Indian call-centres are reeling from shock after a report described their working conditions as similar to those of 'Roman slave ships'. A New Delhi organisation, the VV Giri National Institute of Labour, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Labour, said the labour practices being followed in call-centres were similar to '19th century prisons'. It described the extensive surveillance methods that are employed to provide data security to western clients as 'appalling', saying they made working in call-centres akin to being transported on 'slave ships'. The report is based on a survey of 280 workers in six call-centres in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi. Indians are familiar with the fact that call-centre employees work under pressure during night shifts - owing to the time difference with the US and Europe - and that tight security, such as recording of phone conversations and closed circuit cameras, is the norm. However, they are also known for providing their mainly young graduates with a 'fun' environment to mitigate the stress, organising such activities as parties, family picnics and competitions. But even this ambience has been criticised, with the report saying it is a devious ploy intended to create an illusory sense of 'empowerment and flexibility'. One example it cites is the dress code. This, the report says, is purely on paper and intentionally so. Employers, apparently, intend it to be violated so that workers feel 'good' and 'free' at having transgressed the code without being punished. The institute's indictment has surprised many, not least the call-sector industry which has always prided itself on offering world-class working conditions in modern offices in new buildings all over India. The National Association of Software and Service Companies, the information technology industry body, has vigorously defended the work culture at call centres. Association president Kiran Karnik has challenged anyone to visit a call-centre and see the conditions for themselves. Pramod Bhasin, chairman and chief executive of Genpact, which employs 19,000 people in India, dismissed the charges as ridiculous. 'No effort was made to get the industry's view on these matters,' he said. Genpact was formerly a part of GE and is now one of India's biggest business process outsourcing companies. Deepak Dhawan, vice-president for human resources at EXL Services, a subsidiary of EXL Service in the US and one of India's biggest outsourcing companies, also expressed dismay over the report. 'It is unconscionable to say such things about an industry that the world fetes India for,' he said. Still, Saurabh Wig, a former call-centre sales manager, said the 'slave ship' description was accurate. He said he left the industry a year ago, unable to tolerate the conditions. 'It's true not in the sense of working conditions but in the sheer pressure on workers, particularly in tele-sales. The pressure to meet targets is phenomenal. And if you have a bad week, your efficiency is questioned and your job is in danger,' he said.