Amid pork barrel scams, call center employees bat for tax holiday, relief

The tax holiday is estimated to benefit the more than 700,000 BPO workers, who, BIEN said in previous campaigns, are working hard to the point of contracting illnesses for lack of sleep, toilet breaks and oftentimes failing to eat their “lunch” (midnight meal).

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — Call center employee Rakel Rivera has been working in the BPO sector for 10 years now. She started in her current company seven years ago with a basic pay of P13,000 ($301). Now, her basic pay is about P19,000 ($439) a month. Every payday, her payslip shows that taxes ranging from P2900 to P5000 or P5,800 to P10,000 per month ($134 to $231), depending on how much overtime she put in, has been withheld from her earnings. This means that she pays taxes equivalent to at least a third of her basic pay. If she worked harder the tax take only gets bigger.

When news broke out about how public funds generated from taxes and other government revenues are allegedly being stolen to pay for the luxuries of the likes of Janet Lim-Napoles, a number of lawmakers and government officials, the country’s taxpayers took to the social media and to the streets to protest. Even showbiz personalities lamented how their huge taxes are being stolen.

This Sunday Oct 13, call center agents grouped in BPO Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN) launched a tax holiday campaign.

Rakel Rivera of BIEN and Mark Louie Aquino of  Scrap the Pork Alliance ask the BPO employers to support also their tax holiday campaign.
Rakel Rivera of BIEN and Mark Louie Aquino of Scrap the Pork Alliance ask the BPO employers to support also their tax holiday campaign.

“The idea started from a simple pay slip and indignation,” Rivera told Bulatlat.com. Other call center employees who attended the press launch of the tax holiday campaign shared with Bulatlat.com how huge their withholding taxes seem in comparison to their basic and overtime pay.

One call center employee who introduced himself as Joseph shared an unforgettable payslip nightmare. “Habagat 2012 was my worst OT (overtime) — two consecutive nights of double shift, 15 hrs. each, from 8pm to 11 am.” Joseph calls it “coast-to-coast or from opener to closer” working day.

“I expected a bigger pay (for that OT), but I got only P2,500 ($58) net after tax, my OT tax amounted to P6500 ($150)!”

Asked how BPO companies compute their withholding taxes, call center employees with BIEN could not explain it.

Call center employees like Rakel and Joseph are regarded as having a slightly better pay and slightly more glamorous working condition than the average employed Filipino. Most are trained to speak like the people abroad for whom their employer provides information services by phone. They often work nights to match the timezone of the company’s clientele. The office they work in are located at shiny new buildings boasting of high-tech communication equipment and full-blast airconditioning (mostly to protect the equipment), hence the image that they are in a bit more glamorous condition than the average employed Filipino.

But BIEN has been saying that in fact, it is the “cheapness” of wages here that has lured call center locators into this country. The “industry” reportedly employed 772,000 in 2012, having observed an increase in the aftermath of the global financial crisis because of foreign locators’ search for lower wages for the same job. But these growth in employment is at the cost of bringing down the growth of wage rate — as the associations of call center and BPO companies vowed not to “price ourselves out of competition” in the aftermath of 2008 global financial crunch.

In 2012, IT-BPO in the Philippines reportedly generated more than $13 billion in revenues, an increase of $2 billion from the $11 billion in 2011. The Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) now projects that revenues of the IT-BPO industry will hit $16 billion in 2013 and have 926,000 full-time employees. Majority of BPO employees are in call centers, and majority of them serve the US market.

The Aquino administration has set IT-BPO targets of 1.3 million jobs and $25 billion in revenues by the end of President Aqunio’s term in 2016.

A decade since the supposed sunshine industry started, many call center companies operating in the Philippines still do not have unions. “Most employees (here) agree that there is a need to have a union in the industry,” former Kabataan Partylist Rep. Raymond Palatino noted. But he observed that “Most BPO firms are short on the concept of employee involvement.”

The employees here are at the mercy of their management in wage-fixing, including computing the overtime pay and the withholding taxes. For more than 10 years now, call center employees have lived with a deteriorating pay. The starting basic pay now is at least P2,000 ($46.25) lower than it used to be seven or more years ago, Rivera, spokesperson of BIEN, told Bulatlat.com.

Protesting high taxes, corruption

Now call center employees are attempting to shoot two birds with one campaign — derive a temporary economic relief by not paying their taxes for the time being, and show solidarity with the Scrap the Pork Alliance, a broad alliance calling for the abolition of the pork barrel.

“Instead of our hard-earned money going to the pockets of the politicians, wouldn’t it be better if we will just have the money to feed our families?” asked Rakel Rivera of BIEN.

Call center agents are embarking on a campaign where they are calling for the support also of BPO businesses. “In all sites, we’re asking them to support the tax holiday. We’re in the process of talking to employers, talking to Business Process Association of the Philippines (BPA/P), for example, to implement tax holidays involving us BPO workers,” Rivera said at the press conference.

In Metro Manila, BIEN is slated to hold various activities from signature campaign drive in areas with lots of employees, to ribbon wearing at the worksite with their calls printed on ribbons, holding discussions in coffee shops, “for this campaign to broaden and to gather more signatures.” On Oct 23, they will join a “costume parade” depicting Filipinos’ plight and on Oct 25, BPO employees will hold candle-lighting ceremonies.

Call center employees ask for tax relief as they take part in protest actions of Scrap the Pork Alliance
Call center employees ask for tax relief as they take part in protest actions of Scrap the Pork Alliance

Rivera said they will also hold similar activities in other cities outside of the capital where there are BPO sites. Aside from “first-tier” BPO locations such as Metro Manila and Metro Cebu, second- and third-tier BPO locations in the country included regional economic zones such as those in Bacolod City, Baguio City, Cagayan de Oro, Clark (Angeles City), Dagupan City, Davao City, Tacloban City, Dumaguete City, Lipa City, Iloilo City, Legazpi City, Iligan City,Olongapo City and Urdaneta City.

When asked if the tax holiday will affect the country adversely in terms of revenue generation, Rivera of BIEN said there will be a reduced budget indeed for government projects, but she estimated that this won’t affect the budget much because “we still have funds, there are other taxes which we all pay everytime we buy something.” Rivera was referring to the Value-Added Tax.

“Our tax should go, or be aligned, to basic services – we lack school buildings, health centers, hospitals,” Rivera said. The call center agents themselves have HMO (prepaid health insurance cards), but the call center agents with BIEN said others in the country don’t have that.

“Everytime it rains we get flooded because the drainage system is not being upgraded or maintained,” Rivera pointed out.

The tax holiday is estimated to benefit the nearly 800,000 BPO workers, who, BIEN said in previous campaigns, are working hard to the point of contracting illnesses for lack of sleep, toilet breaks and oftentimes failing to eat their “lunch” (midnight meal).

Call center agents with BIEN said a tax holiday is something their employers have already been enjoying.

“For them to invest here, the government gives them 3-to 5-year tax holidays,” Rivera said. As such, she and BIEN believed the government can manage the proposed tax holiday for employees.

As for the call center agents’ ongoing petition-signing, BIEN said they might include it in the Peoples’ Initiative calling for the abolition of the pork barrel system, or use the signature drive generally to broaden calls for abolishing the pork barrel system.

“It’s dismaying that taxes only go to big crooks, when our less fortunate country men don’t have housing, health services. Every time a congressman builds or repairs a street, huge tarpaulins bearing his name appear, when it’s our money he has been spending,” Rivera said.

“This is also a message that the people are neither forgetting nor are being misled on the issue of corruption. The Filipinos’ anger continue to flare, and more and more people are joining the alliance to demand the abolition of the Pork Barrel,” said Mark Louie Aquino, lead convenor of Scrap the Pork Alliance who joined and supported the call center agents in launching the tax holiday campaign. ()

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