor process in these companies, but we knew little about the cultural impact on the lives of these employees outside the workplace. How do these new forms of work affect their relationships, habits, lifestyles, conceptions of what is worthwhile and desirable?

In the past couple of years, some excellent studies (e.g., by Patel and Nadeem) have shed light on some of these questions. But the role of religion still remains largely unexamined. My research in Bangalore over the past few years, starting with call centers and now looking at transnational corporations more generally, has come to focus increasingly on how religion both shapes and is shaped by these new forms of capitalism. My most recent and ongoing research focuses predominantly on Catholicism in this environment.

It’s not something I intended to focus on at first, but religion emerged as a pertinent theme early on in my interviews. Many Hindu employees I interviewed made it a point to carry out their daily puja before going to work; some joined popular movements such as Art of Living, founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, which they said helped them achieve a balanced lifestyle and deal with anxiety; others mentioned the importance of caste and horoscopes in important life-decisions such as marriage. Some others expressed familiar secularist narratives of casting aside traditional religion as irrelevant to the modern age, but even many of these attended religious ceremonies and celebrate religious festivals—these were crucial elements of their relationships with their families. In fact, Smitha Radhakrishnan’s recent book provides an insightful account of the strong relationship between Hinduism, family, and national identity among Indian IT workers.

Religion was a similarly important factor among my Christian interviewees, Catholics and Protestants alike. Many strove to attend church services and prayer groups regularly, and frequently participated in practices such as daily prayer, Bible-reading, or Catholic devotionals. Others regularly attended church services, but at the same time found traditional Christianity to be too constraining. They called themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and assembled a bricolage of beliefs and practices from traditional Christianity and New Age spirituality, perhaps akin to what David Brooks, called “flexidoxy,” following one of his interviewees.

While the role of religion in the lives of these employees outside the workplace is certainly interesting, I was surprised to learn of some of the ways in which religion becomes present even in the labor process.

Jesus in the call center 

A central aspect of work in these offshore call centers is, of course, the communication between the Indian employee and the Western customer. The dominant depiction of this interaction in western popular media—including in the highly rated but recently cancelled NBC show “Outsourced”—is of the angry customer growing increasingly frustrated at the incompetence of the Indian call center rep. Scholarly treatments of the topic, on the other hand, often tend to present another image: the hapless Indian call center rep cowering submissively under the barrage of verbal insults from the abusive western customer.

But these are not the only possible scenarios. Sometimes, for instance, customers try to learn about the Indians with whom they are speaking, what their lives are like; at the same time, these gestures can often be patronizing. One of my respondents, Julie, a 27-year-old Charismatic Catholic who was working in a call center at the time, proudly narrates an incident in which she shattered an American customer’s stereotype of Indians. The man called about his mortgage, figured he was speaking to someone from India, and started to pick on her name: “How do you like your name? I mean, don’t you feel bad about your fake name?” When she replied that Julie was her real name, and that she was a Catholic, the customer was incredulous, and started to interrogate her Christian beliefs. She elaborated:

And I told him, “Listen, I know Jesus personally!” And he was very very surprised. ‘cause their concept of India is cows, buffalos, snakes, terrorists, everything not-nice. And I told him how much of Jesus I know. And he was very very zapped […] And he’s like, “What??”’ [laughs] I said, “Ya, I have a prayer group that meets here every Saturday!” And he was very very zapped! And especially just the privilege I got to introduce Jesus to someone in America who thinks that an Indian has no clue what Jesus is all about!  

Julie was one of the very few people I interviewed who actually liked working in a call center. Most either tolerated it due to financial desperation or put up with it as a necessary stepping stone to a better career elsewhere. But Julie said she loved her job. Even when I re-interviewed her three years later—by this time she had left the corporate world to work in a government-run orphanage because she felt called to work with children—she still insisted that she thoroughly enjoyed her old work environment.

Defending the “profession”

Yet Julie was saddened that many in her youth group at church did not support her working in a call center. Some told her to her face that it was “not the right profession” and that “God does not want you to be there.” Julie took offense at this: “I was like, [laughs] you know, very pissed off! And these were people who are concerned about me, but hey, it’s not the right way to put it. It’s by the end of the day a profession, and if I’m handling it well, then it’s good!”

Like most other call center workers I met, Julie saw herself as a “professional,” and wanted to defend this line of work as something that churches should consider legitimate and noble. As Noronha and D’Cruz have pointed out, this is an important identity marker for these employees, although it is a contested one—an issue requiring a separate post.

In any case, Julie said she was glad that she did not listen to her youth group and she stayed on at the call center. She insisted that she had not had to compromise her religious beliefs as a result of working in this environment. On the contrary, she credited the experience for developing and strengthening her faith. In the workplace, she often exchanged spiritual quotations and articles with several colleagues and even with customers online. On most days, she returned from her call center job at 6 in the morning, and then was dropped off at church to attend Mass and Eucharistic Adoration before returning home. Despite her differences with her fellow youth group members, she continues to remain a part of the group. Still, she feels strongly that religious groups and institutions should “change their perspective of the call center” and abandon their preconceived notions. Similar to other call center workers I found in church groups, she argued that it was wrong for church leaders to stigmatize people like herself who did not fall into the stereotype of the hedonistic and frivolous call center worker.

For example, even now I had talks with Protestants on the point about incidents about priests, you know, doing things that they are not supposed to do. And I always get back and tell them [… that] there are lot more people doing an amazing job; how about talking about them? I have the same thing to tell the Catholic Church. Yes there are things that are going wrong—these are people who are young, who don’t know how to handle their lives, especially when money has been given to them. But there are other people who are not like that!

It’s hard to assess how well Julie and these “other people” represent Catholics who work in the call center environment. After all, researchers have confirmed the impossibility of gaining access to a representative sample in such an industry in which companies, touting security risks, are mostly unwilling to consent to being studied. Numerous Christian prayer groups have emerged in the call centers in recent years. At the same time, sensationalist accounts in newspapers and the pervasive worries of the older generation about these “youngsters losing their values” give the impression that faith-inspired call-center workers are not in the majority. Nevertheless, Julie’s account, like that of my other respondents, highlights some of the important tensions between new modes of secularity and new religious modernities—including Catholic ones—emerging around the world.

Brandon Vaidyanathan is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and a graduate research fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation examines how religious institutions and practices both shape and are shaped by new forms of capitalism in rapidly-globalizing cities such as Dubai and Bangalore. His previous research has been published in journals such as Social Forces, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Sociology of Religion.


Contending Modernities

2 thoughts on “Catholics in the call center

  1. Wow, I was really really really impressed by reading this article. Julie seems to be a strong person. For me, also employed in a call center, was it a tough decision: earning money or being part of my catholic youth group. Unfortunately I neglected the youth group…But Julie’s story gives me hope to start a better and even more effective life… Thanks

  2. In most parts of the world astrology is thriving again in the 20th century. In countries such as India it has never lost its appeal. No important step in life can be safely undertaken unless the signs are propitious. No marriage will go ahead without horoscopes being drawn up.

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