Blind operators taught to sell at Russia call center

by Anna Malpas  /  AFP , MOSCOW

Sun, Jan 17, 2010 - Page 12

Once encouraged to take dreary factory-line jobs making electric plugs and curlers, blind people in Moscow now have a new option: working at a high-tech call center.

The call center in northern Moscow employs almost 1,000 blind and visually impaired people, a bold experiment in a nation where people with disabilities struggle to find interesting jobs — or indeed any job at all.

With a rapid, confident sales pitch, one operator, Alexei Voronov, talked into his headset selling accountancy software.

This is the 25-year-old history graduate’s first job, and he said he would be unlikely to find work more suited to his qualifications.

“I doubt it very much. It’s very difficult to find work in Russia,” Voronov said. “People don’t create the right conditions for the disabled.”

Many of the center’s staff used to work at a UPP, or educational-production facility, he said, referring to the Soviet-era factories that were set up to give disabled people a job.

“They were putting together hair curlers or plugs,” Voronov said. “They earned 2,000 rubles [about US$71]. The system is still working and people are sitting there, but they are all trying to leave.”

Up to 14,000 blind people work in enterprises like that, the All-Russia Society of the Blind said.

Last year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said there were 13 million registered disabled people in Russia, of whom 6 million could work — but no more than 15 percent of those 6 million have jobs.

There are about 280,000 blind people in Russia, of whom just over 25,000 are employed, the All-Russia Society for the Blind said.

Alexei Romanov, the deputy director of the call center and himself blind, said it was “the ideal workplace for people with disabilities.”

“The project is unique. You won’t find anything similar in Europe,” Romanov said.

He said discrimination was common.

“In practice, companies always look for reasons to say no to disabled people,” he said.

The center opened last year with a grant from Moscow’s city government and has two floors of office space full of computer equipment for 906 operators.

Some visually impaired workers are able to read huge type on screens, while completely blind people work use software that turns commands into speech.

Voronov is not the only over-qualified operator at the center.

Dmitry Kasatkin is doing a history PhD at Moscow State University but was glad to find his day job — helping customers having trouble putting money on their cellphones.

A tall, striking figure in satin shirt and dark glasses, Romanov studied history and worked as an academic before going to work at a telecoms company because he needed to earn more to support his three children.

He said that when he started as a phone operator himself, he was the only disabled employee out of 4,000 at his company.

The Moscow government provided a one-off subsidy for equipment at the call center, but the three companies involved have invested “immeasurably larger” sums, and must make it pay, Romanov said.

“The state won’t give us another kopeck,” he said.

The starting costs were massive: the equipment for each call station cost about US$21,000, staff said, and the center still needs to attract more clients to make a profit.

Ambitiously, the project will expand this summer with a second center in Moscow employing 1,500 more people, Romanov said.

Salaries at the center start at US$450 a month.

“That means a person can start a family, have a baby. He can start living, go on holiday. He can live as an equal member of society,” he said.

The salary is low by Moscow standards, even if people with disabilities are also eligible for state benefits.

Romanov called it “comparable” with pay at other call centers — although Moscow job advertisements indicate starting salaries of US$575 to US$670 — but he said his center had an edge because it could offer lower rates.

If that might sound exploitative, staff said they were grateful to have the chance to work again.

Trainee Sergei Bogomolov, 24, said he spent a year “watching television — if you can call it that,” after he lost his eyesight in a fight and couldn’t continue his job at a computer warehouse.

“Doing nothing makes you stupid,” he said.

The call center “helps you earn. It helps you return to life.”

The center takes on people with no computer knowledge or perhaps even work experience.

Olga Shilova, who used to teach the accordion at school, moved her fingers rapidly round the keyboard, making a cold call to sell water coolers.

Six months ago, “I practically didn’t know how to use a computer,” she said.

She came to the center on the recommendation of a friend after she lost her sight two years ago through illness and injuries when she was hit by a car.

She couldn’t continue at the school because the commuting became too hard, Shilova said, explaining that she still has trouble using a white stick and negotiating the metro.

“This center has saved me,” she said.

“It’s very interesting because it’s knowledge, you’re improving yourself, but it’s not easy,” she said.