The growth of 24/7 call centers in India puts women at risk. Efforts to protect them have generated results as well as criticism.
In the early morning hours of November 24, 2010, a 30-year-old female employee of a call center operating 24/7 was kidnapped by four men in a vehicle in the Dhaula Kuan neighborhood of Delhi. The men then brutally gang-raped the woman as they drove around the crime scene for 40 minutes.
In response to the shocking crime, which was symptomatic of a trend, Delhi Police issued emergency orders requiring certain businesses with women working the nighttime hours of 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. to provide protection. The Delhi authorities were mandating a best practice voluntarily implemented by business process outsourcing centers (BPOs), or call centers, in India’s third largest city, Bangalore, 1,300 miles south of Delhi, after a similar incident five years earlier.
Specifically, BPOs, corporate houses, and media houses have to provide a security guard to accompany women to and from work if the women travel by taxi so that they are never alone with the cab driver. The security guards, according to the police order, should “as far as possible” come from licensed agencies that have completed background checks on their guards.
At the start of the ride, the order tells companies and their cab providers to choose routes that minimize the possibility that female employees are either the first or the last to be dropped off or picked up at night, thereby increasing security by increasing the number of male colleagues in the car. When dropping a female worker off, a taxi must do so directly in front of her home and wait until she has called the security guard or the help desk at the call center to verify that she has arrived inside safely. If there are no roads leading to a female employee’s home, the security guard must walk her to her door and get confirmation that she’s arrived safely inside.
Companies are also tasked with maintaining a database that includes all their employees, security personnel, cab drivers, and contractual workers for the police when needed. In addition, companies are required to ensure that their transportation providers have installed GPS tracking systems in their cabs so that the vehicles can be monitored.
Satish Showkeen, formerly general manager of physical security at IBM Daksh and currently a senior consultant at Keen Arrow LLC, said the crime and subsequent regulation are a result of changing times, both culturally and economically, for India. The problem arose because BPOs operate 24/7 to serve Western markets, especially the United States, forcing their many female workers to come and go during night hours when they might not otherwise have ventured out alone.
In an attempt to protect female workers, companies had already voluntarily provided transportation to and from work, which led to the rise of Delhi’s taxi industry. But that was not sufficient, because the cab drivers themselves were sometimes unsavory characters. The voluntary adoption of security escorts in Bangalore in 2005 came in reaction to the rape and murder of a female BPO employee by her cab driver.
Shalini Chakravorty, India country manager for the risk consultancy Hill & Associates, says the Delhi police order has elicited complaints from affected companies. During a meeting between companies and the Commissioner of Delhi Police in February, industry leaders told police they needed the GPS requirements phased in and also stressed how the regulations, particularly walking females to their front doors, caused unnecessary delays when taking employees home for the night.
Despite their objections, the affected companies have complied with the December order, explained Mandeep Garewal, managing director of the guarding company Force Tech Security. He says the “harsh penalties” instituted by the Delhi Police gave companies all the motivation they needed to abide by the order. Any company’s senior management found in violation of the order could be imprisoned for a month or fined 200 rupees or both. A repeat offender, according to the order, could be jailed up to six months or fined 1,000 rupees or both.
But that doesn’t mean companies are following the letter of the law, says Manjit Rajain, chairman of Peregrine Guarding, an Indian guarding company. “It’s getting diluted a bit,” he says. Some BPOs aren’t placing security guards in cabs with female employees until later in the evening, even though the regulation says guards should be in cabs by 8 p.m., he says.
Also, when police extended the emergency order in mid-February, they revised the regulation to allow BPOs to forgo putting security guards in cabs when a male colleague was present in the cab with a female employee.
Rajain tells Security Management that BPOs are simply trying to cut costs. “Whenever a cost has to be cut, I think security is one of the first casualties,” he says.
Nevertheless, the order seems to have had the intended effect: there have been no reported attacks against female BPO employees since December, according to multiple sources.
Female employee advocates have not all supported the regulation, however. Some have complained, noting various concerns. One sticking point has been the need to give their phone numbers to male security guards escorting them home at night, which is required so that they can verify that they have arrived in their homes safely. This may be a valid concern as security guards employed by even the licensed agencies are often not up to international standards, according to Chakravorty.
Another concern is that the rules treat women too paternalistically. Human Rights Watch’s Aruna Kashyap tells Security Management that she has mixed feelings about the regulation. While she is happy something is being done about the risk, she regrets that the regulation unnecessarily limits a female BPO worker’s freedom of movement, in effect seeming to force her to go straight home from work.
For instance, a security manager for a large multinational company with BPOs in Delhi, who asked not to be named because he was not given permission to speak to Security Management, said his company has a “zero tolerance” rule, whereby female employees must use a company taxi to and from work and abide by the December regulations. If she does not, the company will take disciplinary action against her.
Force Tech Security’s Garewal explained that other companies make a female employee sign a waiver, eliminating the company’s liability if she declines the company’s transportation service or requests a drop-off somewhere other than her home.
Kashyap also notes that the emergency order relies on private security, rather than police, which she says is not the right approach. Instead, she would like to see the police increase their ranks and have a larger presence on Delhi streets.
Aparna Bhat, an independent lawyer and women and children’s rights advocate, believes the police regulation’s focus is all wrong. “If I’m being violated, the person who is violating my space is the one who should be targeted,” Bhat says, not women who have exercised their right to work outside the home.
It is not an either-or situation, however. In fact, Bhat acknowledges that Delhi has also aggressively prosecuted male offenders; the city has the highest rape conviction rate in all of India. And Kashyap says that the police have been instrumental in setting up rape crisis response centers across the city as well.
Police have also been proactive at spreading the message that their officers are doing everything they can to protect Delhi’s women. In a letter to a journalist published on the Delhi Police Web site, Special Commissioner Ranjit Narayan stressed that the police have set up special helpdesks for women in all police stations. The letter also noted that they deploy police vans to pick up stranded women at night and have created two help lines for women to call if they’re in trouble or become the target of obscene phone calls or stalkers.
Protecting women in Delhi continues to be an uphill battle, however. Bhat blames the “feudal thinking” that still permeates much of India. “There is this sanctity for violence against women, which encourages people to continue to do these kinds of things,” she says.
That problem, unfortunately, is not unique to India.