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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Start-Up Denies Using Technology to Make Contact Centre Accents Sound “White”

The company, Sanas, claimed that its technology could eliminate discrimination based on accent and lessen workplace racism

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Sadaf Hasan
Sadaf Hasan
Aspiring reporter covering trending topics

INDIA: A company called Sanas claims its technology could end discrimination against employees based on their accent and lessen racial abuse. Others, on the other hand, argue that it is a step in the wrong direction and that language diversity ought to be commended.

The agents, many of whom are from the global south, “sound white,” according to sources. According to reports, Sanas has received $32 million in funding since June 2022. The company calls its technology an accent translation tool.

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By playing a recording of someone reading a call centre script with what appears to be a South Asian accent and then clicking a slider button, the speech is transformed into an American accent with a slightly robotic quality, allowing website visitors to “hear the magic” for themselves.

SFGATE charged the start-up with trying to make “call centre staff sound white and American, regardless of the country they’re from.”

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A co-founder of Sanas, Sharath Keshava Narayana, disagreed with the assertion, telling the BBC’s Tech Tent programme that all four founders and 90% of the company’s staff were foreigners.

He said that one of the other founders’ close friend’s experience had served as inspiration for the tool in part.

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That friend, a third-year graduate student at Stanford University in the US studying computer systems engineering, was forced back home to Nicaragua to help support his parents.

The student secured a technical support position at a call centre but was let go after three months due to discrimination based on his accent, according to Mr. Narayana.

Mr. Narayana, a former call centre employee, claimed that in his experience, agents would suffer harassment or discrimination due to their voice and abuse the business believes its technology can stop. 

But Ashleigh Ainsley, a co-founder of Color in Tech, questioned whether changing people’s skin tones were the best action because some people would object out of racism. “This is not the way we can go. We must increase our tolerance.”

According to Mr. Ainsley, the issue is not with those with an accent but those who believe it is appropriate to abuse [call centre employees].

When questioned about whether technology encouraged racism, Mr. Narayana responded, Should the world be a better place? Without a doubt. Should accents and diversity be more widely accepted? Without a doubt. But even though call centres have existed for 45 years, a call centre representative experiences discrimination every day.

According to the company, the system is currently used by 1,000 workers, largely in India and the Philippines, and it has been warmly accepted, enhancing staff retention.

The expectation that call centre employees will talk with an American accent is widely documented. Shalu Yadav, a Delhi-based BBC journalist who worked at three call centres as a student to supplement her income, claimed that her bosses expected her to get familiar with American culture and speak with an American accent.

Sanas claimed it was intended to improve communication when an accent is problematic. Businesses were reportedly testing the technology for internal use to help teams communicate between those in North and South India, Korea, and the US.

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