Offshoring Solidarity: How Call-Center Workers Are Organizing Across Borders

Dan DiMaggio July 7, 2017

A delegation of CWA members visited call center workers in the Dominican Republic. (Unity at AT&T Mobility)

This arti­cle first appeared in Labor Notes.

One big issue in May’s three-day strike by 38,000 AT&T work­ers was the company’s off­shoring of jobs. To shine a spot­light on the issue and strength­en inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, a group of union mem­bers vis­it­ed the Domini­can Repub­lic a cou­ple of weeks before the strike to meet the call cen­ter work­ers on the oth­er end of that offshoring.

Accord­ing to the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers (CWA), AT&T has closed 30 U.S. call cen­ters and down­sized dozens of oth­ers since 2011, elim­i­nat­ing 12,000 jobs — near­ly one-third of all its call cen­ter employees.

That work has been out­sourced to El Sal­vador, Mex­i­co, the Domini­can Repub­lic, and the Philip­pines. The work­ers in the Domini­can Repub­lic earn between $2.13 and $2.77 an hour. Employ­ers dan­gle the prospect of sup­ple­ment­ing those wages with incen­tive pay, but in real­i­ty the tar­gets are near­ly impos­si­ble to reach.

When com­pa­nies in the U.S. off­shore jobs to coun­tries like the Domini­can Repub­lic, they are not export­ing job oppor­tu­ni­ties — they are export­ing exploita­tion,” says Hanoi Sosa, an orga­niz­er with FEDO­TRA­ZONAS, a union in the Domini­can Repub­lic that includes call cen­ter work­ers. They come here because they know they can deliv­er even low­er labor con­di­tions than in the U.S.”

Eye-open­ing visit

Local 7750 mem­ber Mimi Mah­di, who works at the DirecTV call cen­ter in Den­ver, Col­orado, was one of three CWA mem­bers on the del­e­ga­tion to the Domini­can Repub­lic, along with one union staffer and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the UNI Glob­al union federation.

Mah­di was appalled” by what she learned on her trip. The pay is ter­ri­ble,” she said. They do not get paid to go to the bath­room. They do not get paid for their 15-minute breaks. They do not get paid overtime.

Their man­agers manip­u­late all their infor­ma­tion so that they don’t get their com­mis­sions or month­ly bonus­es. A lot of the women say they have to sleep with man­age­ment to get ahead, or they’re threat­ened to get fired.”

Mah­di and the oth­ers joined Domini­can union orga­niz­ers to hand out leaflets out­side two call cen­ters in San­to Domin­go. All of the call cen­ters are behind tall locked gates, like prison gates, which is strange and depress­ing,” she said. As the work­ers went in the gates, they had to give the leaflets to the secu­ri­ty, and they were even attempt­ing to check the employ­ees’ pock­ets and pat them down.”

Nev­er­the­less, Mah­di says, Domini­can work­ers were excit­ed that we were there to sup­port them becom­ing union­ized, and hap­py to meet us.”

Mah­di also got a crash course in the country’s labor laws. They have bet­ter labor laws in the Domini­can Repub­lic than we do, as far as time off, as far as hours worked, when they can take their lunch and breaks, vaca­tion times. They just don’t enforce it. Man­age­ment acts like it does not exist.”

Harsh con­di­tions

Domini­can call cen­ter work­er Oliv­er Ben­zon and his co-work­ers at Teleper­for­mance, which han­dles calls for the AT&T sub­sidiary Crick­et, formed a union last June to try to force man­age­ment to abide by labor law. For instance, they want­ed the com­pa­ny to stop deduct­ing wages when work­ers used the bath­room or went to get water.

These peo­ple at Teleper­for­mance were work­ing against the law, and that’s when I said I want to be part of the union,” says Benzon.

It takes only 20 work­ers to form a union in the Domini­can Repub­lic. The first 10 to sign on are pro­tect­ed from fir­ing for as long as the union lasts, while the oth­er 10 get only three months of protection.

Work­ers at a dozen call cen­ters in the Domini­can Repub­lic have formed unions since 2010, accord­ing to Sosa, him­self a for­mer call cen­ter work­er. But none of the unions in the indus­try, which employs 55,000 work­ers, have col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments — which require that a major­i­ty of work­ers sign cards in sup­port of the union.

That has a lot to do with the anti-union hos­til­i­ty of Domini­can employ­ers. Com­pa­nies do every­thing in their pow­er to pre­vent work­ers from orga­niz­ing,” says Sosa. If you’re a work­er and you’re caught doing drugs at work, you might get penal­ized, or you might get fired. But if you’re caught try­ing to form a union, you’re going to be fired, you’re going to be black­list­ed, and man­age­ment is going to do every­thing in their pow­er to get you arrested.”

Teleper­for­mance has been try­ing to dereg­is­ter the union, fir­ing lead­ers, and threat­en­ing to black­list them from work­ing in the industry.

A Decem­ber post from Ben­zon on social media drew AT&T’s atten­tion. Com­pa­nies like Ver­i­zon, AT&T, Sam­sung, and oth­ers,” he wrote, out­source their oper­a­tions to com­pa­nies like Teleper­for­mance, Con­ver­gys, and Alor­i­ca with the objec­tive of reduc­ing costs. These com­pa­nies take advan­tage of the eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion and the low edu­ca­tion­al qual­i­ty of many coun­tries in the world, main­ly in Latin Amer­i­ca, to squash labor rights and basic human rights.”

After Ben­zon made that Face­book post, AT&T asked Teleper­for­mance to remove him from its account. He’s now work­ing the Megabus account.

Same job, low­er wages

Ben­zon learned Eng­lish in part by work­ing two sum­mer jobs in the U.S., on J‑1 visas, the first at Six Flags near Chica­go and the sec­ond at a restau­rant in Ocean City, Mary­land. One of the super­vi­sors was very dis­crim­i­nat­ing — he was racist,” Ben­zon said. He used to say to the Amer­i­cans, You can­not tell the J‑1 stu­dents how much you are earn­ing.’” Ben­zon found out that U.S. work­ers doing the same job made $16 to $18 an hour, while he was mak­ing $9.

I learned what is abuse, what is exploita­tion, in the Unit­ed States,” says Ben­zon. Then I came back to my coun­try and I said, This is almost the same.’ I’m work­ing for a com­pa­ny, I’m doing the same job as an Amer­i­can, but I’m not get­ting paid the same amount!”

Work­ers in the Domini­can Repub­lic also know what it feels like to lose their jobs to low­er-wage com­peti­tors. An inter­na­tion­al agree­ment called the Mul­ti-Fiber Arrange­ment used to allow indus­tri­al­ized nations like the U.S. to set quo­tas on gar­ment imports from spe­cif­ic coun­tries. But after it expired in 2005, says Sosa, many tex­tile fac­to­ries moved from the Domini­can Repub­lic to places which could deliv­er low­er labor con­di­tions, like Bangladesh, El Sal­vador, Vietnam.”

So what’s the solu­tion? We believe the only way we can avoid these com­pa­nies going from one place to anoth­er is by orga­niz­ing work­ers glob­al­ly,” says Sosa. That way, com­pa­nies will not be able to move from the Domini­can Repub­lic to El Sal­vador, because they will have to main­tain labor con­di­tions there. That way, if com­pa­nies from the U.S. move to the Domini­can Repub­lic, it’s because our coun­try pro­vides bet­ter invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties, not bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties for exploitation.”

Sequel to Verizon

CWA’s del­e­ga­tion to the Domini­can Repub­lic mir­rors a sim­i­lar trip dur­ing last year’s Ver­i­zon strike. A del­e­ga­tion of strik­ers vis­it­ed the Philip­pines after call cen­ter work­ers there made con­tact through the union’s Stand Up to Ver­i­zon” Face­book page.

Ver­i­zon has call cen­ters in Mex­i­co and the Philip­pines. The lat­ter is now the world’s call cen­ter cap­i­tal, with 1.2 mil­lion work­ers. Com­pa­nies are lured there by cheap, Eng­lish-speak­ing labor and lucra­tive tax rebates.

For CWA Local 1105 stew­ard Alex­is Perez, a Span­ish-lan­guage cus­tomer ser­vice rep in Queens, the trip last year was an eye-open­ing expe­ri­ence.” He was shocked at the call cen­ter work­ers’ low wages — $1.78 an hour — and cramped liv­ing conditions.

Because of the time zone dif­fer­ence, Fil­ipino call cen­ter work­ers gen­er­al­ly work overnight, tak­ing calls while it’s day­time in the U.S. The work­ers he met one morn­ing looked like zom­bies,” Perez said. Imag­ine you work overnight and then you go to this place where there’s no air con­di­tion­ing, it’s 98 degrees, you can’t sleep, you can’t rest.”

Most of the call cen­ter work­ers are hired on short-term con­tracts, mean­ing they’re per­ma­nent­ly stuck at entry-lev­el wages. A Ver­i­zon job there is not a good-qual­i­ty job,” Perez said. They don’t have any kind of ben­e­fits, they don’t have any kind of job secu­ri­ty, and the wages are way low­er than what they need to make a good living.”

The call cen­ter sec­tor is over­whelm­ing­ly non-union, but sev­er­al groups are work­ing to orga­nize and raise stan­dards — and work­ers have pulled off some cre­ative job actions.

Just as the del­e­ga­tion arrived, 50 work­ers at Ver­i­zon con­trac­tor Teletech held a slow­down to demand over­time pre­mi­ums and com­pa­ny-pro­vid­ed lunch­es. Work­ers han­dling Ver­i­zon calls said dur­ing the strike they were forced to work two hours of over­time a day with­out premiums.

A del­e­ga­tion pick­et with local work­er orga­ni­za­tions KMU and BIEN Philip­pines inspired anoth­er 100 work­ers at a Ver­i­zon sub­con­trac­tor to boy­cott over­time. Though at least two work­ers were lat­er fired for their par­tic­i­pa­tion, orga­niz­ers report­ed that the U.S. union­ists’ vis­it had sparked increased inter­est in organizing.

It’s a good thing that they’ve gone on strike,” one work­er at Ver­i­zon sub­con­trac­tor Tech­Man­ag­er told Labor Notes via Skype last June, because it’s actu­al­ly opened our minds here in the Philip­pines. These peo­ple are actu­al­ly fight­ing for their rights — why don’t we fight for ours?” (We chose not to use her name giv­en the dan­gers of retaliation.)

She and her co-work­ers learned about the strike from the news and from the dai­ly meet­ings that man­age­ment held to dis­cour­age them from join­ing the strike. They even threat­ened us. Say, for exam­ple, that if we join the strike, or we give out a state­ment [in sup­port], they threat­ened that they are going to have us blocked from all the cen­ters in the Philip­pines and that we will nev­er be able to work again.”

The vis­i­tors also got a taste of the pow­er that Ver­i­zon and oth­er multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions can bring to bear. After a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the union del­e­ga­tion went inside a Ver­i­zon office on the out­skirts of Mani­la to deliv­er infor­ma­tion about the strike, com­pa­ny secu­ri­ty sent armed guards on motor­cy­cles to detain the entire del­e­ga­tion, then called in a SWAT team.

By going on the trip, Perez said he learned how impor­tant it is to sup­port orga­niz­ing in the Philip­pines and any­where else Ver­i­zon sends work. If we orga­nize peo­ple where they out­source,” he said, they won’t have any­where to go.”

In the end, the Ver­i­zon strike won 1,300 new union­ized call cen­ter jobs in the U.S. Since then, CWA has con­tin­ued to sup­port orga­niz­ing by Fil­ipino call cen­ter workers.

Work­ers at one of the Philip­pines’ pio­neer call cen­ter com­pa­nies, SiTEL, have just formed a union, SPARK, the SiTEL Philip­pines Asso­ci­a­tion of Rank and File Work­ers, to fight for 1,000 jobs at risk after four clients report­ed­ly pulled their con­tracts. The work­ers are demand­ing that they be placed on SiTEL’s oth­er accounts — which are con­tin­u­ous­ly hir­ing — at their exist­ing salary and senior­i­ty lev­els, with­out hav­ing to re-apply. They are also ask­ing that SiTEL stop forc­ing its work­ers to han­dle mul­ti­ple accounts at the same time with no addi­tion­al pay, a move that would cre­ate more jobs for the dis­placed work­ers to fill. Click here to sign a peti­tion sup­port­ing the SiTEL workers.

Dan DiMag­gio is an assis­tant edi­tor at Labor Notes
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