Working the night shift: women's employment in the transnational call center industry



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In the past decade, a night shift labor force has gained momentum in the global economy. The hyper-growth of the transnational call center industry in India provides a quintessential example. The night shift requirement of the transnational call industry also intersects with the spatial and temporal construction of gender. Research conducted in 2006 in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad indicates that the nightscape is primarily a male domain (with the exception of prostitutes, bar dancers, and call girls) and women’s entry into this domain generates a range of diverse responses from call centers, their employees, the employees’ families, the media, and the Indian public. This research illustrates that there is no linear outcome to how working the night shift at a call center affects women’s lives. Even though the global nature of the work combined with the relatively high salary is viewed as a liberating force in the lives of workers, in actuality women simultaneously experience opening and constriction for working in the industry. Through the collection of interviews, focus group data, and participant observation gathered during 10 months of fieldwork in India, I examine female night shift workers’ physical, temporal, social, and economic mobility to illustrate how global night shift labor is intersecting with the lives of women in ironic and unsettling ways. Call center employment certainly changes the temporal mobility of some women because it provides them with a legitimate reason to leave the house at night, whereas before this was considered unacceptable. Concerns about promiscuity and “bad character” related to working at night are deflected by linking employment to skill acquisition, high wages, and a contribution to the household. Women’s safety--a code word for their reputation--is preserved by segregating them, via private transport, from the other women of the night. Women consequently become more physically and economically mobile, but through the use of what I term mobility-morality narratives, households continue to maintain regimes of surveillance and control over when and how women come and go. Similarly their social mobility is limited by obligations to support family members and conform to gendered notions of a woman’s place.