Leaving BPO workers to their own devices

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The government praises BPO workers and hails them as heroes, but it has yet to translate praise to positive action. It leaves them to the tender mercies of their employers.

It seems there’s an unholy alliance between the government and BPO firms to prevent the establishment of unions in the industry. It is feared—and this we hear repeatedly in government and industry circles—that leftist elements would co-opt the unions and run the industry to the ground.

There are currently 800,000 workers in the industry, bringing in $17 billion in revenues. In 2016, according to DTI, there will be 1.3 million workers, with revenues increasing to $25 billion.

One doesn’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, so the thinking goes.

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The attitude betrays a lack of confidence in the good sense of BPO workers. If we may point out the obvious, the young men and women who man the call center firms are an educated lot. They would readily see any attempt to infiltrate their ranks and destroy their livelihood.

All the workers want is protection from unfair labor practices and a recognition of their right to appropriate compensation and adequate health facilities for job related injuries and ailments.

The typical work schedule of call center agents is from 3 p.m. to midnight and from midnight to 3 p.m., with only an hour break for meal and coffee. All throughout that punishing work shift, an agent processes more than 200 calls, some of them from abusive clients.

No wonder call center agents suffer from posture disorders, hearing impairment problems, and persistent hoarseness, among others. There are also reports of workers contracting goiter, throat and breast cancer, and other more serious ailments because of night shift work.

The posture disorders naturally arise from being required to sit for six hours in an eight-hour shift. On the other hand, the ear and throat diseases are the result of headset and microphone use all throughout this time period.

The BPO industry started in earnest only in 2003. Therefore, we don’t know yet the long-term effects of the unnatural working hours on the young workers. There may be more serious diseases in store for these people, 90 percent of whom are women.

The government exempts BPO firms, most of which are foreign owned, from paying corporate tax for four years. It is only fair that in return for that concession it should gently nudge these firms to make the salary of Filipino call center agents at least at par with their counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore, who get P25,000 a month.

The average salary of Filipino call center agents is only P15,000 a month.

That Malaysia and Singapore have a higher standard of living is not a valid argument in support of the disparity. A valid argument, but one in support of a higher pay for Filipino call center agents, is the fact that they speak American English, the language of the BPO industry.

The Philippines is the only country colonized by the United States. That makes Filipinos the only people outside the United States who speak the American variety of the English language.

The two other countries mentioned—along with India and Pakistan—speak or try to speak British English, accent and all. That is something that grates on the ears of Americans, who comprise the majority of call center clients.

Of the 800,000 workers of the BPO industry, three-fourths are voice workers: young people who call or answer the phone and talk to clients.

Those working in computer software development, medical and legal transcription, accounting and bookkeeping, and animation are in the minority. Yet it is in these high-value services that the big bucks is coming from.

One study shows that the BPO industry generates $280 billion in revenues worldwide, with non-voice accounting for 90 percent of that amount.

Apart from the fact that non-voice workers are paid more, they work in the daytime like most other trade and commerce employees. Therefore, they do not suffer the medical problems that hound their voice-worker counterparts.

The government last year earmarked P500 million for the training of call center agents. It should increase, even double that amount, and use the money for the training of non-voice workers.

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