Call center employees call on colleagues to get organized

SPECIAL REPORT: They are the voice workers who don’t have a voice, or a say, in how they are being treated by companies in the industry.

Related story: Defying prohibitions, call center employees gravitate toward their association

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – The Business Process Outsourcing “industry” in the Philippines is often touted as a growing export earner, although its annual earnings are, so far, only half of remittances sent in by Overseas Filipinos. In 2013, it earned $13.3 billion in exports; this year it is projected to earn $15.3 billion.

BPOs are the equivalent of export-oriented “manufacturing industry” located in special economic zones, except that its “products” are services directly exported and consumed by overseas clients at the same time the BPO employees deliver it. Its workforce thus typically work at night to suit the time zones of overseas clients who mostly come from the United States, followed by other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the UK.

In the Philippines, the industry is 62-percent to 70-percent “contact center,” a part of BPO which industry executives themselves describe as “lower-value voice work.”

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

Since 2010, the Philippines is regarded as the world’s top destination for outsourcing call centers. Many of the world’s biggest providers of BPO services have call centers in the Philippines. These include Accenture and Convergys, Teleperformance, Teletech, Stream and Sykes and AIG. Convergys alone reportedly employs 55,000 in 34 sites in the Philippines, representing 40-percent of its global workforce in 31 countries.

By 2013, call or contact centers employed 586,000 of the 917,000 total employed in the industry, according to the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP).

For years, calls within the “industry” to diversify and upgrade to “higher-value” offerings have annually been aired during conferences of its executives. But these so-called higher-value services are actually still labor-intensive components of customer services, which are being outsourced by global companies to lower-wage countries such as the Philippines. These are apparently being described as “higher-value” only in relation to pure voice, because it requires greater set of technical skills to perform and as such it commands higher fees and higher-priced outsourcing contracts.

“We have to diversify and create the capability to deliver higher-value services which have direct customer interaction. We do not want to rely solely on the “lower value” voice work alone,” Mark Lwin, CEO of AIG Philippines Insurance Co. Inc. and former head of the AIG Property Casualty BPO delivery center in Alabang, said in a recent Philstar.com report.

To diversify, local BPO companies reportedly must include not just “pure-voice” services but also technology support delivered via “multi-channels” or other means than voice calls. Even outsourced back-office work now reportedly includes direct customer contact.

Another “higher-value” or “higher-end” outsourced job that falls under the heading of BPO and Information and Communication Technology is software development, catered to by up to 600 reported small to medium Philippine software companies. In 2012, this export-oriented software development/engineering employed an estimated 50,000, or less than five percent of those employed by BPO companies that year.

All in all, amid high government support to BPOs that include tax and investment incentives for BPO companies, funding from the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program for groups of BPO managers, building infrastructure to distribute BPOs in ‘next wave cities,’ financing BPO trainings and lately, rolling out of a 21-unit minor called Service Management Program (SMP) across 17 state universities and colleges with support from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the BPO industry gave jobs to just 2.4-percent of total employed Filipinos in 2013.

Among key industries such as transportation and communication, finance, trade and manufacturing, the BPO companies, which fall under Private Services, are also among the smallest contributors (in gross revenues, employment and compensation) based on data of the National Statistical Coordination Board.

High “churn” rate

In such an “industry” that seems hyper sensitive to global competitiveness and is headed by executives with established lobby groups, the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) came to being in 2011 in Manila. Getting it registered with the Department of Labor and Employment was “rigorous,” according to its orientation paper.

A network that arose from kapihan and online chats of employees who used to be friends or colleagues before they worked at top call centers, they found out that under the seeming gloss of their airconditioned, high-tech telecom machine-humming offices, there is the common trend of forced or mandatory overtime and huge deductions from their salaries.

The network immediately campaigned for “Let it flow” or longer bio breaks, shuttle services and better lighting in areas where the night workers would have to pass by to be at work.

“As the network grows, we realize the need to register it as an organization with the Labor department,” Ian Porquia, national president of the network recounted in their recent assembly.

He was surprised by the knee-jerk response of the Labor department to their application. “Necessary pa ba magka-labor organization? Maganda naman palakad sa BPO. (Is it necessary to have a labor organization? The BPO is treating you well),” was what they were told at the DOLE office.

Having experienced otherwise, BIEN persisted and today, they are already a registered association recognized by the DOLE.

Some conveners of BIEN admit that the network also has to help each other break the fear of BPO employees to speak out, join a network like BIEN and amplify their calls for better work condition and compensation package. (See: Defying prohibitions, call center workers gravitate toward association )

At the second assembly of BIEN, Porquia urged his colleagues in BIEN to continue expanding its membership to amplify their voice. Their joke is that they are the voice workers who don’t have a voice, or a say, in how they are being treated by companies in the industry, referring to the application of labor standards and respect of their rights as employees.

The CHED had estimated that about 30-percent of college graduates are qualified for BPO work. Although the BPO execs projected that the BPO employees would increase to just a little over a million headcount by yearend, industry observers noted that it still has staffing problems. The stressful, late-night work reportedly results in “a churn rate” of over 50 percent of its employed.

Its causes maybe traced to how BPOs, a relatively pampered sunshine industry, controls its workforce.

“I don’t think all its policies are constitutional. It has written guidelines to suppress our rights,” a BPO employee and member of BIEN tells Bulatlat.com.

Considering that the industry claims to employ more than 900,000 people and it has existed since before 2000s, it still has no union on record.

BIEN, the only network that dares to speak out about their plight and protest their large tax deductions, among others, finds every step of their way to organizing “rigorous.” Now that they finally got themselves registered with the Labor department, they are being utilized by the DOLE as party to its tripartite talks.

BIEN has welcomed it as another venue to have their voices heard. But it still seems to recognize that tripartite talks are toothless. It still wants to grow its members to further amplify its voice for its campaigns. ()

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