Philippines: a Magna Carta for call centre workers


The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines is a key driver of growth with US$15.5 billion in revenues last year, but the high attrition rate of workers at 30 per cent annually paints a grim picture of the so-called ‘sunshine industry.’

According to the latest figures, Manila is now the world’s second biggest outsourcing destination next to Bangalore, India. But the industry’s robust growth – with projected revenues of US$25 billion by 2016 –does not reflect the situation facing call centre workers, according to Philippine Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago.

“We cannot truly boast of our BPO industry to the world if it does not comply with the most basic international labor standards,” Santiago said in a statement.

In July 2013, Santiago filed Senate Bill 57 or the Magna Carta for Call Center Workers to enforce the right of call centre workers to organise and join labour unions. The bill aims to appoint labour officers to implement the Magna Carta provisions and assist BPO employees facing violation of contracts.

The proposed law will also protect the health of call centre workers, particularly as 42.6 per cent of them work overnight, according to an ILO study.

Serious health risks

The number of call centre workers in the Philippines reached 900,000 in 2013 and is expected to increase to 1.3 million by 2016, according to the IT Business Process Association of the Philippines.

The Philippines is favoured by US, British and other European companies as the country has a well-educated, English-speaking workforce which is willing to take on night work in order to match the client’s hours of business.

Call centre work is popular with new graduates who cannot find work in their relevant fields of study. The pay is significantly better than other work available for young graduates – as much as double according to the ILO.

However, call centre workers face serious health risks, ranging from stress caused by the high-pressure environment, to sleep disorders.

Sonny Matula, president of the Federation for Free Workers (FFW), supports the bill’s passage but admits that he currently faces difficulty in organising call centre workers as many fear losing jobs if they form or join unions.

Ian Porquia, president of BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) said the Magna Carta must be passed as it challenges claims by BPO companies that they are covered by the Special Economic Zones Act of 1995 where employees are banned from forming and organising unions.

But Matula says the growing health problems suffered by call centre workers needs urgent attention. As well as sleep problems and fatigue, says the ILO study, workers also suffer from insomnia, eye strain, neck, shoulder and back pains and throat problems.

Matula also points to lifestyle-related diseases such as drug addiction and respiratory diseases linked to excessive smoking.

As mentioned, the salary for call centre workers is higher than the currently minimum daily wage of 466 pesos (US$10.5) or 9320 pesos (US$211.8) a month in capital.

Starting salaries in the BPO industry range from 12,000 pesos (US$272) to 15,000 pesos (US$340) a month, according to BIEN figures.

Those who work for a maximum of extra two hours get 3,000 pesos (US$68) to 5,000 pesos (US$113) overtime pay a month.

Decent work?

But Matula says higher salaries do not translate into decent work.

“Decent work is not only about salaries. It also talks of working conditions, the right to unionise, the right to social protection and the right to social dialogue. These aspects are not well covered,” Matula told Equal Times.

He said call centre workers are covered by the rules of the Occupational Safety and Health Center of the labour department to work night shifts for maximum of two weeks and daytime shift for the following two weeks.

However, call centre companies fail to comply with this law, according to the FFW.

Most BPO companies that offer higher salaries require employees to work night shifts without any option to work day shifts.

The ILO Night Work Convention of 1990 also calls for the health assessment for night workers at regular intervals to reduce or avoid health problems.

Michael (not his real name) is 32 and works as a call centre agent in Manila. In the last 10 years he has gained close to 31.7 kilos (70 pounds) and now weighs 122.47 kilos (270 lbs).

Michael suffers from frequent coughs, colds and flu, and often takes non-prescriptive drugs so that he can continue to go to work. He only went to see a doctor when he had a bad ear infection.

Call centre agents often get ear infections because of dirty headsets. They also get acoustic shock caused by the shouting of rude callers and electrical feedback.

“When I feel sleepy and tired, I eat a lot to keep me awake,” says Michael as a way of explanation for his poor health.

His body clock has also changed as he works from 20.00 to 05.00 and sleeps from 09.00 until 17.00.

Michael says he hopes the Magna Carta will improve working conditions, but concedes that many workers fear joining unions because at his company, it is grounds for dismissal. “The employment contract clearly states call center employees must not join or form unions,” says Michael.

“Our managers even get paranoid when we are gathered in a group of three or five people. They usually sneak in during our breaks and ask what we were talking about,” he says.

“We fully support the bill as it is intended to protect our health and welfare. But I also hope it will make us brave enough to speak up for ourselves.”