The man operating a food cart outside a brightly lit business process outsourcing office complex here is busy flipping hot omelets on his skillet and beating eggs.

His customers, over a dozen between 19 and 35 years old, stand around his cart, some waiting and some eating. Bleary eyed, they chat about their work, the latest movies, fashion. Dim bulbs light up the small wooden tables where they sit and eat. Moonlight adds to the light falling on their plates.

For workers like these, who keep the call center hubs humming, lunch at 8 p.m. and dinner at 3 a.m. is normal. They sleep when the rest of the city is out and about.

The business process outsourcing industry, including information technology, has provided direct employment to 2.2 million and indirect employment to eight million in the country, according to a report released last year by NASSCOM, a trade body and the chamber of commerce of the IT-business process outsourcing industries in India. Women are about one quarter of this work force. However, they are widespread in the lower-paying echelons of this $40 billion industry, where many answer telephone calls from customers or key in data entries.

The 15-year old sector is sometimes credited with providing young women a chance to earn money and develop skills. But there are plenty of drawbacks.

Taking a Toll

The worst may be the health toll, says one former worker, Sarita, 28, who would only provide her first name.

"They would keep telling me to stretch my shift and keep increasing the workload," she says.

Sarita recently quit her business process outsourcing job after two years. "I went through extreme stress and soon realized that my body was crashing and could no longer take the daily pressure. I fell into a severe depression and, of course, my bosses did nothing to help me. Finally, I had to take expensive treatment in an outstation hospital and foot the bills myself."

Now, instead of sitting in front of a computer with headphones strapped to her ears, she is teaching dance.

Deepa, another young employee, suffered severe eye problems because of the long hours at the computer. She got high-powered eyeglasses but, after a few months, her employers forced her out of the job, categorizing her as "medically unfit." Deepa’s vision has worsened, preventing her from taking another job.

With a large population of unemployed young people, employers are free to cast off workers who fall ill, leaving them to face mounting medical bills on their own, say some of the workers.

Archana Gupta, another former business process outsourcing worker, says her erratic and irregular working hours caused her to develop gastric disorders and high levels of irritability owing to lack of sleep.

"It was as though my digestive system was getting contradictory signals, since we constantly moved from the morning shift to the night shift. I would notice that during my off-days, when I kept my usual sleeping hours, I would suffer from constipation," Gupta says.

Search for Shut-Eye

A major problem with the work, adds Gupta, is the disruption to social and family life. Sleep, nature’s sweet restorer, becomes the be-all and end-all.

"On weekends when the family wanted to do something together–go for a ride or catch up on a movie–I found myself invariably opting out so that I could get some shut-eye," Gupta says.

Maya, 27, works in a call center in New Delhi and is still enthusiastic about her "unusual" job that entails keeping "U.S. time" and speaking with an American accent.

She dreams of making it big but is discovering, to her growing dismay, that she is spending a great deal of her free time visiting doctors, whether it is for gastric problems, eye disorders, insomnia or just plain backaches.

Most of the women interviewed also talked about their fear of getting attacked in the dark.

Elizabeth depends on her brother to pick her up from a designated spot miles away from home. If her brother gets delayed by even a few minutes, she shivers with fear as she waits alone on a desolate road in the wee hours of the morning.

News coverage of crimes perpetrated on female business process outsourcing employees fuel such fears, the women say.

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Manisha Jain is a senior New Delhi-based journalist who specializes in social sector and gender stories. She has also written two books: "Natural Remedies" and "Plants For Good Health."

This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to: