For call center employees in the Philippines, sleeping on the floor of their workplace less than a meter from their coworkers in the middle of a pandemic is an improvement. “Until very recently,” reported one worker, “people were just inches apart.”
In the United States, Covid-19 has brought renewed focus to the way that working-class lives are treated as expendable. But far less attention has been paid to the global dimensions of the crisis. Workers around the world are caught in the same exploitative system — one that uses national borders to divide and conquer the working class. In few places is this more perfectly encapsulated than in the Philippine call center industry, where workers are currently risking their lives to provide cheap customer service for American corporations. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) is fighting to help their Philippine counterparts. In doing so, they provide a model for transnational solidarity.
The abusive BPO industry
Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), in which multinational corporations contract out activities like telephone customer service and IT support to low-wage workers in other countries, is big business in the Philippines. With 1.2 million employed, and making up 11% of the country’s GDP, the Philippines is one of the largest BPO destinations in the world. But this record growth has come at a cost.
Philippine BPO workers face a litany of industry-wide abuses: low wages, lack of job security, contractualization, intensifying workloads through increasingly strict monitoring and metrics, and unsafe working conditions. In 2017, a fire at a BPO office that failed to meet safety codes killed 37 call center workers. Earlier this year, workers were told not to abandon their posts during a volcanic eruption. And some woman workers have reported being discriminated against and forced out of their jobs for being pregnant.
During the Covid-19 crisis, that list has only grown. Many employees have been placed on “floating” status, where they remain formally employed but without work or pay. Those lucky enough to work have to do so in person, without adequate social distancing protocols or protective equipment. Most degrading of all, with movement restricted within the country, those who are unable to commute are forced to sleep side-by-side on the office floor.
Workers haven’t taken this lying down. In the face of every abuse, the BPO Industry Employment Network (BIEN), the industry’s main union, has fought back. But in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, organizing is dangerous work.
In October of last year, leading BIEN organizer Anne Krueger, along with 56 other union members, was arrested under false charges in a mass raid. These arrests came as part of a wider crackdown on labor that has seen teachers’ unionists gunned down in their classrooms, at least 43 activists killed with impunity, and uncounted more arrested. A close ally of the BPO industry, Duterte has resorted to illegitimate arrests and extra-judicial killings to protect corporate profits.
The Philippine labor movement, fighting against a deeply abusive industry, is being violently repressed by a right-wing authoritarian government. But it’s not just a Philippine problem. Exploitation of workers in the Philippines is also an American problem — a problem for workers everywhere.
A global challenge
Many of those facing inhumane working conditions and violent retribution in the Philippines are working either directly for, or for contractors to, U.S. corporations. Anne, for example, had been working with BIEN on a years-long campaign against Alorica, an American call center company and contractor to four of the five largest wireless providers in the world, including Verizon and AT&T. At the same time, the United States provides the Philippines with somewhere north of $100 million in military and policing assistance every year. In short: American corporations are profiting from the repression of Philippine labor by a police force funded by the US government.
But the roots of the repression reach even deeper — to the rules of the global economy itself.
Over the past five decades, the governments of the Global North, and the private interests they represent, have foisted upon the world a process of “neoliberal globalization.” Through a web of trade and investment agreements, loans conditioned on privatization and deregulation, and the occasional coup, the world order has been reshaped to ensure that corporations are virtually free of public control. With capital unrestrained by national borders, countries are forced to compete to attract investors, slashing wages, labor protections, and environmental regulations in pursuit of profits. The destructive race to the bottom—a race that American and Filippino workers both lose — was born.
It is within this context that U.S. companies, seeking to avoid paying fair wages to U.S. workers, outsource call centers to a country that attracts them by forcing employees to work during volcanic eruptions and violently suppressing dissent. For corporations, this system has an added benefit: Workers in different countries are pitted against one another in the false belief that their foreign counterparts are the cause of their troubles — that the outsourcing of jobs to the Philippines is a theft by Filipinos, rather than the product of a system that hurts workers everywhere.
The causes of labor exploitation and suppression in the Philippines are not contained within Philippine borders. The solutions won’t be either.
In the short term, the United States must end its support for the Duterte régime and hold American corporations accountable for their abuses. But to address the root causes of the suffering of BPO workers, we must go further — we must rewrite the rules of the global economy, building an alternative globalization that places the needs of people and planet before profits. This means replacing trade agreements, empowering workers to organize transnationally, remaking the Bretton Woods Institutions, and more. The race to the bottom itself must be stopped.
In the fallout of the global coronavirus crisis, calls to remake the architecture of the global economy to better protect workers everywhere have received increased attention. But achieving this transformation — or making any sustained progress for workers around the world — requires overcoming the forces that seek to divide the working class. It requires building solidarity that transcends borders.
CWA, longtime allies of Anne and BIEN, says it is doing just that. “[We] need to recognize who the real villain is here.” said Legislative Director Shane Larson. “It’s not the worker outside of the United States who is trying to feed their family. If we’re going to raise our members’ wages, we have to be sure that we are raising the floor across the globe.”
Building global solidarity isn’t easy. But CWA, like other unions that center internationalism, has practice in doing so: sending delegations to meet with their foreign counterparts, collaborating with Mexican unions to oppose NAFTA, and participating in solidarity actions. In 2018, for example, CWA helped employees of French BPO company Teleperformance in the Dominican Republic unionize by exerting pressure through AT&T, one of the company’s major clients.
It was during these solidarity-building activities that CWA developed its relationship with Anne Krueger. When American Verizon workers were on strike in 2016, Anne independently reached out to CWA to provide information on where Verizon was outsourcing services in the Philippines. “We don’t want to be scabs,” she said at the time. Since then, CWA has sent multiple delegations to meet with Philippine workers — some of which were even hosted in Anne’s home. CWA has since leveraged its power with US-based BPO clients to support Anne and BIEN’s organizing. Now, with Anne and her fellow BPO employees in danger, CWA is drawing international attention to their plight, participating in globally-coordinated days of action, and organizing protests in collaboration with civil society groups.
CWA sees helping BIEN as a win-win: BIEN workers gain better wages and working conditions, and CWA workers face less downward pressure on theirs. “Our workers are recognizing that we have more in common than not,” said Larson. “The most amazing thing has been to see the rank and file call center workers meet with workers in other countries and they immediately bond — they bond on a simple human level, a worker level. It’s an empowering experience.”
Thanks in no small part to the support she received from around the globe, including demonstrations and statements by CWA, the International Trade Union Confederation, the AFL-CIO, UNI Global Union, and Senator Bernie Sanders, Anne was eventually released on bail. But several activists arrested during the same raid have not been so lucky, and Anne still faces a court date in one of the world’s worst justice systems.
Her fate, the fates of call center workers forced to sleep on the floor during a pandemic, and those of workers everywhere, depend on our ability to act like CWA — to see past national divisions, and unite across borders in the struggle for a system that works for workers everywhere.
In a recent speech, U.S. Congressperson Ilhan Omar declared: “My destiny, your destiny, the destiny of workers around the world are linked together.” For Larson, this perfectly captured the spirit of CWA and BIEN’s collaboration: “If you are a worker anywhere in the world, you are a brother, a sister, a sibling of CWA.”