The buzzword in major Indian cities these days is BPO, otherwise known as business processing outsourcing. BPO is accredited for the growth in the economy, increased spending power in the middle classes and better lifestyles all round.
So what is BPO?
Some time ago it occurred to the big companies that Indians work for a lot less money and they’re just as smart as workers back in the West – so why not save a pile of money by moving the work to India? Everyone from airlines needing people to punch in data to programs to companies needing hotshot programmers starting coming to India and paying (for India) luxurious salaries to perform the job in hand,
It helped that middle class Indians tend to speak good English and this gave rise in particular to the phenomenon of call centres outsourcing contracts to India. Thus every time someone in England wanted to file a travel insurance claim or question charges on their mobile phone bill they were directed to Bangalore to argue over the phone with someone called ‘Simon’ – though outside work he’d be known as Rajesh.
Indian workers in call centres have been ‘trained’ in Western culture, given cute English names and basically reply to each of the customer’s complains from a pre-prepared list of responses given to them by the company. Trouble was, their English wasn’t always up to scratch and it became so infuriating to get anything done on the phone that some English companies advertise as a selling point that they don’t outsource to India.
Call centres typically pay around 15,000 Indian rupees a month ($350) which is a decent wage in India and also saves the company a lot of cash. Although there’s very little opportunity for career advancement in these kinds of jobs, it did mean that a new generation of young Indians could start living consumer lifestyles, blowing their wages on discos and new clothes without needing any qualifications other than a nice accent. The fact that most of them live at home means that almost all their income is disposable, too.
The BPO culture means there seems to be a lot more cash floating around India these days but some doubt whether it actually reaches the greater part of the population through any trickle-down effect. The money is spent on good living and foreign hi-tech goods and so it’s unlikely that the average Indian peasant has seen much improvement from the recent boost to the economy.
There’s also a whole other side to the BPO culture which raises some interesting questions about what it means when a rich population encounters a poorer one. The people working in BPO in India are well off by Indian standards but the poor foreign exchange of the rupee to other currencies (48 rupees = $1) means that Indians can be employed to do all kinds of things that border on the unethical or just weird.
Consider the American student who can’t be bothered doing her essay on Emily Bronte because there’s a cool party on that night – for 20 bucks she can pay someone in India to write it for her. It will be original content, the Indian essay writers makes a good wage and the student can go out and dance all night long with peace of mind.
Or what about the Western gamers who can’t be bothered going through the first few levels of a new computer game as it isn’t challenging enough and want characters already built up for them – in return for their pocket money they can hire Indian gamers to play through the levels for them before handing over the controls.
So what’s the logical extreme of this? Can I post my suit (if I had one) to India to get dry cleaned? Can I hire people to write thank you letters for me? Search the net and find me the cheapest laptop on sale? The internet has made all these things possible as a new economy based on unequal exchange rates has sprung up. Hey, for the price of lunch ($10) you can hire someone to work for a day in India.
And is there anything wrong in that? Both parties are happy, no one gets screwed and cultural boundaries are crossed in the meantime, even if it’s just ‘oh, hell, Sanjay – I wanted a warrior-monk on the third level of Monster Quest!’
It may make economic sense but as we progress more and more into economies of service and servitude, the power of a strong currency leaves a funny taste in the mouth.