In october 2006, Chetankumar Meshram, a Northampton-based 27-year-old Indian student, was sent on a two-month secondment to Gurgaon. The company he worked for was Talk Talk Direct Limited, UK — a subsidiary of British mobile retail chain Carphone Warehouse. Talk Talk recalled him in three weeks’ time – because his accent wasn’t British enough.
A humiliated Meshram, on his return to Northampton, complained to the Northampton Racial Equality Council (NREC) — which fought his case pro bono.
On November 25, Meshram won the day: the Bedford Employment Tribunal directed Talk Talk to pay him £5,000 as compensation. But the case has — yet again — opened a can of worms about Indians and the kind of racial abuse they face.
When HT got in touch with NREC’s Anjona Roy, she said: “No ethnic origin person can be expected to speak the Queen’s English.” Secondly, under the laws here the “quality” criteria, which is applicable to all in judging the ability of an employee, was not properly applied in his case. “He was not supposed to be in direct contact with customers. He was in the technical team and was supposed to deal with handlers in call centres. Being a technical person, he was dealing with broadband issues — like modem connecting to Internet — and advising the handlers,” she added.
Mesharam recounted how after two weeks in Gurgaon he was called into a meeting with his boss “who told me I was going home because my accent wasn’t English enough, and I was to be replaced with a better English speaker… my job out there was to give technical advice, not communicate with customers.”
He said he was “delighted” with the verdict: “I’m relieved it is finally over.” Mesharam is now completing his Master’s in Information Technology and Management at the University of Northampton.
But the reaction of many people to the Bedford verdict is worrisome. One letter on Timesonline read, “‘compensation for hurt feelings’!!! This is an insult to the countless numbers of employees who have to endure real problems at work — Mr Meshram took advantage of UK law — imagine trying to go to court in a matter as this in his home country.”
Someone else wrote: “If he has been speaking English since the age of 2, why is he still speaking with an Indian accent? Did he not go to an English school in England? If this man wishes to work in communications, he should at least make the effort to speak English without an accent.”
And finally, “Talk Talk must be crazy to use Indian call-centres anyway. The phone line is frequently bad and the accents of the inoperatives are impenetrable. On the very rare occassion (sic) that I’ve been forced to use one not only has it been impossible to understand what they say but their attitude is rubbish. I don’t know whether this is a cultural thing but if Talk Talk thinks they are getting value for money from these call-centres they need a good talking to.”