The violent death of a call centre worker reinforced negative views in India about jobs in outsourcing – but measures taken by Indian outsourcers have helped change perceptions, says Saritha Rai.

Last month, a judge in a Bangalore court sentenced cab driver Shiva Kumar to life for the rape and murder of a call centre employee.

On a chilly December evening five years ago in Bangalore, Pratibha Murthy, 24, an employee at HP’s back-office operation HP GlobalSoft, was picked up as usual by a cab that was supposed to ferry her to work. Her body was found abandoned in an suburb the next day. She had been raped and murdered.

indian outsourcing

The murder reinforced Indian perceptions that outsourcing jobs were too westernised
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The murder immediately became headline news, and sent a collective shiver through India’s outsourcing industry.

The murder of a night shift woman employee added to already negative perceptions about outsourcing jobs as being too westernised, and was also potentially damaging to the reputation of India’s outsourcing industry among its overseas customers.

The murder pushed Indian companies to adopt more stringent safety practices, according to Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice president of Nasscom. “Companies are going that extra mile,” she said.

So Murthy’s brutal murder has changed the way women in India’s technology and back-office industries travel to and from work.

Outsourcing companies provide their employees a host of facilities such as transport, subsidised and even free food. But in a move unmatched…

…anywhere in the world, companies started upping security measures for their female employees.

The measures adopted at WNS Global Services, India’s second largest back-office firm, mirror those at other organisations. These days, company-contracted cabs are tracked through GPS. Daily rosters track each cab driver and route. Driver management software keeps tabs of drivers as they swipe in, traces absentees and replacement drivers.

Extra security measures
WNS Global’s cab drivers and security staff are also put through periodic background checks and regular breathalyser tests. Security teams patrol at night and are available on call on mobile phones and emergency numbers. Women employees travelling by office transport at night cannot be picked up first or dropped off last. A security guard or a male employee is present when she boards or alights.

Five years after the Murthy murder, alongside a slow cultural shift, rigorous safety standards such as the ones that WNS Global has in place are helping make outsourcing jobs a viable career option for middle-class India. Young women throng to call centres knowing full well that they are signing on for a demanding career and will have to arrive and leave work at all hours of the day and night.

“The number of women entering outsourcing has been steadily increasing,” says industry veteran B Ramaswamy, managing director of Bangalore-based Sonata Software whose customers include PepsiCo and Johnson & Johnson. “Culturally, the idea of a working woman is more widely accepted. At the same time, outsourcing firms are perceived to offer a safe and friendly work environment.”

Ramaswamy’s company does not run a call centre but women employees who work beyond 7pm are dropped home daily. “That helps me sleep well at night,” he said.

Changed perceptions about outsourcing jobs
As outsourcing activities spread to country’s smaller cities and towns, literally arriving at the doorstep of middle-class India, the perception is that they offer real jobs to real people.

It is a big shift from the days when women first entered India’s back-office workforce a decade ago and adopted fake names and affected accents to build a career. Before that in Bangalore, India’s outsourcing capital, local laws forbade companies from employing young women between 8pm and 6am in the morning.

As the outsourcing industry slowly boomed, the laws were amended in 2002 to allow women to work nights, but the law spelled out that employers needed to take full responsibility of workers’ transport and security.

There are no infallible safety methods, companies concede. Many of them still fight to change people’s perceptions about outsourcing as they enter newer, smaller cities.

But in India’s biggest cities, women are closing the numbers gap. Today, 42 percent of WNS Global’s 19,000 employees in India are women. “The industry has brought about a deep fundamental socio-economic change in India,” says Keshav R Murugesh, Group CEO of WNS Global. “Women have contributed in great measure.”