Bell Canada Outsources Operator Jobs to U.S. Firm

Right in the middle of January contract talks with the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union, Bell Canada announced that it would sell its 2,400-employee operator services division to a U.S. call center outfit. The announcement followed a court ruling that would have allowed the operators to pursue a possibly expensive pay equity suit.

The buyer is Excell Global Services of Tempe, Arizona, a company that runs low-wage nonunion call centers. If the deal goes through, Excell would reduce Bell Canada's 55 operator centers, handling directory assistance and other services, to five, with many of the former Bell workers losing their jobs.

All Bell operators will be invited to apply for jobs with Excell, though most would have to relocate. Those who stay will probably see a 40 percent wage cut.

Bell claims the operator division loses money, while the union argues that a joint study showed that it made as much as $200 million of Bell’s $850 million in 1997 profits.

Facing wage increase demands and a possible court ruling on pay equity that would raise operator salaries to the level of better-paid (mostly male) technicians, it seems that Bell Canada decided to take the low road to bigger profits.

CEP president Fred Pomeroy pledged to fight the sale "through the legal process, collective bargaining, the political process, the workplace and in the streets."

It is not clear, however, whether the collective bargaining route is open. The union faces concessionary demands and has been stymied in bargaining over the contracts for operators and the craft and services divisions. In mid-January, the CEP applied to the Canadian government for conciliation services.

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COMMUNICATIONS FACTORIES

Pomeroy’s prediction that this sale will have "a snowball effect" is certainly right.

In a world where mergers, sell-offs, contracting out, modular production, and other schemes for cutting costs and fragmenting once-unionized work are daily news, the call center is becoming for some industries what the sweatshop is to garments and electronics.

Often located in areas of low income and high unemployment, call centers provide cheap "person-to-person" and telemarketing services for banks, credit card companies, retailers, package express companies like UPS and FedEx, and now phone companies.

These call centers employ hundreds and even thousands of workers, about two-thirds of them women. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has called these centers a "new version of the assembly line" and "communications factories." "Everything is aimed at speeding up the pace," says the ICFTU. They are breeding grounds for repetitive strain injuries and voice loss.

The sell-off of Bell Canada's operator services could be the beginning of the next round in the reorganization of the telecommunications industry. If ever there was a time for coordinated international action by North America's telecommunications unions, this is it.