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Banks are scrambling to protect their back office workers from India’s Covid surge


Big banks and accounting firms do most of their business in New York, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. But they wouldn’t be able to function without their back offices, many of which are located in Covid-stricken India.

Financial services firms have outsourced a huge number of information technology and operations jobs to India in recent decades, attracted by an educated workforce and cheaper labor costs. Almost 4.4 million people in the country are employed in IT and business process management, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies, a trade body.

Some financial firms are rushing assistance to workers and contractors, as India battles the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Monday was the 12th straight day that more than 300,000 cases were registered. Deaths have also been rising at an alarming rate and the country’s health care system has been stretched beyond breaking point.

In order to keep their operations online, banks are shifting work to other countries, encouraging staff to work from home and extending project deadlines. Indian companies that provide services to Wall Street are taking additional steps to protect workers in cities such as Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Delhi, in some cases establishing Covid care centers for employees and their families.

Wall Street takes action

Remote work, which is implemented for almost all employees at Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, for example, is one step to keeping the workforce safe and businesses functioning.

A Wells Fargo spokesperson told CNN Business that the bank is not experiencing “significant impacts” to its operations. It is supporting local communities with more than $3 million in grants.

Goldman Sachs last week announced a $10 million donation to support the battle against the pandemic in India. The investment bank has offices in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai.

“Our focus is on the overall health and safety of our people and their families, during this unprecedented health crisis in India,” said Gunjan Samtani, head of Goldman Sachs Services in India. “We continue to be resilient in the execution of our business functions.”

But working from home during a pandemic is complicated, especially if employees have to look after sick relatives. There are also challenges around security and data protection, since employees may be handling sensitive company or customer information.

Bank of America, another US bank with operations in India, declined to comment.

London responds

UK banks Barclays, NatWest and Standard Chartered are in some cases redirecting work to other countries to relieve pressure on employees in India, many of who have fallen ill or have care responsibilities at home.

“We are shifting some capacity to the UK and appreciate what our colleagues here are doing,” Barclays CEO Jes Staley said on a call with reporters on Friday. Barclays employs roughly 20,000 people in India, making it the bank’s largest employee hub outside Britain.

Barclays has increased donations to local charities for vital supplies such as food, masks and oxygen concentrators and is providing additional medical insurance to employees for Covid-related treatment expenses.

NatWest CEO Alison Rose told analysts that the company has “relieved some of the pressure” on its back office operations in India: “We’re putting a lot of support in there … our main focus is really on supporting our colleagues,” she added.

The bank — which employs 13,000 people in India almost exclusively in back office roles — hasn’t moved any functions out the country but is extending delivery times for non-essential projects to manage workloads.

The company is providing staff with access to digital medical services and reimbursements for Covid-19 vaccinations. It is also donating funds that will go toward rolling out vaccines in India and elsewhere.

Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters said the bank has “rebalanced loads” between service centers in Chennai and Bangalore. It has 100 branches in 43 cities across India, most of which it has kept open, as well as back office operations.

“We have material case counts amongst our population, both in our service center and in the bank itself,” Winters told analysts on a call last week. “Banks are considered essential services so we’ve had a disproportionate share of cases in the branch staff unfortunately,” he added.

In a statement shared with CNN Business, Standard Chartered Bank India said it is providing private transportation to staff who must work in an office, and has been securing hospitalization and other critical care products such as medical oxygen for its employees. The bank is also facilitating vaccination drives across Bangalore and Chennai for staff and their families by partnering with local health authorities and hospitals.

HSBC, which employs 39,000 people in India, is donating $11.5 million toward Covid relief efforts this year, including vaccine rollouts through the global shot program Covax.

Following the Indian government’s announcement that adults over 18 will be eligible for vaccines from May 1, the bank is mobilizing efforts to get doses to staff. “We will do all we can to help you to access the vaccines,” CEO Noel Quinn said in a post on LinkedIn.

Beyond banks

It’s not just banks that rely on India to keep their operations functioning. Companies on the periphery of financial services, such as consultancies and accounting firms, are facing similar challenges.

Together, Accenture, Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC employ nearly 350,000 people in India.

EY India, which has over 56,000 workers, activated a business continuity plan at the start of the surge, which included shifting work to other geographies.

Almost all of its employees are working from home, according to Julie Teigland, a regional managing partner. “A significant number of EY people and their family members have been directly impacted by the severe second wave of Covid in India,” she told CNN Business.

EY is providing staff with additional medical insurance and Covid-related leave, which can be used to care for sick family members. It is also working with NGOs to facilitate medical supplies and meals for patients in hospitals.

PwC’s Covid helpline provides employees with information on availability of beds, medication, equipment and testing. “We are making sure that all those who have emerging medical needs for themselves or their family members can take time off without having to worry about their leave balance or business continuity,” Satyavati Berera, chief operating officer of PwC in India, said in a statement.

KPMG India said that all of its staff are currently working remotely or from client offices if necessary. KPMG International has donated funds toward supporting the country’s critical needs, including the provision of oxygen, hygiene equipment, ambulances and other medical supplies.

Accenture, Deloitte and EY are working with other US companies to provide India with critical medical supplies, vaccines and oxygen through a partnership supported by the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable.

Accenture, which employs about 200,000 people across seven cities in India, said in a statement that it could shift functions elsewhere if necessary.

Action at home

IT giants in India — such as Infosys and Wipro, which provide business services to companies around the world — have also rushed to provide assistance to employees and ensure their operations continue to run smoothly.

With health services under severe strain, Infosys has set up Covid care centers for employees in Pune and Bangalore and plans to roll these out elsewhere. Wipro has taken similar steps, with facilities in Bangalore and Delhi available exclusively to staff and their immediate family members. It plans to open similar sites in Pune and Hyderabad.

Both firms are partnering with hospitals across the country to ensure treatment for employees and their families, and vaccines are being provided at some campuses.

Infosys said that employees who contract Covid are given 21 days of additional paid leave by the company. “At present, we continue to operate in a remote model across our offices and see no impact on our client deliverables due to the health situation,” it said in a statement.

Wipro told CNN Business that only 3% of employees are working from an office. “For employees engaged in critical projects, we have arranged accommodation either at our guest houses or in hotels close to our facilities,” it added.

The company has created backup teams in order to reduce workload on critical projects and said its global customers have “responded with empathy” to the situation.

— Diksha Madhok contributed reporting.

Article Topic Follows: Business

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