COVID-19 puts PR call center workers at grave risk | Way of life
QUEZON CITY, Philippines – For his seven children, Glen Palaje was a handyman: carpenter, cook, musician. To his colleagues, he was also “Papa”, the oldest of a team of call center employees who handled inquiries from AT&T customers.
Palaje had spent eight years with Teleperformance, a business process outsourcing company. As the pandemic ravaged the Philippines last summer, he joined a team that worked and slept in the office.
Three days after developing a cough, he was sent home, his daughter Marigold Palaje said. The weekend before he could start remote work, he collapsed and, after a midnight rush to the hospital, was pronounced dead on arrival. A week passed before his loved ones learned of the cause of death: covid-19.
When Americans call their banks, online retailers and phone providers, many are answered by call center workers in the Philippines, who number more than one million. Until August 2020, Palaje, 50, was part of it.
Conditions in the industry are under scrutiny as advocates identify thousands of coronavirus cases and accuse companies and government of not doing enough to stop its spread. Reports from the Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees’ Network, or BIEN, and interviews with agents paint a dark side of one of the most coveted careers among young Filipinos – from poorly ventilated offices to hotbeds of viruses, to workers plunged into financial precariousness.
In Quezon City, where Palaje lived and worked, the local government has found more than 2,600 coronavirus cases and six deaths in 57 call centers this year. Call centers were the top sites among work-related clusters, according to the city’s disease surveillance unit. Palaje’s family and a colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, say he caught the virus at work, but a lack of contact tracing and early testing makes it difficult to prove.
In response to questions, Teleperformance did not directly address Palaje’s case, but a representative said the company had taken “all appropriate sanitary measures” for its 47,000 employees in the Philippines, including free vaccinations. AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.
BIEN estimates that outbreaks in offices and work-related facilities such as shared dormitories accounted for nearly 1,000 cases of the virus in cities such as Baguio, Cavite and Davao during the first half of this year.
The persistent outbreaks suggest that “companies may skimp” on measures to protect workers, said Ser Percival Peña-Reyes, associate director of the Ateneo Manila University Center for Economic Research and Development. He urged employers to provide free and regular testing, as well as human and sanitary accommodations.
“I find it hard to believe that with what you’re earning right now, you can’t put the resources into it,” Peña-Reyes said. Outsourcing revenue rose 1.4% to nearly $ 27 billion last year, according to industry data.
Few companies have provided free testing for workers, said BIEN vice president Sarah Prestoza, or taken the government’s covid-19 protocols seriously. Businesses are “not afraid” of the consequences, she said, because officials are simply warning offenders not to start over.
In the absence of a coronavirus test provided by Teleperformance’s on-site clinic, Palaje avoided going to the hospital, fearing additional expenses and exposure to the virus, his family and colleague said. Instead, he went to a small clinic – but he never had a coronavirus test.
“Why the [office] Did the clinic help him with an exam, a swab? “Palaje’s colleague said.” If it hadn’t been for this neglect, Papa Glen wouldn’t have died. “
At a regional office for outsourcing firm Tech Mahindra, an employee said officers removed face masks and screens – a requirement in the Philippines – to breathe or relax on long calls. The employee, Mel, who spoke on condition that he was only identified by a nickname because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the company was operating at near full capacity in July, against regulations designed to prevent contagion.
“I feel like they don’t care that much,” said Mel, who recalled catching the virus after sitting next to a co-worker who was coughing and having stated that a request to work from home after their hospitalization had been refused.
Tech Mahindra, in a statement, denied any cases of the virus originating at the site. “Working from home continues to be our first priority during the pandemic, unless we are working on some essential services,” he said.
Maddy Thompson, an employment law researcher at UK Keele University, said Filipino contract workers “have been put at risk to avoid longer wait times for consumers.”
“Left unchecked, corporate responses to covid-19 will further exacerbate inequalities in an already unequal world,” she wrote in a London School of Economics blog post last year.
Companies that work with overcapacity are a common concern, said Rolly Cruz of the Quezon City disease surveillance unit. “The most common violation is the large number of employees present at a particular time of work in these call centers,” he said.
In Baguio City, where a contract company doctor died after an office outbreak in March, hundreds of cases were traced at two large call centers where agents shared common dormitories. Benjamin Magalong, mayor and head of a national contact tracing team, said there were so many asymptomatic cases that the city had to set up an isolation center exclusively for call center workers.
Call centers have received a warning and have been threatened with temporary closure. “But when they explained their situation to us… we saw that it would hurt the operations of the company, so we had a compromise,” said Magalong. “The cases have been reduced.”
The pandemic has plunged the Philippines into recession, fueling record hunger and unemployment. Workers who continued to report to work after testing positive often cited financial reasons, said Cruz, of the Quezon City surveillance unit.
Palaje’s family said he minimized his illness early on as he maximized his paid time off and couldn’t afford to be absent. “Workers are afraid of being found sick – as if they were if they were,” her daughter Marigold said.
At another call center in the same town, former agent Jeffrey Banate said when some workers were laid off when the lockdown began, their paid time off was canceled. Colleagues still working on site complained on social media about sleeping on the floor and irregular disinfection.
“If someone [tests] positive, the whole floor shuts down, ”said Banate, who declined to name his former employer. This meant that those who had exhausted their leave were not paid.
The Labor Ministry said it inspected some 200 outsourcing establishments last year but did not provide data on penalties. Affected workers are entitled to compensation, but “the burden of proof really lies with the worker,” Deputy Secretary Maria Teresita Cucueco said.
For Palaje’s family, getting such help would be difficult as they could not detect the virus at an early stage. Financial assistance from the company and social services was used for funeral costs.
A year after his death, Palaje’s absence is felt in the family home. Damage from the typhoon caused the roof to leak – something he would usually have fixed. The family can’t afford an urn, so they keep his ashes in a safe near where he wanted to set up a home office.
Marigold had considered following her father into the call center industry, but now she isn’t so sure.
When Palaje’s family went to their office to collect their belongings, they found around $ 10 in change. They ate the oatmeal and instant noodles they had packed for him. And they found a certificate in his locker: a veteran’s award for the longest time.