Oxford English for Cheap: The Dark Side of Offshore Call Centers

By Mehdi Boussebaa.

Offshoring of call center work to ‘developing’ nations by Western companies has become a huge business. For many, it represents a positive force of ‘globalisation’, bringing not only labor cost benefits to Western companies but also employment and career opportunities to ‘developing’ nations. Others, however, see a darker side. Call center work is often exploitative, oppressive and talent-wasting as it puts university-educated workers through ‘dreary work, unsocial hours and Big Brother-style observation’ (The Observer, 30 October 2005). Plus, these workers often experience abuse and racism on the phone and even lose – partly at least – their identity in an attempt to pass for Westerners. According to Shehzad Nadeem, training Indian workers in a ‘neutral’ global English accent may have the effect that these workers get stripped of their mother tongue (The Guardian, 9 February 2011). A recently published study in the Journal of International Business Studies (Englishization in offshore call centers: A postcolonial perspective) goes even further: training and monitoring the ability of Indian workers to speak ‘pure’ English in some ways re-creates colonial relations and further divides the West from the rest. Why is that?

Based on a study of two offshore call centers in Noida, India, the authors of the article argue that relations between Western client corporations and service providers in the ‘developing’ world have a lot in common with colonial relations between Western countries and their colonies in past centuries. The English language plays a key role in this because it helps to turn a segment of the local workforce into colonial supervisors (‘compradors’), and it creates the kind of language-based hierarchies of power and privilege that existed in colonial times. However, it also generates some resistance. Let’s take a closer look.

Indian-call-centre-004

Comprador managers. The ways in which employees are trained in English and then evaluated, rewarded and promoted based on their language performance help to produce a new class of local administrative supervisors who very much resemble those they serve – in their language, attitudes and practices. The irony is that these local managers maintain the exploitative, oppressive and talent wasting conditions of call centers without direct input from Western clients. In this sense, they resemble the local administrative elites who climbed up the ranks in old colonial times by working for the colonists. In other words, they have become ‘compradors’ – local middlemen between Western clients and ‘cheap’ workforce in the ‘developing world’.

Power and privilege. Along with the importance of learning ‘pure’ English comes a subtle hierarchy of power and privilege similar to that which existed in colonial times. Anglo-American clients reside at the top – they basically dictate the terms of engagement and impose ‘pure’ English as the norm. Below them are the compradors who earn their place first by going through English-medium schools and then by meeting the expectations of their clients. As dictated by their superiors, they maintain ‘cheap’ labor conditions inside the call centers and arduously work to deliver the ‘pure’ English experience. At the bottom of the hierarchy are those whose English remains ‘tainted’ by mother-tongue influences. They end up doing the donkey work under conditions of extreme surveillance and with little hope for career advancement. Thus, as in colonial times, the English language helps to separate the West from the Rest and to subordinate the latter to the former.

Resistance. But domination also creates some resistance. While clients ask for ‘pure’ English they put in very little effort to make this actually happen. In the end, their need for ‘cheap’ labor is much higher than the luxury of being served in Oxford English. In turn, call center workers also resist the client demand for ‘pure’ English. Although they see English as a ticket to a more comfortable life, they also feel oppressed by it. Speaking ‘pure’ English often feels unnatural and constraining to them – a bit like a straightjacket. In fact, as a way of resistance, they often switch to Hindi or a hybrid form of English whenever possible. And, importantly, the fact that their English remains ‘tainted’ by mother tongue influences sends a strong signal that they won’t be fully dominated, that they will always deviate from the norm of ‘pure’ English no matter how much time and effort is put into it. Western companies (and their customers) can complain to the compradors and bark at the call-center workers as much as they like, ‘pure’ English will remain an ideal – period.

In sum, there is more to offshore call centers than economic growth. Nor is it just about exploitation, nasty working conditions and the demise of local culture. It’s also about further dividing the West from the rest – through the subtle dictation of ‘pure’ English. But will this remain the case in the future? Will the rise of new superpowers from the East make a difference? Will Chinese substitute English as China becomes the world’s largest economy?

Mehdi Boussebaa is an Associate Professor of Organization Studies at the University of Bath, UK.

*Picture is taken from: Sherwin Crasto/Reuters/Corbis; Used by Shehzad Nadeem in The Guardian (Feb 9 2011)

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5 thoughts on “Oxford English for Cheap: The Dark Side of Offshore Call Centers

  1. What an interesting post! I only knew about the long hours however, I can understand how one would feel depleted emotionally due to the demand for “pure” English. Using language as a way to be rewarded and promoted seems a bit too much to me. This should not come at a cost of stripping their native tongue or neutralizing their accent. Being from Haiti, I actually experienced the same pressure to neutralize my native tongue. The moment I came to America, I was forced by my parents to spend hours in front of phonetics material and American media to erase my accent. I guess they were looking out for me since I do notice how the American society treats people with native accents.

  2. Informative and eye-opening. Takes us back to the question of “what is development”. Is getting a dead-end mind-numbingly repetitive white-collar job over a blue-collar factory job development? Or is pursuit of a creative profession with the flexibility of working at your own pace with the attendant self-employment risk of periods of no work development? Business will always look for value, whether it is in the US, China or India. Hence, if factory production is cheaper in China and call-centre services in India, that is where they will, and should, go. It is, perhaps, upto the Chinas and Indias to decide if they want to be the supplier of such services. Is this what they want to be? There are, perhaps, some immediate benefits and some trailing disadvantages. You cannot wish away the trailing disadvantages. We could be in for some social repercussions.

  3. You have presented a very interesting view about employees who work in offshore calling centers are negatively impacted by the “pure” English standards at work.
    You also made an interesting comparison when you say ” Along with the importance of learning ‘pure’ English comes a subtle hierarchy of power and privilege similar to that which existed in colonial times.”

  4. thanks for this, very clear explanation of a post-colonial analysis! The Tom Friedman video on offshore sourcing, while overall celebrating the phenomenon, does give some insight into the language and identity issue – Indian workers are trained to lose their British accents and gain an American one, shows who is hegemonic power now! And they take on Western names for the work. I’ve got a piece on offshoring from 2005 critical of its free trade ideology, see http://www.faculty.umb.edu/david_levy/JMS05.pdf

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