Afraid of overregulation, BPO companies are not regulated enough—to the detriment of workers
24 hour shifts and health risks are common
Jul 23, 2019
In 2015’s Sleepless, Gem, played by Glaiza de Castro, can’t sleep. She works the graveyard shift at a callcenter where she speaks in a general American accent—customers respond to that more and it deflects racism—her choice echoing Sorry to Bother You‘s Cassius adopting a white accent to perform better.
Not seen in the movie: 24-hour shifts when working for demanding accounts like Amazon; health risks due to the work schedule and stress; and a self-policing system that once precipitated the deaths of 38 call center workers in a 2017 fire.
The latter paragraph is the gist of Vox‘s latest report detailing the uncomfortable reality behind the customer service industry, which our country still leads albeit facing strong competition from other countries. “After welcoming call centers with lax regulation and a zero percent corporate tax holiday, the Philippine government is now playing catch-up to protect workers from excessive overtime, job insecurity, and the deadly consequences of an industry that largely escaped oversight for more than 20 years,” the article describes.
These problems are largely interconnected. Call centers are part the of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which values productivity more than anything (“Amazon fines the call center $2.85 per failed call,” the article states, adding that workers are allotted ten minutes to process calls), and so employees are overloaded and led to work long shifts—with uncompensated overtime. So while privileged customers are using “customer service” as therapy (as per The New York Times), the outsourced overseas workers that they’re talking to are struggling. “While employment contracts follow local labor laws on paper, interviews with agents and team leaders revealed how call centers get around overtime rules. Contracts require employees to render overtime work based on “business needs,” a vague term that leaves hours to managers’ discretion.”
And these long hours translate into health risks. “These are very young workers, but they’re prone to lung cancer, high blood pressure, and stroke,” Vox quotes a former call center physician.
This really, really shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but the government isn’t doing much to address this. The industry’s unique needs and generated employment keeps their hands tied. “At the end of the day, we don’t want overregulation,” Nicki Agcaoili of the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) says in the Vox article. (Edit: IBPAP has reached out to say that Agcaoili was misquoted in the Vox article.) “There’s an attitude that they’re the goose that lays the golden eggs because of the employment generated,” adds Teresita S. Cucueco of the working conditions bureau. Cue in yearly reports praising the industry for their growth, sidestepping the real cost of that growth.
And because of how strong they are, they’re able to lobby for laxer regulations. In 2016, the industry was able to gain an exemption from safety inspections for two years if they passed their first one. In 2017, 38 call center workers died in a fire. Their office was connected to a mall that caught fire, but they had separate alarm systems and sprinklers on their floor that were turned off. “That explains why people inside the SSI were not aware that fire is happening just below their floor,” an investigator told Reuters.
The Vox article was pretty extensive, but it didn’t mention how the country’s BPO industry spans more than just call centers, and some of them are more insidious. Take content moderation, a shadow workforce that’s being “increasingly done in the Philippines,” writes Adrian Chen for Wired. Porn, violent and graphic imagery—that’s constantly being uploaded into our favorite social media sites. You don’t see that, though, because those are quickly filtered through by human agents. Aside from the normal hazards that other BPO workers face, content moderators also take on an even greater toll on their psyche: they risk developing PTSD.
Don’t take this to be a demonization of BPO workers. Despite all the mentioned concerns, the industry still does pay really well. Employees “can get twice as much in a call center than working as a nurse,” says David Gonzales of The New York Times, noting that it’s possible to earn $1,400 a month. In a third world country mired with poverty and where proper employment is hard to find (as someone who was pretty heavily job seeking just a year ago, I know that there are still many employers out there giving out salary that’s less than minimum wage somehow), working for the BPO industry is a valid choice—just as long as you know that you’ll be paying for that choice, not your company.
Featured photo courtesy of Inquirer.net
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