[lg policy] Pakistan: Linguistic sweatshops

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 7 19:37:42 UTC 2010


Linguistic sweatshops
By Dr Tariq Rahman
Thursday, 07 Jan, 2010
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 Like sweatshops the world over the call centres of Pakistan are the new
sites for the extension of globalised capitalist market practices and the
ideology which underlies them. –File

*Sweatshops exist because workers in poor countries take lower wages to do
the same kind of labour as their counterparts in developed, postindustrial
societies. Corporate investors can get their products manufactured cheaply
and sell these at a much higher price with their brand name.*

Call centres are also based on this basic principle. They exist because the
rapid development in communications, especially the telephone and Internet,
make it possible to communicate all over the globe virtually almost without
any time lag.

What makes them exist and multiply is their contribution to maximising
profits of corporate giants. As wages for call centre employees are higher
in the US and Europe it is cheaper for entrepreneurs there to hire workers
in Asia who are paid a lower wage.
Call centres perform two functions: they receive calls from abroad,
providing services to western customers, or, they call clients in western
countries to sell them goods and services (outgoing).

Pakistani call centre workers are referred to as Customer Services
Representatives (CSRs). They try to adopt either an American or a British
accent when they interact with foreigners on the telephone in their daily
work.

Most call centres have business dealings with America. Clearly it is the
American accent which serves as linguistic capital for call centre workers
since it can be sold in the market for a job with higher wages than would
ordinarily be available to young people of their age in Pakistan.

The situation is akin to the days of British colonialism when people aspired
to ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) — or ‘Oxbridge’ as it was sometimes called
in India. They were appropriately called ‘brown sahibs.’ A response of
dominated groups everywhere is to accept the norms, values, tastes, cultural
and linguistic superiority, etc., of the dominant group voluntarily,
according to Italian philosopher and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.

Linguistic ideology makes us believe that certain languages and accents are
superior to others. This determines our attitudes and it is in the context
of linguistic attitudes that the linguistic policies and practices of call
centres should be understood. First, a number of young people acquire the
desired foreign accent of English which they call the ‘neutralisation of
accent.’ Within call centres there are advertisements of trainers claiming
to conduct ‘accent neutralisation courses’ ranging from a few weeks to three
months. In the hall where the calls are received and made there are notices
proclaiming an ‘English only’ policy.

Secondly, the employees have to use foreign names and not disclose their
location. I noticed that nobody I interviewed thought there was anything
wrong about discouraging the speaking of Urdu and other Pakistani languages
in the call centres nor did anybody complain about hiding the true names and
places of work of the agents. The language ideology behind such kinds of
practices is a subset of that of English in the rest of society. The
British-American pronunciation is valued to the exclusion of all other
pronunciations of Pakistani English. This alienates call centre employees
from other speakers. The fact that it may not be such an important issue for
other speakers of English results in greater distance.

However, the call centres are so few that their workers’ thoughts do not
affect society as a whole. They cannot impose their linguistic ideology on
anyone. They can only look down on other users of Pakistani English in
private. Call centres are generally situated in modern, glass-and-metal
glittering buildings with modern furniture and ample lighting. Security is
tight and access to the CSRs is controlled by managers and other
administrative cadres. Call centres are a replica, or perhaps a shadow, of
life in the US. The lights turn the night into day — the day in the US and
Britain. There are four clocks on the wall giving the four American time
zones. Young people, mostly boys in T-shirts and jeans speak in an American
accent which, in some cases, is obviously affected.

Their body language is also like that of Americans. They have ‘mimicked’ it.
The whole atmosphere is pseudo-American with people addressing each other
with American-sounding pseudonyms and using greetings like ‘hi’ and ‘bye’
and ‘I am good.’ I could not find any resistance to the idea that their
identity was being managed and, in fact, they themselves chose to represent
an alien identity through pronunciation and pseudonyms. Like sweatshops the
world over the call centres of Pakistan are the new sites for the extension
of globalised capitalist market practices and the ideology which underlies
them.

They create a virtual reality in which language, accent, names, locations
and identities in a hegemonic centre (America) are invested with value which
is exchanged for money. However, the process entails greater acquiescence in
discourses of western hegemony and alienation from one’s own cultural
reality. The employees accept the philosophy of work, opportunity and
business so well that they do not realise that they are being colonised in
ways much more drastic and far-reaching than ever before.

Their agency is reduced in the name of efficiency and standardisation and
even their time is colonised and reversed. As most of them accept this
colonisation, they support global capital and represent themselves as agents
of a homogenising and westernising ideology which is privileged by the
expansion of the free market all over the world. Though alienated from their
own cultures, the workers of call centres do, nevertheless, form part of a
global workforce which lives in perpetual exile having cut itself off from
the roots of its identity. The very existence of this kind of labour force
marks all things western (American) as being ‘normal’ and, therefore,
legitimises capitalism as the natural condition of existence.
http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/14-linguistic-sweatshops-zj-07

Contributed by Elena Bashir
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