Their jobs are on the line

The next time you phone your high-street bank, you could well be put through to an Indian call centre instead. Katherine Griffiths went to Hyderabad to meet the people behind a new workers' revolution
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Akshaya has worked in HSBC's main call centre in India for just over a year. The graduate in business and finance, from Hyderabad, in the eastern state of Andhra Pradesh, comes to the office after mid-day when the bank's customers in Britain are just getting going for the day.

Akshaya does a nine-hour shift, answering calls from customers who have rung HSBC's telephone banking service, which randomly puts callers through to one of the bank's UK centres or to its new, fast-growing, hub in Hyderabad.

For Akshaya, 25, the job at HSBC's exotically named Babukhan Chambers operation is an important step in his career path, even if the work is rather repetitive. "This job contains everything I studied - finance, marketing, accounting. And we are the front line for customers, so if you want to move on to the next level, it is easier to do because you understand the customers better," he says.

HSBC outraged Britain's unions and shocked its staff three weeks ago when it said it would scrap 4,000 jobs in the UK and move them to the subcontinent, where salaries are dramatically lower but potential employees have a very high standard of education.

The bank first set up its data processing and call centre in Hyderabad in July 2001 and has been taking on 240 employees a month. It will have 2,600 employees in the city by the end of this year. The average age of its recruits is 23 and the split between men and women is even.

Puneet Dar joined a year ago, moving from front office manager for the Sheraton hotel - one of the poshest in the city. He is now one of HSBC's call-centre managers.

Dar, 31, who has a degree in economic and political science and a diploma in hotel management, went through five rounds of interviews before he got the job. He applied to HSBC because "the hotel industry was stagnating in India. Also we had a lot of people from HSBC staying at the Sheraton and they were always very decent people. If they had an issue they would come and talk to you rather than making a hue and cry about it."

HSBC is the first British company to set up a major operation to process work for its UK business in Hyderabad, one of India's fastest growing centres for software and telecommunications.

Companies such as British Telecom, Prudential and Lloyds TSB are following HSBC's lead on the basis that they can hire well-educated staff for about a sixth of the salaries they have to pay people in the UK. Indian staff are hired to do much of the processing work banks have to do to run their customers' accounts, and also to man call centres at a time when increasing numbers of customers prefer to carry out transactions over the telephone rather than by going into a branch.

Andrew Armishaw, who runs HSBC's service centres around the world, says of his army of new recruits: "There is no doubt that some of them want to end up having my job. Not all of them can, but some of them will progress through the bank."

All around his Indian workers are posters extolling the virtues of going the extra mile for the customers in Britain, America and the Middle East which the Hyderabad centre serves. Plastered among the grey banks of desks, which could be an interior from anywhere in the world, are messages to motivate and cheer when dealing with the more irritable variety of banking customer.

"If you think a task is too difficult, it is not. Just try harder," is the stern message of one poster. Another is more upbeat: "It takes more muscles to frown than smile."

Akshaya says he attempts some banter with some of the customers who call in, asking how their weekends have been and telling them it is "splendid" when they manage to give the right security details.

Despite the extra effort the facial expression requires, frowns are undoubtedly what some of HSBC's UK call-centre and processing workers have been wearing since the bank revealed its plans. The move will involve the closure of data processing centres in Swansea, Birmingham, Sheffield and Brentwood. A further 3,400 jobs will be shaved from centres around the UK, though they will not be closed.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of workers leave British call centres every year, so many job losses can be achieved by not replacing these. The bank will offer some employees affected the chance to move to a different part of the business, and has also set aside £4m to provide career advice. But the reality is that some of the 4,000 job losses will be compulsory redundancies.

Armishaw, who spends much of his time crossing the globe to check on the development of new HSBC call centres, says: "We are not trying to say if you are a person who is affected it is good news. But this process will happen and at HSBC we do not think we can stand by and not take part."

By the end of 2003, HSBC will have a total of 8,000 people working in its global service centres, of which 4,500 will be in India. It also has a burgeoning presence in Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

HSBC's roots stretch far back in Asia, so it may be ahead of the curve. But, according to a report by consultants Deloitte Research, two million of the 13 million jobs in financial services will move from the West to India in the next five years. That figure includes a projection of 730,000 jobs to go from Europe, in a sector where the UK is currently one of the biggest players.

The migration of work is expected largely to go to India because America and Britain are driving the outsourcing process and it is the second biggest English speaking nation in the world after the US. But other countries in the developing world are also keen to get in on the act, particularly other parts of Asia and Latin America.

The financial rationale behind the move is obvious - companies can save hundreds of millions of pounds by relocating jobs. HSBC pays an employee in Hyderabad £2,500 a year, compared to the average wage of £18,750 for call-centre workers in Britain.

British unions are already highlighting the way the manufacturing sector was decimated when 3.3m jobs were lost to low-cost countries in Asia as evidence of what could happen to IT and call-centre jobs, in many cases set up in the very places hit by the first trend.

The situation has exposed not just fears about the job situation in Britain but also some more unpleasant traits - HSBC has had lots of phone calls from members of the public complaining that it is dark-skinned people who are taking British jobs.

In Hyderabad, meanwhile, a group of 10 HSBC employees, dressed in a mixture of traditional and Western clothes, are concentrating hard on a session focusing on customer service as part of their training to move them up from doing basic data entry work to dealing with customers over the telephone.

Velagaleti, a particularly eager male member of the training session, says that rather than responding to what the customer is saying with "OK", it is preferable to use "positive acknowledgements", such as "certainly, definitely and sure".

Some companies, especially those in the US, which have shifted jobs to India have tried to disguise the move by telling their operatives to give themselves names such as "John" and to say they are speaking from Texas. Companies are moving away from that now, though one hurdle in being understood is idiomatic differences. A call centre worker at HSBC was left confused after a customer used the phrase "bear with me" while she looked for some documents.

In another class, a group is taught about management by Debbie Jefferson, who has worked for HSBC since 1977. She explains the tasks she gives the students here differ only slightly from those she teaches back in the UK. She has to address a more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping among the Hyderabad workforce but she doesn't bother with a role-play dealing with a colleague who has come back drunk from lunch because lunchtime drinking is not part of the country's culture.

The pain of the employees in the West is India's gain, many local politicians believe. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh seen by many as a strong candidate to succeed India's prime minister, has made technological advance one of his biggest priorities.

Since coming to power in the mid-1990s, Naidu has rolled out fibreoptic networks across the entire state of 75 million people. Andhra Pradesh is also spending $1bn on a new transport system, including an eight-lane super highway around Hyderabad. Foreign companies that locate there are offered tax concessions.

Revenue generated by IT work in Andhra Pradesh has increased eight-fold in just three years and the state now has one of the lowest poverty levels in the country. But the contrast between those sections of the economy and community swept up in the swift advance of technology and those who remain outside it is still immense.

Outside the vast marble collection of buildings which make up Hyderabad's School of Business, people live in tents by the road. In the distance is a development dubbed "Hightec City", where local software companies rise in a bizarre fashion from old Hyderabad, where cows still wander the streets and beggars with missing limbs push themselves around on carts between the traffic.

And although there are now 170,000 people working in call centres and processing for international companies, that represents just 0.2 per cent of India's entire population. So those taken on by companies such as HSBC are exceptions - very far from the desperately poor millions who could never dream of such a job because their education standards are so low.

Back in Britain, some economists are sanguine about the effect of call-centre job losses. They say it should be possible to create alternative jobs by concentrating on the highly-skilled end of the market. When the UK lost 3.3 million jobs to manufacturing it actually created six million jobs over the same period, chiefly in the services industry. The UK also has an ageing population and will need large numbers of people in the not too distant future to fill jobs which its own labour force cannot support.

But for now, those affected by the outsourcing trend are in a state of flux. The enthusiasm of India's graduate call-centre employees may endure if they see real prospects of having their hard work rewarded by career development, but it could all end in disappointment. And for those in Swansea or Sheffield, being part of the march of the globalised economy may not seem at all an exciting prospect.