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Jyoti’s murder: Who is to blame?

November 6, 2007

The murder of 21 year old Jyoti Chowdhary, a Wipro call centre employee has sent has sent shock waves through Mumbai and Pune and it has also started off the blame game. The police blame the company and the company the cab operators and carelessness of employees. The employees have no one to blame as the companies are their bread and butter.

What happened in the case of Jyoti was that it was her ‘regular’ driver and his accomplice who kidnapped, raped and murdered her. There have been incidents earlier and a well publicized case was that of Vikram Poddar who was drugged and murdered by a cab driver and an accomplice when he was on his way to Mumbai from Pune.

Criminal cabbies
The cabs hired out by BPO’s to ferry their employees home are not owned by the companies themselves but hired on contract. The company has no idea whether the profiles of the drivers are checked and usually they are not. Why, just earlier this year a cab driver threw acid on the face of 22-year-old girl working in a Pune BPO when she objected to his getting fresh with her! And in 2005 there was an incident in Bangalore when Pratibha, a 24-year-old-employee of HP Globalsoft, was raped and murdered by a person posing as her driver.

What news channels and news reports are highlighting is that cab drivers could come from dubious/criminal backgrounds and no one’s checking.

As it says here:

Background check and reference check of the BPO drivers is the weakest link in the entire BPO operation. All our unsafe transportation issues are arising from here…

Security measures by companies are weak/non-existent
The fact that Jyoti’s murder was pre-planned shows that the security measures by companies are weak and cab drivers know it. The cab driver who killed Jyotikumari seemed to know that he would get to drop her when she was alone. It must have been a regular thing.

Companies don’t want to own responsibility
Although drivers with dubious backgrounds are being hired company executives don’t want to take responsibility for it. In fact even the CEO of Wipro refused to accept that they were negligent in this case. The companies go also go as far as to say that the contractors are responsible for the behaviour of the driver. Not them.

What’s shocking is that senior company officials have not only only washed their hands off the situation, they also seem to feel that the employees themselves are to blame! The outrageous reasons given for this is that there are rules in place which are mandatory for employees to follow. Rules such as ensuring that the employees travel with a security guard provided (and who is to say that guard is not in connivance with the driver?) and that women should not get into cabs if there is another man with the driver, or that women should ensure that they are not the last one to be picked up and dropped…

So does this mean that once these rules are put on paper and bound into company manuals, the company can shrug off responsibility? Not that I am saying that all companies even have written rules. There are companies which hold ‘safety seminars and /or simply hand out verbal instructions.

If the responsibility of the company ceases once employees are informed of the rules and safety precautions I wonder why companies need to ensure that workers in hazardous industries wear helmets or gloves? They ensure it because otherwise the could go to jail! So this means there should be some sort of urgent regulation forcing companies to ensure that employees adopt safety measures.

Companies have a duty
In Hindustan UniLever for instance senior managers are severely reprimanded if anyone reporting to them does not wear a seat belt or helmet. If there is an accident, and it comes to light that the occupants of the car were not wearing a seat belt or that in the case of a two-wheeler no helmet, the manager is reprimanded, could be denied promotion and is often humiliated. This is what BPO companies need to emulate.

Blaming victims isn’t right
I read in a news article that BPO executives feel that the employees should change their behavior:

…employees are guilty of not behaving professionally with drivers, the BPO executive, who declined to be identified, said. She said unacceptable behavior includes not being punctual and forcing drivers to speed, becoming over-friendly with them, requesting drivers to drop them at unscheduled spots and getting into quarrels with them.

Now, why has this BPO employee declined to be identified? Why, because she knows that she is biased. Because she knows that criminals will be criminals. Will any normal driver rape and murder a girl because she is over-friendly with him? Or because she is rude to him? Sure, there are cases where normal people can kill if pushed to the limit, but this only happens with constant and severe harassment.

What’s even more alarming is that drivers feel they can get away with crime despite being on the travel agency’s rolls.

The authorities are facing their share of flak
Apparently many of these ‘cabs’ are not bonafide cabs! In fact the Pune City Autorickshaw Federation has demanded a crackdown on ‘tourist’ vehicles functioning as call center cars.

It is mandatory for vehicle owners to have public service badges and a numbers of requests have been made to police commissioner Jayant Umranikar and the RTO (Road Transport) authorities to carry out checks of whether the call centre vehicles were in possession of the public services badges…

No one has bothered to regularize these cabs so far. The reality is that just about any tourist vehicle can be pressed into service to ferry BPO employees and just about anyone can get a job as a taxi driver!

The police have also delayed making that data base of the cab operators and their cabs which they had promised to do. They had asked companies to provide this data (when there were terrorist threats against IT companies) but there was no follow-up with the companies. The police are promising they will do it this time for sure…

On a television channel today there was an interview with the Pune Police Commissioner. He said that there was only one policeman for 1000 citizens in Pune and so he did not think it was the responsibility of the police to provide a guard in every cab. But no one has asked the police to provide a guard in every cab! In fact even what the reporter suggested to him, nakabandis (roadblocks) and random checking, may not work…what will work however is if the police come down heavily on the BPO’s in their area to ensure that safety measures are followed. What will work is if the police keep a database of all the travel operators and their cab drivers and make it mandatory for drivers to be verified by the police. What will work is if the police take away the licenses of the travel agencies if rules are not followed.

But ofcourse when it comes to the individual safety of employees there is no doubt that the company has to take responsibility.

Can BPO employees expect better transport arrangements in the future?
Well, there are demands for mini-buses and company buses with female security guards and/or female drivers. Even a change in shift timings. Well, company buses are a good idea but I doubt whether many companies will go in for this expensive alternative. Only a strong demand by employees can make them consider this. They might find it easier to change shift timings.

While a slight change in shift timings is fine, what must not be tried in any circumstances was what the Karnataka government tried after Pratibha’s murder in similar circumstances. They wanted to ban women from working late shifts! In my post on this subject I had mentioned how instead of asking companies to provide better security to women employees and improve policework, the government indulges in propaganda tactics to show to the public how ‘concerned’ they are about the safety of women. And there are enough regressive thinking people who support such moves. Luckily women’s groups poured cold water on this idea.

Now now that this murder has happened, companies are bound to go into over drive – checking drivers, making long-winded company documents detailing security measures, holding safety seminars, putting up warning notices, hiring more security guards, threatening employees of disciplinary action if they don’t follow the security drill…but how long will this last?

The Bangalore have police have said that more than a 100 crimes were registered in Bangalore during the past one and a half years concerning incidents of call centre workers being targeted by those who work in the transport services. No statistics are available country-wide but on an individual level it’s best to keep in mind some of the rules which the BPO industry is supposed to follow. If you find your company is not following them, you can bring it to the notice of the concerned people:

  • Women should not be picked up first or dropped last by company vehicles at night.
  • If male-colleagues are not around, women workers must have security escorts (women security escorts*)
  • Vehicles ferrying women should be equipped with GPS (global positioning system).
  • Companies should submit a data-base of taxi service operators and drivers on duty to the police.
  • Cab drivers ferrying women should not be changed frequently. No ‘substitute’ drivers should be allowed.
  • The ITES-BPOs must ensure that transport operators employ drivers with police verification certificates.
  • All drivers should carry identity cards which should be thoroughly scanned each time by company security to ensure that someone else is not using them*.
  • The firms should draw up route maps and schedules of drivers every week.
  • Car pools hired by firms to work should not have tinted windscreens.
  • Senior security officials of every firm should check vehicles and frisk drivers for weapons.
  • All drivers should undergo testing for alcohol consumption each and every time they get behind the driver’s seat. Breath-analysers should be provided to company security guards.*
  • These firms should not assign work for 14-16 hours to drivers as is the norm.
  • Arrangement for overnight stay should be made in case there is an emergency and a vehicle is not available.*

*These are my own additions.

(Photo linked to the original)

Update, 15th Nov: Xylene sent me a link to a news story which gives the latest on Jyoti’s murder. Apparently she was told that the other man in the cab was an employee. She was lied to. This shows how easy it is for a criminal to manipulate the situation in the absence of checks from the company.

Related Reading: Why we blame victims
Conviction rates of the world

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    November 6, 2007 8:52 am

    Nita,

    Your points are very exhaustive, and many of them are already well known. But aren’t we begging the basic question?

    BPOs are flourishing mainly because of outsourcing. In order to remain competitive they have to cut costs. What could be a more obvious solution than doing unto others what they are having done to themselves — outsource all ancillary services?

    And once you are desperately in cost-minimisation mode you have to take pretty much what you get. You can’t afford to be too choosy or finicky.

  2. November 6, 2007 9:16 am

    I agree with your views. Additionally the cabs engaged in BPO duties should have a panic button inside the vehicle to directly contact nearest Police Control Room / Employer by wireless, Which iam sure is possible. This panic button should be at convenient place in the vehicle. Or this can be voice actuated. Also the cab should activate a hooter to draw the attention of public. Providing these safety devices in the vehicle should be the responsibility of the Employer.

  3. November 6, 2007 10:03 am

    and one should carry self protection – self defence product – Like these ones

  4. November 6, 2007 10:30 am

    Bharath, Vivek, Old Sailor, thanks.
    Vivek, sure points are well known but I pride myself on putting everything together in one place with relevant links. I haven’t said my points are original at all. What is original however is that you will not find any article, not even a newspaper article which compiles all the relevant points the way I have done. It usually takes hours for me to do an analysis and write it down in a clear concise manner. I really hate to boast as it goes completely against my grain but I had to say it here.
    Also I am not sure that i agree with your outsourcing argument. Sure, competitiveness is important but these BPO’s pay fairly high salaries to employees, often more than they can get anywhere. Often they employ students. So they do spend where they consider it necessary. What I am saying is that safety is necessary and I do not agree that a competitive industry need compromise on safety.
    Old Sailor thank you for that additional point. An excellent point.

    p.s. Vivek, fyi, in yesterday’s post for example (on Lakshmana) there is not a single news source which connected the political angle to the Lakshamana’s situation. At least I don’t know of any. That is again what I pride myself on, connecting different aspects of a situation and reading deeply into the problem. By no means comprehensive, but I try. I may not always succeed but I think yesterday I did very well, as xcentricpundit picked up that point.

  5. November 6, 2007 10:32 am

    It would be the Employer’s responsibility to ensure persons transporting employees were sober, properly licensed and inspected by Security. there also should be requirements for vehicles transporting employees to be properly serviced and safe. In such cases as you describe where a number of employees were dleivered home it might help to have a security person also accompany the vehicle and be responsible for safe conduct of workers. If I were a woman worker in such situation I might be very vigilant in ensuring that security of my person became a contractualresponsibility of my employer, and that transport to and from work, if that was provided by the employer had provisions that would ensure my safety. Is there a Labour Standards Branch in India? G

  6. November 6, 2007 10:44 am

    @suburbanlife:

    Yes there are labour laws etc but the BPO being a new sector there is no law as yet regarding safe transportation. It is necessary as BPO workers have night shifts. Hopefully such a law will be formulated soon.
    Even I would ensure my own safety but I think this depends a lot on personality. For example I do a lot of things that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t do…🙂 Like wash fruits in soapy water as pesticides are used freely in India. So when it comes to late night traveling I would definitely take all precautions and more. But the fact is that there are people who are less careful. Plus at times one does feel safe… and it could be a simple mistake in judgment that can happen to anyone. For example Jyoti trusted her driver who was a regular.

  7. November 6, 2007 12:31 pm

    Nita: At the risk of sounding cold, I have to ask this.

    Is it possible that just _too much attention_ is being paid to these, notably still few and far in between, murders because they have a tag ‘BPO employee’ attached to them?

    Aren’t the numbers vastly exceeded by ordinary girls – not working late night, not taking random taxis, just being safe at “home” – who are being raped and murdered, by people they know well or people of their own families, and nobody raises any stink about them?

    Is the former a murder more-deserving-of-news-headlines than the latter which is just another statistic?

  8. November 6, 2007 12:41 pm

    @Shefaly:

    that is a point shefaly but this murder has a different connotation, that of safety of employees which is something different from just random crime. that is why this has become a big issue in India. It is is a safety issue. and BPO’s because people work nightshifts. I do not know of any other industry facing this.
    in any case in india ordinary people, particularly girls do not take taxis at night alone. no one would do it here but I don’t know about developed countries. Is it safe there?

    p.s, and yes there are headlines of other gruesome murders too, too many I think. specially of brothers killing sisters, husband killing wives etc, but those are individual crimes, nothing to do with industry.

  9. November 6, 2007 2:56 pm

    Nita:

    Several things:

    It is as safe or unsafe in Europe as chance would allow. Drunk and completely incapacitated young women stagger home in late hours, on foot or in taxis, in larger numbers than get killed or mauled. I would suggest that the rarity of these incidents proves that the system is by and large working. The same is probably true of the BPO employees and their safety.

    The brouhaha is I feel disproportionate and potentially more damaging to employee welfare than they may want to think.

    “.. individual crimes, nothing to do with industry.”
    “.. even the CEO of Wipro refused to accept that they were negligent in this case.”

    Except if provided for in employment agreements and hence contractually agreed, employers are not obliged to provide or pay for transport to and from the place of work. The BPO industry is working to an exception.

    Pushing the issue to make it employer responsibility could have an effect that they withdraw the perk altogether. You could argue that people are clamouring for good employees but in a free market/ capitalistic system, if controls such as minimum wages etc are not provided, the actual arrangement is what the employer and the employee negotiate, NOT what they should be doing.

    In fact, I think it is quite wrong to make employers the keepers of employees’ welfare in their non-work life such as the Unilever example cited by you.

    It is amusing to see that the same people who would consider the state as ‘interfering’ will accept any number of interventions from their employer. It says something about the relative power balance, does it not?

    These incidents are newsworthy alright, but I do think that implicating industry could well lead to unforeseeable consequences.

  10. November 6, 2007 3:13 pm

    @Shefaly:

    Well, I guess that’s a different point of view.
    But ofcourse I do not agree. the night shift itself means that the company needs you at night and they have to make the necessary arrangements.
    For example airline hostesses are routinely dropped home late at night by offiical transport. Therefore there are no such incidents there.
    If the nature of the job is such that night time travel is required of the employee (even if it is going to and fro from home) then safety arrangements need to be made. That is my view. And ofcourse crime cannot happen every time, it happens only occasionally. Just as accidents in the workplace or any other thing like that.

    In my view this is a very serious issue and calls for legislation.

  11. November 6, 2007 3:41 pm

    In india – Working in night itself is a very sensitive issue.. So it’s really important for both employer & employee to become very much alert & careful.

    In “employee is the king” market many companies are neglecting employee verification process.. so I am sure many terrorist/criminals are working in these companies. this itself is a big threat to our security (including people & data)..

  12. November 6, 2007 8:56 pm

    @Shefaly:

    Shefaly, one point about HLL which I forgot to address. It might interest you to know that that policy which I mentioned in the post is one which comes from unilever and is their international policy. I too was very surprised to hear of this (we know many people who work with the company) and it’s very unusual for India. Unilever is an Anglo-Dutch company. From what I hear any accidental death of employees is taken very seriously indeed and it’s the chairman of the company who has to answer for it. That is why safety measures are taken very seriously indeed even though Indian law does not call for it. In fact this requirement for helmet by law is only a recent thing in India (even then most people don’t follow it except in Mumbai and Delhi) but this policy of Unilever has been on for a long time.
    I am not even saying whether it’s right or wrong…it just is.

  13. November 8, 2007 7:03 pm

    @Old Sailor..If we have a panic button installed, we can never make sure that its not rigged..

    Nita :
    A company can issue many rules, but then who will enforce this? Even if we insist on having the same driver (who background check was done) and to be picked up and dropped only if there is another male employee is present, there could be a possibility that he is on leave for a particular day and the driver can take advantage of it.
    If we insist on having female security guards. how safe are they on their way back?
    One alternative would be having mini buses than individual cabs as someone suggested.

    I guess every woman should take some precautions .
    1. Carry pepper spray.
    2. learn some basics in self defence.
    3. Be physically fit.

  14. November 9, 2007 5:50 pm

    The enforcement happens automatically when there is accountability. I gave that example of Unilever for a reason. When there is accountability people work….!
    But ofcourse I agree an individual must take precautions but we have to understand the human psychology which is feeling that nothing will happen to me! That is why people in India don’t wear seat belts or wear helmets. Because enforcement is weak.

  15. November 9, 2007 8:28 pm

    Nita:

    After much to-ing and fro-ing, finally corporate manslaughter/ corporate homicide is now a statutory offence in the UK.

    The Crown Prosecution Service advises: To secure a conviction, the prosecution must prove that the management failure amounted to a “gross breach” of the duty of care owed to the deceased. When determining this, the jury should consider whether the evidence shows that the company’s conduct fell far below that which could reasonably have been expected of it.

    There are many interpretations possible in those two sentences!

    Sometimes accountability is not a function of executive vision but the outcome of a legal environment the firm may be functioning in.

    Unilever usually observes similar policies globally in many parts of the business, so it can be cited as an exception.

    But a large number of firms also affected by the same laws do not have similar policies which suggests that the cost-benefit analysis and the legal frameworks enable the exactly opposite choices too. As long as that is the norm, there is little incentive for firms to change the status quo.

    So while the points you raise are on sound moral ground, businesses will weigh them differently.

    Thanks.

  16. November 9, 2007 8:37 pm

    Nita:

    Sorry I was on the phone at the same time and sent the comment off…

    “Sometimes accountability is not a function of executive vision but the outcome of a legal environment the firm may be functioning in”

    And the legal environment is as good as the enforcement. Seeing how the enforcement regime works even in basic areas of corporate law such as contracts, adding more legislation will be Band-aid not surgery.

    If we leave it to the markets, then two outcomes are possible – companies do it as CSR which will need a softly-softly approach or in today’s environment, where profits are under pressure, they withdraw the perk altogether.

    It is worth asking what companies _really_ think about the issue and I think Wipro’s stance makes it amply clear..

    Thanks.

  17. November 10, 2007 6:44 pm

    Shefaly thanks. Yes the legal environment of the country is critical and that is why Indian companies are not bothered.
    an update to the issue in question: the police are seriously considering slapping a case of gross negligence against Wipro because it has turned out that the man who they hired was a criminal! Apparently no checking was done at all about the man’s background, either by the company or the taxi operator. the guy was a known local goon! Under these circumstances apparently the police can find some ground to file a case. Hope they do and it works out. It could not just set a good precedent it could also perhaps prompt some better laws to come up here.

  18. November 11, 2007 8:22 am

    Yes Nita,

    Employee verification process has been mostly neglected or it’s carried out inefficiently.. there is unbelievable demand for recruiting with almost no time for HR.. and I am damn sure there are many criminals, milltants & terrorist are working in almost all big giant blue chip companies.. n I tell you that’s safe n most comfirtable place.

  19. November 11, 2007 11:39 am

    Incidents like these become the talk for a week, and then gradually die down, very sad.
    Just the other day we colleagues were talking about this, let me mention an all male group it was.
    I was of the strong opinion regarding male employees being a guard to the female employees on late night cab drops/pickups. I do not think this can be shown as precautionary measure at all, first of all just one male employee can hardly do anything when it comes to protection.
    I was telling my female colleague and a friend the other day, do you think I can protect someone when it comes to an attack?, most of us are not physically capable to take people on, and more importantly would be selfish enough to run for our lives, common we do admit all of us are not heroes.
    Companies should look at protection more seriously and not depend on male employees, with the high crime rate in Bangalore, I think its the time to provide security to both male and female employees during late night drops.

  20. November 11, 2007 12:00 pm

    Rambler, I agree that if a criminal wants to mug/rape or whatever they will not really be afraid of male employees. It’s numbers that they will be afraid of. What can a single male employee do? Nothing!

  21. November 15, 2007 5:03 pm

    See the latest on Jyothi’s case

    http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14560331

  22. November 15, 2007 5:16 pm

    @Taju:

    Thanks Taju. I shall add this as an update to the post.

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