By MARYA SALAMAT
The news that the Philippines has overtaken India in the number of new hires in the call center industry has prompted a labor education NGO recently to warn industry stakeholders and the government against risking its workers’ welfare for the sake of such boom, or the projected boom up to 2016.
“The welfare of workers in BPO institutions must not be compromised for the sake of attracting more investors,” said Anna Leah Escresa-Colina, executive director of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER). Citing the inquiry of the Kabataan Partylist on the “dire conditions of call-center agents,” which served as basis for the filing of House Bill No. 2592, as well as their own research into the plight of call center employees, Escresa-Colina reminded the government that it “must not only foster a good business climate, it must also guarantee good working conditions and protection of workers’ rights.”
BPO employees seem to be little aware of their rights, said employees themselves who attended discussions about their common plight even if they are working in different companies. There are more than 300,000 employed in the sector, some lasting for as long as four years or more. Yet, so far, there is no registered union or association of employees in the industry.
This gives the employees little to no say in their working condition, from restroom breaks to determining the work-quotas, length of working hours, computation of wage, overtime pay and vacation leaves, if any, to emergency leaves and being accorded due process in cases of termination or forced/extended/open-ended leaves.
Current working conditions account for the high attrition rate in the industry. Company owners and executives, meanwhile, have industry associations that actively lobby for, and achieve, more and better government support for their continuous expansion and profit.
While providing a lot of support to Business Process Outsourcing Companies, the government is ignoring the oppressive working conditions of call center employees.
Uphill Climb for Call Center Workers’ Protection
Kabataan Party-list Representative Raymond V. Palatino sponsored the BPO Workers Welfare & Protection Act during the past Congress. This year, he and his staff have been holding roundtable discussions with employees of the BPO industry as they prepare the ground for re-filing the bill.
The said bill seems to have already been subjected to unfounded criticisms, Palatino said, during one of his roundtable discussions with BPO employees. During one such discussion, employees from various BPO companies in Metro Manila confirmed the sore lack of security of tenure in the industry, whether the employee is called regular or not, the high quota-pressured night working hours, and the seeming misinformation they have been hearing against the proposed bill for BPO employees’ protection.
“The primary condition most workers have to contend with is having to work in graveyard night shifts in order to serve foreign overseas clients. Also, in order to maximize profits, many companies employ schemes to effectively force their employees to work without the benefit of regularization and tenure and a host of other benefits, from health to transportation,” read a brochure for the Kabataan Partylist representative’s HB 2592.
Although much of the provisions for the protection of call center agents Palatino seeks in the bill are already provided for by the Labor Code, BPO employees, he reasoned, have many work-related hazards and problems peculiar to and especially experienced only by these workers. And yet, “there is a lack in government measures to especially protect their rights and welfare,” said Palatino.
Instead, the BPO industry have repeatedly garnered the government’s support for its peculiar work practices. For example, the government had once granted the BPO industry an unprecedented exemption from observing a certain holiday and thus from paying its employees double their rates for having worked that day.
The government has been helping the BPOs trim the cost of hiring and training by providing scholarships for those seeking call center jobs. It has also been granting ecozone status to buildings with BPO companies in it, and not just to landholdings with industrial parks, as was being done before. The status gives BPO companies certain perks and incentives. The BPO workers, meanwhile, are largely left at the mercy of these BPO companies.
“Our work condition can sometimes make you cry,” said an employee who attended the Kabataan Partylist’s roundtable discussion. She said one can only take so much insults such as, “You’re so stupid!” or “F— you!” over the phone in a single working day (or night).
Lower-end of the Global Outsourcing Industry
The Philippines’ BPO sector is reportedly a $9-billion industry employing 450,000 people. The bulk is made up of call centers, which should employ 344,000 by year-end, based on an industry association projection last September. So far it generates some $5 to $6 billion for the Philippines (while India’s entire BPO industry is still reportedly valued at $47billion).
The Philippine BPO industry has been positioning itself as the “preferred destination for outsourcing,” and recently it has outpaced rival India in terms of call center new jobs (by a mere 1,200). However, the fact remains that it still gets mainly the low end of the business process outsourcing jobs.
(Former) Senator Mar Roxas commented that after more than a decade as a “sunshine industry,” the country has not yet captured the somewhat higher end of the outsourcing business, such as software-writing, engineering and other higher-end development processes.
As such, most employees in Philippine BPOs are in call centers, where they are often called as “talents” and the jobs revolve mainly on answering or making phone calls, taking in orders or reservations or doing some tele-marketing for a foreign contracting company.
The level of simplicity or complexity of the information needed to respond to phone queries or to market products is used as basis for the salaries a call center agent receives. Experienced technical service representatives assisting customers in relatively complex matters such as running an equipment or program receive a relatively higher salary compared to ordinary call center agents who deal with reservations or as simple as directory assistance or processing local contracts.
Local salaries, said Kabataan Partylist Rep Palatino, are much lower compared to the salaries being received by call center workers in other countries, even in other outsourcing countries such as India, Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore.
Since early 2000s call centers have been touted as ‘the way to go’ for new Filipino graduates, competing with migration as an option for some young and even middle-aged professionals. The industry boasts of high-octane come-ons such as above minimum wage rates, cool co-workers and various perks on the job, including a hefty signing bonus, etc.
Yet, it is the relatively low cost of Filipino labor and their ability to speak English and copy western culture that have been luring huge foreign companies to the Philippine contact center industry. It is at present largely owned or controlled and operated by multinational companies, if not adjuncts of the big telecom companies.
It appears that even big Indian companies with established outsourcing contracts have located their “voice” operations in the Philippines.
“More and more people are now realizing what the Philippines has to offer. All big outsourcing companies in India have operations here (in the Philippines),” said Maulik Parekh, president and CEO of SPi Global Solutions, a leading BPO provider with 29 locations across North America, Europe, and Asia. It has more than 14,000 employees in the US, Europe, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam.
In this year’s CCAP conference, Parekh said he wants to take advantage not only of the “voice” in the Philippines but also of its “innate understanding of health regulations in the US” in the next 10 years.
This coincided, by the way, with the Philippine call center industry’s thrust starting this year of expanding its workers’ services to include “complex tasks such as technical support, more comprehensive customer service and higher-level programs.” This will relatively improve the low-end services the contact centers here have been selling, but not necessarily the wages of call center employees.
The move is geared more to “enable companies here to compete globally for higher valued services skills-wise, price-wise and technologically-wise,” said Jojo Uligan, executive director of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), in a statement given to the press during their annual conference last September. CCAP is “the oldest and primary contact center industry association” in the country, with member-firms that make up 85-percent of the call centers in the Philippines.
Read the concluding part on this link:
BPO: PH employees receive low salaries.