Sweatshop boys slaves to their PCs

Medical transcriptions are being advertised all over India as the quickest way for young college graduates to find their first job. But these young recruits do run into difficulties.

Medical transcriptions are being advertised all over India as the quickest way for young college graduates to find their first job. But these young recruits do run into difficulties.

INDIA (SCMP.com) - Manjit Singh doesn't get lunch breaks or weekends off. He sits hunched among rows of computers that remind him, in his dark moments, of a factory production line. "I feel like those people in poor villages of Bangladesh slaving late into the night over sewing machines for some clothing shop in the West," he says.

Instead of a sewing machine, Mr Singh sits in front of a screen. Instead of daily wages, he gets a monthly salary, and unlike a traditional sweatshop worker, Mr Singh has an undergraduate degree. He is part of a new breed spawned by the "information age": information-technology sweatshop boys.

"Sometimes I can be working all night transcribing tapes that come in from the United States, sometimes at two or three in the morning," he says from his dark basement office in crowded West Delhi, an area populated by small traders, where his job is to provide doctors in US and Canadian hospitals with accurate reports of their work by early morning, US time.

"We make sure that all the tapes the hospitals send us are ready in print for the hospital by the time the doctor goes in the next day. We can't afford to take time off," says Mr Singh's boss, Vandana Sagar, whose organisation, Selectronic, handles medical transcriptions.

Ms Sagar is matter of fact about comparing the cost effectiveness of doing the work in India rather than the US.

"Our workers are willing to work seven days a week and all night as well. We pay them about five [US] cents per line, while our American counterparts will be paid at least 20 [US] cents a line. Obviously, they [the North American hospitals] want to go with us." Mr Singh sometimes goes home with US$200 (about HK$1,550) a month or, if he is lucky, US$300. He does not think he can do this work for more than a couple of years.

Medical transcriptions are being advertised all over India as the quickest way for young college graduates to find their first job. But these young recruits do run into difficulties. "Medical transcriptions are a tricky business, as they involve understanding different accents as well as understanding medical jargon. They can lead to huge lawsuits," says information-technology expert Gowrikanthan Srinivasan. But Ms Sagar is not worried. "We have had to fire a number of people because they got things wrong, but that has not stopped the flow of work."

Anoop Roy, the general manager of Spectranet, a large Web-content-providing company, is an aggressive defender of the new "slave labour". "Either you can cry about what you don't have, or you can get into the market now and take advantage of what's going around, even if you start off at a disadvantage," he says. Expertise in technology is more important than the subject matter.

"In the US, they are used to the idea of working with Indians in the field of information technology. The question on their minds is not whether to work with Indians but how cost effective the project is going to be. And let's face it, we are enjoying being needed."

Officially, there are about 108 information-technology-enabled service providers in India, but the actual figure runs into a few thousand. "If you pick up any newspaper you will find tiny outfits offering such jobs to young graduates. Many of these [companies] will fold, but the momentum right now is very high," says Mr Roy.

Increasingly, toll-free numbers dialed from the US are being answered by Indians from Bangalore, Bombay, Chennai and even small towns, such as Lucknow in northern Uttar Pradesh state. "They mimic the American accent and call themselves 'John' and 'Max', and most of the time, nobody knows the difference," says a senior manager of a call-centre company.

"But occasionally, you get a serious cultural clash, so we have to train our workers to be polite and say 'please' and 'thank you' - things that people in India are still not used to doing as a matter of course."

Some information-technology experts are of the opinion that Indians would do well to leave the jobs involving interaction with overseas customers to English-speaking countries such as Ireland. "But that is where they are wrong," says Mr Roy. "India is one of those countries in Asia where English abounds and where this sort of back-room work is still not below us."

Sitting in his betel-nut-stained upstairs office behind railway tracks and a tumbledown cinema, Subhash Malik, a 55-year-old businessman, says he decided 15 years ago that the quickest way for him to make money was handling expense claims for organisations such as Citibank and a local textile company called Bichona.

"I pay my staff, all of them commerce graduates, about US$100 a month," he says. "Meanwhile, I get paid about US$2,200 a month by the companies."

He has just bought himself more space in another building and will be moving soon. And he has no intention of getting into the call-centre or medical-transcription business. "That business is too risky for me."

But experts believe call centres and Web-content providers are the largest revenue earners, accounting for 85 per cent of all information-technology-enabled services in the country. By 2008, the overall market for information-technology-enabled services will amount to US$142 billion globally, according to management consultant McKinsey & Co.

"With the high number of skilled youngsters from colleges, India is ideally positioned to become the back office of the world," Prakash Gurbuxani, founder and chief executive of 24/7customer.com told the Times of India newspaper recently.

But many of these young people are drawn to the jobs because the positions are often falsely advertised as providing opportunities to migrate to the West. "I have had to tell so many of these boys that although we occasionally might send one of them for training overseas, there is hardly any chance of staying there with a work visa or any other such thing," says Ms Sagar.