Will KMU cripple our BPO industry?

- Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

It is a news event the local traditional and social media missed. It was only after Fortune published the story that we found out KMU was starting to get active in the BPO industry.

Credit the KMU for being proactive and managing to reach out to unhappy workers even before our Department of Labor and Employment knew anything was amiss. The event wasn’t even about us or our workers, but about a labor dispute in the United States. Two unions of the American telecoms giant Verizon went on strike and it had repercussions here.

Actually, one of the disputes had to do with outsourcing jobs here. Because of the strike, Filipino call center agents working for Verizon were required to work overtime and even an extra shift. That would have been alright except they were not being properly paid.

So the disappointed workers reached out to the American unions. The unions sent representatives here and that’s when the excitement started. Here is how Fortune related it:

Tim Dubnau, the American union leader, “had no idea that he would find himself, as he did on Wednesday, crammed in the back of an unmarked white van, terrified, being chased through the streets of Alabang, a city on the outskirts of Manila, by a group of armed men on motorcycles.

“And the situation only got more tense when the men surrounded the van, forcing it to pull over, and called in a SWAT team of heavily armed Philippine police officers.”

“It was like being in a movie–they were dressed all in black with masks and automatic rifles,” Dubnau recalled in an interview with Fortune. “At first they were demanding that we get out. One officer even hit the door with his gun. But we didn’t open up, we knew our rights.”

Fortune continues with the account: “Inside the van with Dubnau, an organizing coordinator at the Communications Workers of America union, were three visiting strikers from the United States. They were joined by representatives from a local call center workers group called BIEN Pilipinas, fellow local labor group Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), and the international telecommunications union Uni.

“To gain a little extra publicity for their cause, the group had tried to visit a Verizon office near one of the third-party call centers the company uses to handle some US customer service duties. Instead of just being ejected and told to go home, the group was followed by a private security group from the Verizon building and chased through the streets.

“After police arrived on the scene, as captured on phone videos viewed by Fortune, a local KMU representative got out of the van to negotiate a truce. Both sides agreed to go to the nearby District 3 police station in Alabang, where the matter was sorted out. Everyone was allowed to go home and the police filed no charges…

“The two unions involved, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, say they cannot accept Verizon proposals that would allow additional outsourcing of call center workers to the Philippines and Mexico, greater use of nonunion contractors, and the assignment of employees to other cities for up to two months at a time…

“In some ways, the call center employees in the Philippines, who work for third parties that contract with Verizon, are caught in the middle.

“They are paid less than $2 an hour in regular wages. After the strike began, they were required to work an additional shift— a sixth day per week—plus one to two extra hours of overtime on their normal shifts. But promised overtime pay covering the extra hours has not been forthcoming, according to BIEN. Some call center workers protested by intentionally slowing their work and by reaching out to the US strikers via the world’s most used social network, Facebook…

“The Facebook messages quickly escalated into a plan to meet in the Philippines and draw further attention to Verizon’s use of low-cost, outsourced labor.

“When the CWA representative and Verizon workers arrived in the Philippines this week, they participated in a rally on Wednesday outside one of the call center offices in Quezon City near Manila. After passing out leaflets and talking with the workers there, they headed off to the local Verizon headquarters where the confrontation became much more dangerous…”

I imagine our local BPO industry is being a little complacent about keeping their people happy. They pay more than most local companies in other industries. But it seems there may just be some exploitation issues to be addressed.

It is distressing our bureaucrats at DOLE are less alert to a budding problem in the call center industry than the KMU. Once KMU is done “politicizing” the leaders of those incipient workers unions in the BPO industry, it is just a matter of time before this leg of our economy gets seriously fractured.

We only need one disgruntled group of workers contracted by Verizon “politicized” by KMU for the word to spread about labor militancy here and cripple the industry. That reality, plus the recent offer of Duterte to give the labor portfolio to the Communist Party of the Philippines, should scare investors and BPO clients.

I don’t blame the KMU for doing their mission for being. I blame the Verizon contractors for not treating their workers well and the Labor department for sleeping on the job. I wonder if Mr. Duterte knows what he is doing by offering to entrust the Labor department to a group out to kill private business.

For now, we only got caught in the middle of a labor dispute at Verizon, but exploitation of Filipino call center agents was exposed and the Labor department has been clueless about it.

At a time when our OFWs are starting to have problems renewing contracts because of difficult economic situations in their host countries, we cannot afford to have problems in the BPO sector. It is time to nip this problem in the bud.

BPO operators may think they are paying their people enough and figure they can abuse them a bit now and then by asking them to work overtime and additional shifts and forget to pay them. But the KMU is not sleeping. KMU thrives in discontent. KMU thrives in workplaces where workers feel they are abused.

Treat your workers well and the country can continue to benefit from this industry, one of only two legs sustaining our economy during these turbulent times. It will also help if the new administration vets their Cabinet choices more transparently and not make worries about change become decisions to not invest.

By example

Now that incoming President Duterte is setting the example for simple and effective leadership, maybe he should require his new DOTC Secretary to ride the MRT3 during rush hours every day until he solves the problem.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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