Passage to India

As India takes up jobs in the international BPO sector, some companies encourage foreign nationals to take up India-based employmentPawandeep Kaur DelhiTanja Mustonen, Finnish, fields calls, arranges for travel packages for fellow westerners, and stays in Delhi. She works with Tecnovate eSolutions Pvt Ltd, Delhi, a subsidiary of Cendant Corporation, New York, a travel and real estate company. "I had Indian friends in Scotland and had heard a lot about India from them. Moreover, the company's head office in Helsinki offered me to work in India. I was more than happy to have an Indian experience," says Mustonen.  Giving globalisation a new face, is the sunshine sector of business process outsourcing (BPO). It has added a changed direction to the global flow of jobs. Until now, Indians headed to the wild west to seek their fortunes. Now, westerners are heading eastwards to work in India-based BPOs, making the flow of labour two-way.This new trend is causing some friction in India-based BPOs because it introduces discriminatory remuneration at the workplace, especially at the low-end, hitherto reserved for Indian nationals.  For westerners like Mustonen, working for a BPO in India is attractive. There is an adequate salary, with add-ons such as accommodation, transport, special leave structures, and upward mobility options in the fast-growing Indian sector. Travel in the region is possible. What better way of planning the one year off that is popular among graduates in the west? Earlier, Indian outsourcing firms were hiring foreigners for top-end jobs. They have broadened their recruitment base vertically. Anshuman Dash, coordinator, corporate communications, Evalueserve (EVS), a research-based knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) firm believes that westerners already have cultural information about their home regions. They have the requisite language skills, and a more suitable accent for the profession. West-based clients have more confidence in them. There are many reports of clients not willing to speak to Indian call centre workers. Management says that Indian workers have accents that are not easily understood by clients. The high employee turnover of 30-40 per cent is obviously also cause of worry. There is belief that foreign nationals will bring some stability to the worker base. Anshumali Saxena, senior manager, business development, Tecnovate eSolutions, says that they require westerners with local travel knowledge of Europe. These reassuring employees come at a price. "We have 40 foreigners from 11 different countries working with us," informs Rajesh Magow, Chief Financial Officer, Tecnovate eSolutions. They are provided  free housing, transportation and subsidised meals. The fully furnished guesthouse they get is within a three-four km radius from the office. A caretaker, a fulltime help and 24/7 security are part of the package. It is a standard that probably even the social democratic west cannot emulate. Terence Derbyshire, International Analyst with EVS, explains, "The salary that we get here, though lower than what we get in France, is enough to support the cost of living in India."EVS has about 30 international personnel working with them. "We plan to increase the percentage of foreign analysts (as foreign nationals are referred to) to at least 10 per cent," Dash announces. Bringing in another category of workers creates problems. The foreign nationals are paid rupee salaries, but it is believed that these are 15-20 per cent higher than what is paid to their Indian co-workers with the same qualifications, for the same job. While Tecnovate management stoutly denies any discrepancy, EVS's justification is that the marginally higher salary is because foreign nationals are better qualified than their Indian counterparts. Indian employees don't quite view this in the same light. Says Rajat Handa, executive with Tecnovate, "I have worked with the Norwegian team in the company. Their net salary was definitely better although I did the same job." He adds, "European teams have had an upper hand from the beginning itself."Special leave structures for foreign employees are to encourage them to work while they travel to India. Sam Chopra, president, Call Centre Association of India, states, "They are basically here for travel purposes. They work for six months and travel for the other six. Hence they are given special leave structures apart from other things." In sharp contrast is the average earned leave given to the Indian employees, which ranges from 20 to 30 days in a year. Young employees say they too would like to travel, but that right is not for them. Selectively granted accommodation facilities are defended by management on the ground that foreign nationals come without their families. They are not familiar with the country. "Indian employees live here and do not need housing facilities," reasons Anshumali Saxena. Indian nationals beg to differ. "This is absolute discrimination. My family is in Ranchi and I am working and living in Delhi on my own. If this is the criterion then workers like me should also be given accommodation by the company," says a vehement Mansi Shah (name changed), executive with Tecnovate. Foreign analysts, according to Amit Malik, an executive working with a well-known BPO in Gurgaon, are also provided meals free of cost whereas they have to pay for their meals, which are different from the meals provided to the foreigners. Others also believe that it is easier for these foreigners to climb up the corporate ladder if they stick to the firm.Foreign nationals can also avail of insurances, paid return airfare from their countries of origin, and facilities to put up their guests in India. Chopra believes that foreigners are as it is inconvenienced, having to compromise on lifestyle, social life and infrastructural advantages that they enjoy in their own countries. These arguments do not wash well with the discerning co-workers. Malik believes, "It's a kind of racism carried out against us. They are pampered like anything." Physically the foreigners are segregated in some workplaces, furthering scope for misunderstanding. In Tecnovate, the dominantly European teams were put in a corner, which was specially decorated with flags of different European football clubs as a touching gesture by a considerate management. What went through the minds of the Indians in such teams can well be imagined. The question of complaint on any of these amorphous issues doesn't arise. Management will simply tell the disgruntled Indian to take a walk. Calls soliciting information about travelling in India are transferred to the foreign employees, though their Indian colleagues probably have better knowledge. Mustonen says she learned about travel in India through her experiences or on the job. A segment of BPO employees is not aware of this trend of foreigners being wooed into Indian BPOs for low-end jobs such as tele-calling and documentation. Anthony Ray (name changed), manager with a Mumbai-based BPO, is emphatic that international recruitment is only for senior management, because Indian BPOs cannot afford to pay hard currency to foreign nationals at the lower levels. Going by a survey conducted by EVS, over 1,60,000 foreign language professionals will be required by the Indian BPO industry by 2010. Not more than 40,000 Indians with foreign language skills will qualify to meet this requirement, creating 1,20,000 openings for foreigners. While EVS believes that the growing demand for language-sensitive work will have a positive fall-out for the sector, there might be a hidden cost in introducing another axis of conflict at the workplace.