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India's Lockdown Puts Strain On Call Centers

Employees wearing protective masks work in a call center run by Uttar Pradesh state police in April during a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Lucknow, India.
Pawan Kumar
Employees wearing protective masks work in a call center run by Uttar Pradesh state police in April during a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Lucknow, India.

On the first day of India's coronavirus lockdown a month ago, Amar Sankrit realized he couldn't get to work.

Sankrit, 21, normally rides a bus two hours each way to a call center outside New Delhi where he has worked for the past year. His company handles customer service queries for U.S. and U.K. telecom companies.

But on March 25, all public transit was halted. He didn't own a laptop, so he couldn't work from home. He worried about losing pay. On a salary of about $3,000 a year, Sankrit helps support his mother.

"On that day, the shift was canceled. We were worried," Sankrit says. "We contacted our managers. We asked them what to do."

The same day,Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, was in her office in Washington, D.C. Her worries were on a larger scale.

"When India announced its lockdown, my immediate thought was, 'What will be the impact on the service economy in the United States and around the world?'" Biswal says.

India handles more than half of the world's IT outsourcing. That has earned it the nickname "the world's back office." More than 60% of those operations support clients in the U.S. — everything from credit card companies and airlines to essential emergency services such as hospitals, police and fire departments.

"X-rays, radiology and diagnostic information is often analyzed in India," Biswal tells NPR. "Our hospitals are very much linked to services in India."

So on March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the world's biggest coronavirus lockdown would take effect at midnight that night, requiring 1.3 billion people to shelter indoors, there was alarm — and economic fallout — around the world. That lockdown, which includes exemptions for food shopping and medical visits, has since been extended through May 3.

India has more than 4 million IT workers, including call center employees like Sankrit, and the vast majority couldn't get to work. In the last week of March, India's unemployment rate nearly tripled as workers in a variety of industries lost their jobs.

Callers to customer service numbers for airlines, banks and retailers worldwide were left on hold for hours or heard recordings saying help was currently unavailable.

A spokesman for Virgin Media, the U.K. telecom company, told NPR it gave up on trying to staff its call centers in the Indian cities of Pune and Bengaluru and decided to urgently hire staff in the U.K. instead. Similar disruptions have been reported in the Philippines, another global hub for IT services.

Within hours of Modi's lockdown announcement, Mukesh Aghi, head of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, which represents U.S. and Indian companies, sent an emergency request to the Indian government asking that it exempt Indian call centers from lockdown restrictions and issue curfew passes for their employees.

"Obviously, our priority was first with essential services," Aghi tells NPR. "The challenge was more from ground-level local policemen."

Permission was granted swiftly by India's central government, he says, but the message wasn't immediately conveyed to local authorities, and many call center employees were stopped on their way to work and turned back.

Aghi says it's difficult to estimate economic losses from India's coronavirus lockdown, specifically losses sustained by Indian IT contractors or their U.S. clients. Some Indian IT companies say losses are likely to come not from their inability to fulfill contracts, but from dwindling demand as clients in the U.S. and elsewhere postpone or shrink projects amid a global economic downturn.

Despite what Aghi calls "short-term interruptions," the National Association of Software and Service Cos., an Indian trade group, says 70% to 80% of call center employees are now working from home. It's "possibly the largest work-from-home scale project anywhere," a spokesperson was quoted as saying.

NPR spoke to nine call center employees, including Sankrit. Three are working from home, and six are not working. Some of those six are on unpaid furloughs, and some are still receiving full pay. None had been able to reach their offices since the lockdown took effect.

Working from home presents new challenges, particularly when it comes to cybersecurity. Sensitive personal information — medical records, credit card numbers and other financial data — is suddenly being routed through millions of Indian IT workers' home computers rather than secure call centers.

There are four essential requirements for employees to work securely from home, says Sagnik Chakraborty, a cybersecurity researcher at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think tank.

Those requirements are having a "virtual private network [VPN], encrypted disks, virtual remote desktops and disabling USB ports," Chakraborty explains. "But how many employees actually have these tools at home?"

Not many. It has taken Indian companies three days to a week, on average, to shift operations to employees' homes, Chakraborty says.

The company that employs Sankrit, which he did not want identified since he is not authorized to speak to media on its behalf, offered to house him in a luxury hotel next to his office. But that posed a problem. Sankrit lives with his mother and didn't want to leave her. So his company rented him a laptop, paid to install Internet service in the family's small apartment and sent a supervisor over to install everything.

It's a cramped space, and Sankrit says he has to balance his keyboard and mouse on his bed. He misses having a proper desk and chair, he says. But he's saving the four hours a day he used to spend commuting to work by bus. And he's still employed.

In fact, he says, he's putting in overtime, helping companies around the world stay up and running.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.