Call Center Workers Strike for Telework in Portugal
Portuguese call center workers forced to come to work during the pandemic struck in March, demanding to switch to teleworking at home without loss of pay. Some workers refused to go to work, some took sick leave, some asked for vacation days, and others appeared at the call centers but refused to log in.
According to Danilo Moreira, president of the Call Center Workers Union, the majority of companies, like Teleperformance, Armatis-LC, BNP Paribas, and Electricity of Portugal, were forced to call workers and ask them to get their working materials in order to transition to home telework immediately.
Companies like Teleperformance and Armatis-LC provide customer support, sales, and other services for a range of large companies, with workers, including those from temp agencies, all working in the same room.
Work is usually organized in an open space, with workers separated by screens or islands, only a few meters from each other. Windows are usually closed, and lighting is often artificial and insufficient. Workers often face excessive noise due to the high number of operators. Air conditioning systems are not properly replaced, adjusted, or cleaned. Work stations and tools, including computers, mice, headphones, screens, and keyboards, are shared daily without proper cleaning.
During the pandemic, healthy workers were placed in the same room with sick ones. Those who had recently returned from abroad, including countries where the pandemic was most widespread, were not subjected to any quarantine or isolation procedures.
Disinfecting products, detergents, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper remained very scarce. In one call center in northern Portugal, cleaning staff had nothing but water to clean with. Companies often try to keep knowledge of COVID-19 cases from their employees, and fail to notify the Authority for Working Conditions.
Given these conditions, and the fact that call centers tend to be located in cities with higher incidences of COVID-19, it’s no surprise that these workplaces have become hot spots for contagion.
100,000 OPERATORS STANDING BY
Even though there are around 100,000 call center operators in Portugal, it is not considered a profession by the Portuguese National Classification of Professions. This means that the sector has no specific labor regulations.
Flexible and temporary employment contracts are signed with temporary agencies on a daily, weekly, and monthly renewal, depending on the worker’s performance. This leads to easier dismissals, low union membership rates, and few collective bargaining agreements. Workers are subject to psychological violence and racial and gender harassment from aggressive clients and supervisors who conceive the worker as a mere extension of the machine they are plugged into.
Unions are limited in their possibilities for action. The unionization rate is hard to know, with turnover high, but STCC has around 600 official members. Nonetheless, the union has had an outsize impact struggling for call center workers’ rights and has gotten the attention of the media, academia, and other unions.
DEMAND FOR COMPULSORY TELEWORK
In mid-March STCC made a pre-call for a strike, demanding that telework be compulsory wherever it was possible, especially in call centers. That warning was ignored and companies like Teleperfomance continued to operate with no safety measures or social distancing. Workers reported these conditions to unions, especially to STCC, which denounced the companies to political parties, national and international media. The union asked the Health Ministry and the Authority for Working Conditions (ACT) to carry out health and safety inspections.
STCC then called for a nationwide strike of call center workers to take place between March 24 and April 5. On the union's Facebook and blog pages, workers found information on teleworkers’ rights and online forms to request the transition, in several languages. STCC launched an online petition demanding that workers at non-essential services immediately be transitioned to telework without loss of pay.
The companies' agreement to start telework was due to the pressure and action taken by STCC and accelerated by the intervention of the Health Ministry and ACT. The new situation could become a turning point for the industry if the Ministry and ACT agreed to carry out regular inspections—not just in situations of national calamity—to force call center companies to deal with cleaning issues and ergonomics.
However, days after the strike ended, there were still companies that had only transitioned partially to telework, alleging lack of enough VPNs for all the workers. Other companies have bullied and harassed teleworkers, with threats of firing. There are also issues regarding workers' expenses for equipment, internet, and electricity.
In an Orwellian move, some companies have even demanded that workers install webcams in their homes so that managers can monitor their performance. In other cases, companies just opted to fire workers who were in training without any compensation or sent dismissal letters alleging lack of work. These are the working conditions the digital economy will offer if workers are not organized.
See here a video about the strike (in Portuguese).
Isabel Roque is a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies and a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Economics of Coimbra University in Portugal.