India: Business Process Outsourcing companies educate young workers on the dangers of substance use

7.30 pm is a time of the day when you would think most working people are switching off their computers and getting ready to return home. You might find an office, at the corner of the next lane, just opening shop for the day. For some, work begins at this time at the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO ) centres.

Modern buildings, state-of-the-art infrastructure, swanky interiors - a step past the security check and you almost feel as if you have left another world behind. It is a business world that was created to service consumers in countries like Australia, United Kingdom and the United States of America, making promotional calls for different products or serving as an outsourced service to handle consumer grievances

Many of the employees are just out of college and are between 18 and 30 years old. Young and enthusiastic, they are willing to undergo rigorous training, put in long hours, make many calls each night and contribute to the soaring profitability of their employers. "I start my work at about 7 in the evening and am usually back home at about 4 in the morning. I do have tight deadlines but I enjoy my work. We go out and party in the morning and besides this, it gives me more pocket money than I could have asked for at home", shares an employee.

Until recently, organizations viewed this workforce like they would any other. But through a new project piloted by UNODC, many organizations are admitting that the youth of their employees also means having to deal with this group's vulnerabilities. This is especially true in the context of substance use, where the 2004 National Survey on the extent, patterns and trends of drug use in India revealed that approximately 73 million people in this country consume substances, including alcohol. The survey also states that people typically start using the substances before they reach the age of 20. In such a scenario, long hours at work with no parental monitoring, high earning capacities and little awareness leaves them at an even greater risk.

Realizing the implications of this, five companies have come forward to pioneer a programme for preventing substance use that includes organizing awareness-raising and sensitization camps at the office, counselling sessions, including for the parents of the employees. So far, UNODC has reached out to almost 500 employees through this programme in the last six months. "I had some sense of all this but I feel like my sensibilities have been purified after attending a session of substance use prevention".

Organizations are also slowly agreeing that there is no taboo in talking about drugs and are using in-house media like newsletters and corporate websites to disseminate information on the dos and don'ts of substance use. In many instances, senior managers have agreed that this programme is not just about employee welfare but that it is also about better business sense. The use of substances (including alcohol) can affect the amount of holidays and medical leave an employee asks for, reduce productivity, interfere with interpersonal skills and, in many instances, contribute to accidents and errors on the job. "I didn't realize that a programme like this was required until we started it in our company, but it is only now that I realize how important it is", a senior human resources manager says.

This programme has set a trend and encouraged other corporations to think about similar issues. In the coming months, UNODC will be initiating a dialogue with many more companies to assist them in creating a well-informed and more productive workforce.

The initiative is supported by the UNODC 'global project' on good practices in preventing the abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants among young people. This project is possible thanks to the contribution of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).