Filipino Call Centers in ILO Sights

A new International Labor Organization book launched Wednesday in Geneva and Manila suggests that the multibillion-dollar business process industry (BPO) – call centers – should be open to listening to workers' collective voice and engaging in social dialogue to improve working conditions in their high-strain workplaces.

In a video-conference from Geneva with journalists in Manila, ILO researchers and co-editors Jon Messenger and Naj Ghosheh presented the highlights of the book Offshoring and Working Conditions in Remote Work, said to be the first in-depth study about call center workplaces in Argentina, Brazil, India and the Philippines.

The Philippines has the second biggest call center industry in the world after India, Messenger said.

The study found that the Philippine industry provides reasonably good quality jobs by local standards, with call center workers averaging P16,928 ($364) in monthly pay aside from non-wage benefits.

However, sexual inequality continues. Although young Filipinas dominate call center jobs by up to 59.3 percent, the study discovered that Filipino men earn 13 percent more than women.

Work hours in the industry are likewise "good" according to the report, compared to the excessively long hours endured by many other workers in other industries in developing countries.

But the ILO book said that "key changes in the BPO industry policies and practices" are needed to address problems and challenges in the workplaces.

Messenger said night work is common in the Philippine industry, with 42.6 percent of BPO employees or 51.7 percent of all employees in call center positions working the night shift to serve customers, mostly in the United States, in real time.

"Night work is often associated with occupational safety and health issues such as sleep problems and fatigue," Messenger said. Nearly half (47.7 percent) of call center employees surveyed reported suffering from sleeping problems or insomnia.

The study also described call center work organizations as "high-strain" due to the heavy workload, tight rules and procedures and electronic monitoring but the employees are given little or no autonomy.

The result of these is high job stress among call center workers surveyed, who said stress-inducing factors include harassment from irate clients (45.6 percent), excessive and tedious workload (41 percent), performance demands (37.4 percent), monotony (33.7 percent) and regular night work (33.4 percent).

The report also noted that the call center industry has a high rate of staff turnover, which in some companies can reach as high as 100 percent or more annually.

"Giving employees little control or autonomy is an outdated notion," said Messenger, adding that "it cannot be a good business approach to have a model that leads to high attrition."

The authors also said that the industry should redesign work processes to allow BPO workers more discretion or autonomy, to make use of their often considerable qualifications.

Messenger said other positive steps to improve working conditions include providing proper, ergonomically-designed seats, computer screens and equipment.

In the Philippines, there is practically no union or labor organization covering or organized by workers in the BPO industry, but industry players long ago formed the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP).

Tonyo Cruz blogs under the title Bullet Points (http://asiancorrespondent.com/tonyo-cruz-blog) for Asian Correspondent, (www.asiasentinel.com) with which we have a copy-sharing agreement.