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The Wolf Strikes

Lax security, cost-cutting measures lead to the rape, murder of a call centre staffer

The Wolf Strikes
The Wolf Strikes

There were many in Bangalore who did not quite understand what risks BPO/call centre jobs entailed until the rape and murder of Pratibha Srikantamurthy last week. Now, the papers are full of all the risks and problems faced by the employees, particularly women, who work the night shift at such centres. Suddenly, the work description is no longer the fancy one of being chauffeured to work in speeding cabs, flashing expensive cellphones and being at work 24/7 without stop. Details of how Pratibha, who worked for a Hewlett-Packard-run call centre, was raped and killed by the driver of a vehicle hired by the company to pick up and drop employees has shocked the city. And questions are being raised about whether enough security is being provided to those working at call centres and BPOs.The police hold the company where Pratibha worked responsible and say that call centres must beef up their security. The BPO executives maintain that the rape was only a manifestation of the growing crime in the city and hold the police and the government responsible. And the transporters and the police are only too quick to offer practical sides of the situation: "Girls and boys smoke, they share cigarettes with the drivers and sometimes become too friendly. All this leads to trouble," is how one of them transporter put it.

Getting away from the grey areas of employee behaviour and the larger context of crime, most people within and outside the industry believe that this ghastly incident could have been avoided only if the company in question was more cautious and concerned about its employee. Bangalore city police commissioner, Ajai Kumar Singh, was the first to make a statement on these lines, based on the investigation leads he had: "The regular driver, Jagadeesh, grew suspicious and called up the HP security desk and informed them about Pratibha taking another cab. Despite this, they told the victim's family on Tuesday that she had not reported to work. This was a serious security lapse on the part of the company," he said.

The focus now, after the crime, is rightfully on security issues, but the question is, is that where it should begin and end? In fact, Hewlett-Packard Global Soft CEO, Som Mittal, made use of the suicide-bomber analogy to counter the police charge that there was a lapse of security on his company's part: "What precautionary measure can be taken against a suicide bomber?" he asked. This would mean that no matter what fool-proof security you may conceive, there is always going to be an element of risk. The driver, Shivakumar, who committed the crime, is a first-time offender and his employer Rajashekar, of SRS travels, told Outlook that "he had a fairly good reputation as a driver and at no point had we suspected him."

Amidst all the hue and cry, the voice that is being suppressed is that of UNITES (Union of ITES-professionals), an apolitical body affiliated to the Europe-based Union Network International. This body has a call centre charter and seeks to ensure minimum working conditions for call centre/BPO employees. The India secretary general of UNITES, R. Karthik Shekhar, a fomer IBM employee and currently with Arthashastra, a BPO, says: "A 50 paise SMS could have saved Pratibha's life, rosters can be automated and any changes can be communicated through automated SMS gateways. Vehicle numbers and driver names can be sent across to the employee. But companies did not do it till now because they do not value their employees. It is a matter-of-fact relationship; they are seen as garbage in and garbage out," he argues.

Raising the larger issue about pathetic work conditions in call centres, Shekhar says: "The companies often put forward the argument that attrition levels are high, but are they willing to give a break-up of how many employees they themselves sack and how many they frustrate into quitting by putting them on the bench? We are not unionists, we want the industry to thrive, but we want working conditions to be conducive. Any number of mails to Kiran Karnik (Nasscom president) never get answered. This is a strange industry where the employers have become unionists and the employees have no union. Even if there is an unfilled pothole in Bangalore, the managements threaten to leave the city, but has there been a moral outrage from the industry leaders after this murder?"

Section two of the UNI Call Centre Minimum Standard clearly visualises the problem that fatally confronted Pratibha: "First aid provision and employee security should be given, especially if staffers are arriving for work or leaving very late at night (a large percentage of the call centre staff may be women who are vulnerable to attacks)," it says.

The charter also recommends a maximum 40 working hours per week, rest period of 12 working hours every working day and 48 hours' continuous break every seven days. It also notes that the staff must have a say in the hours and shifts they are asked to work and shift rosters should be drawn up with adequate notice to staff. The question to be asked is: Are Indian companies following these and other guidelines? They may not be signatories to the charter, but this is said to be in use internationally and companies like HSBC and Lloyds have adopted this in total.

"Since we heard that a code of conduct would be evolved for call centres, we have suggested that there is no need to reinvent the wheel as it already exists. Why don't they adopt the UNI charter? We plan to approach National Law School or IIM (Ahmedabad) to conduct studies on Indian call centres," says Karthik.

Joint Commissioner (crime) Narayana Gowda pointed out to Outlook that under the amended provisions of the Shops and Establishments Act, the onus is on the company to provide security to its employees on night shift. "But I wonder if they are willing to spend on it?" With cost-cutting being the management mantra at most call centres, a crime like the one involving Pratibha was waiting to happen, say the police. Incidentally, there is also no word about any compensation to Pratibha's kin from Hewlett Packard.

Senior police officers also point out that besides strengthening security, it is also important to address the young employees of these companies and make them alert to the possible dangers involved in the job they are doing. Gowda points out: "Why was this girl (Pratibha) so careless even when she learnt he was not the regular driver? She went and sat with the driver in the front seat. She did not maintain the normal protocol and distance. For a criminal she became an easy target. In the past, call centre employees have been mugged, but this is the first time such a heinous crime has taken place."

Rajashekar, owner of SRS travels, says: "Companies generate rosters much in advance and Pratibha had the roster with her, it is simply inexplicable as to why she did not follow it. Even when the regular driver alerted her she seemed to have ignored it. There is a system in place, but the employees do not follow it. Many times our vehicles go to their homes and return empty. Sometimes, if they miss the vehicle, they know that 10 minutes later another vehicle would pass that area and they can catch it. Call centre employees are not at all easy to deal with," he says.

Another big transporter says that most companies never check the background of the drivers. "As an owner, I made my checks from the point of view of safety of my vehicles. Frankly, companies do not want to check the antecedents of drivers because there is a cost involved in it. Cost-cutting is on the top of the agenda of these companies, as a result they end up hiring the wrong person," he says. An HR executive of a top BPO company confesses that though his department does not get complaints directly from employees, they have protested to the administration about drivers not dropping them outside their house etc. But there are other problem areas. Says the HR executive: "There is a scarcity of good drivers. At least 30 per cent of the drivers are either lorry or bus drivers. You can add 500 vehicles to your fleet but where do we get drivers?"

According to him, in the initial days there used to be a lot of caution, escorts would be sent, the last and first pick-up would never be a girl. But somewhere down the line these practices were observed more in the breach. "Escorts were taken off because a cost was involved. Plus, over a time you develop trust with the transporters and drivers. Shivakumar had been driving call center vehicles for almost three years without an incident."

Meanwhile, Outlook has reliably learnt that some call centre and BPO employees were questioned by their managements after they attended condolence meetings and protests after Prathibha's murder, organised mostly by women and Left organisations. The big fear in the industry is that the incident could lead to unionisation or at least forming of employee associations. That could very well be the case given the manner in which some of the managements treat their staff.

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