BPO employees ask govt for tax relief, labor standards

“We are the biggest industry employing the biggest number of contractuals.”

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – At the second general assembly of BPO Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN), one of the members, twenty five-year old Michelle, said she had not really liked to work in a call center, but there were little to no job opportunities around. She had applied for work in a government office, she took the required qualifications, but she was told later that there really was no job vacancy. So, for the third time, she said, here she is, at work again in a call center. This time it is at Ayala-UP Technohub in Commonwealth Avenue. She works four days a week, 11 hours per day with no incentives. The wage package for employees like her ranges from P15,000 ($333) to P18,000 ($400) a month, but the take home ranges from just P13,000 ($289) to P14,000 ($311). Her incentive package consisted of bonuses and other incentives, which are automatically deducted 32-percent in taxes.

From the BPO employees’ sharing of their work condition, it appears that call center employees, or most of the business process outsourcing (BPO) employees to which they belong, comprise some of the most heavily taxed employees in the country. The harder they work to earn the promised incentive package, the bigger they are taxed by the government. Meanwhile, BPO companies, like other investors encouraged to open shop here by the Philippine government, are receiving tax holidays and other business incentives from the government.

The BPO Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN) wants to strengthen their campaign for at least a three-month tax holiday (#TaxHolidayNOw) which they started last year also in protest of pork barrel.

“Every pay day, whenever we look at our pay slips, the most prominent deduction that we see is the withholding tax. The amount in our pay slips becomes part of the annual budget from which allotments for politicians’ pork barrel funds come,” BIEN said in a position paper.

Another campaign BIEN wishes to advance further after their general assembly is protection of BPO employees with industry-appropriate labor standards. BIEN has asked legislators, since last year, to enact what it calls as a law on BPO Labor Standards, one that is “pro-labor, pro-workers’ rights, and pro-national industrialization.”

BPO workers’ campaign for less tax deductions

When the BPO was the so-called sunshine industry in 2000s, BPO companies were reputed to be giving wages higher than the average for other entry level employees elsewhere, thus attracting many applicants. But after the global financial meltdown in 2008, groups of leading BPO companies in the Philippines have made it their practice to slow the hike in wages, to be “more competitive” at getting outsourcing contracts.

Today, a study of BIEN reveals that the P20,000 ($444) entry-level monthly wage in BPOs in early 2000s has gone down to just P10,000 ($222) or P12,000 ($266).

Ian Porquia, president of BIEN, said BPO employees maybe getting a P22,000 package, as most come-ons of BPOs advertised, but half or just a little over half of this amount is basic wage, the rest are bonuses subject to performance, which, in turn, is based on a company-determined matrix.

To get a breather from all these deductions, and to temporarily increase the take home pay of BPO employees, BIEN initiated the taxholiday vs. pork campaign last year. For this, they engaged some BPO executives’ associations in dialogues and they went national. BIEN as a network now has members not only in Metro Manila but also in Davao and Cebu.

In one of BIEN’s talks with BPO management groups, they found out that bosses of BPO companies are hesitant to support the tax holiday vs pork campaign because the country’s BPO industry has received funds from the Disbursement Acceleration Program, among others.

In fact, the country’s BPO companies have been receiving many government support and incentives including tax holidays, perks for its expatriate executives, various amenities for the BPO companies and even aid in their holding of trainings of future employees.

Now the BPO employees through BIEN are lobbying the legislators to help raise the minimum amount of bonuses and incentives taxable by 32-percent.

Having lower basic wages than before, “BPO employees live more on bonuses, incentives,” Porquia told Bulatlat.com. They want the government to start deducting their 32-percent tax only when they exceeded amounts bigger than today’s P30,000.

Senator Ralph Recto suggested to start deducting when the amount of bonuses and incentives reaches P75,000.

Porquia estimates that in three to four months, an average BPO employee earns up to P50,000 in performance bonuses and incentives.

BIEN is also pushing for a law to protect BPO employees, saying no law actually protects them. Porquia shared that even the Labor department had questioned this at first. The view seems to be that call center employers and the BPO companies are respecting labor rights and are even giving more.

Porquia said the Labor department and some legislators have also asked them, why propose a BPO Labor Standards Law when there is already the Labor Code and there are already many regulations protecting employees. Are these effective or appropriate though to call center employees?

Aspects of lack of common labor standards in the BPO industry had come to light in the past. There were instances when BPO employees were expected to be “immortal,” to be at work when their city and their homes were being pounded by typhoons or submerged in flood. Some BPO employees complained that they were given no choice on whether to come to work or not during holidays.

“We are the biggest industry employing the biggest number of contractuals,” Porquia said. A mere decision overseas to terminate a contract of their company can mean summary termination of entire departments in BPOs here.

BIEN is seeking to end that.

Inviting BPO employees to be part of BIEN

Porquia traced BIEN’s birth and situation up to now. Thirteen BPO employees formed BIEN after hours of sharing about their plight over coffee or online chats. Arriving at a similar view of the industry trend of mandatory overtime and huge, sometimes unexplained deductions, they concluded: “Why not create an organization whose primary objective is to promote and protect BPO employees?”

Before BIEN even thought of doing this, the management and executives of BPOs were already holding annual conferences and workshops on how best to increase their profits, control wage hikes, minimize the employee practice of transferring from one BPO to another due to higher offers, and lobby the government for further incentives and perks such as including in government-funded trainings the trainings for call center and BPO employees.

With the concept of networking to raise BPO employees’ concerns, BIEN conveners expanded from Makati to Bonifacio Global City to Quezon City and Ortigas. They now have 10 chapters nationwide, including BPO employees from Baguio City, Iloilo, Cebu and Davao.

Ian Porquia, president of Bien
Ian Porquia, president of Bien

“So, here we are, the people pretending to be rich,” Porquia said at the opening of their second general assembly. Participants laughed at themselves – some BPO employees are known for their craze for gadgets and vacations, as if they were rich, indeed.

‘Introduce yourself the way you talk on the job,’ the emcee, a former call center employee and now a teacher, told the early participants. What followed were variously accented introduction and description of what they do as call center agents for American or European companies. Only one greeted BIEN in Japanese.

They gathered Saturday in UP Diliman’s College of Mass Communication Auditorium with hopes that they could expand BIEN’s membership so that their campaigns for improving their conditions will better be heard. They came from various chapters in BPO companies all over Metro Manila.

Asked what they will say when the BPO executives and even the government tell them their campaigns might be damaging to the competitiveness of the so-called industry, BIEN officers replied that they have been actually been told that before. They countered by citing the experience of India, which has the largest and most competitive BPO industry in the world, and it has a BPO-wide employees’ union.

“If India has managed to establish a more stable BPO, with two to three million mostly skilled workforce compared to Philippines’ less than a million (mostly call center BPOs), and India has brought its industry to no. 1 status globally even with a BPO-wide industry union, so can the Philippines.” ()

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