Call Center Unions Build International Connections

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

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.

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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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #459, June 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.