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Why U.S. and Filipino Call Center Workers Are Working Together

The only winners in this global race-to-the-bottom are corporate executives and wealthy investors.

 Sarah Prestoza and Brenda Roberts (4th and 5th individuals in the picture from Left to Right) on a CWA delegation trip to the Philippines. (Photo: Courtesy of CWA)

Sarah Prestoza and Brenda Roberts (4th and 5th individuals in the picture from Left to Right) on a CWA delegation trip to the Philippines. (Photo: Courtesy of CWA)

It’s easy to see what happens to U.S. communities when companies ship jobs overseas—working families struggle, local businesses close, and local governments lack the resources to provide key services. The impact on overseas workers can be just as harmful. Look at an industry that both of us know well: the global call center industry, known as the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector in corporate jargon.

Corporations have contracted with multinational BPO operators to offshore hundreds of thousands of call center jobs to countries such as the Philippines in recent years, where a BPO workforce of 1.3 million largely serves the U.S. market. There, companies take advantage of weak worker protections to keep wages low, conditions sub-standard, and to prevent workers from joining together to fight for change.

To change this model and in recognition that corporations are transnational, unions and workers’ advocates must embrace a new global model of organizing and strengthen worker solidarity across borders.

The only winners in this global race-to-the-bottom are corporate executives and wealthy investors. To change this model and in recognition that corporations are transnational, unions and workers’ advocates must embrace a new global model of organizing and strengthen worker solidarity across borders.

Both of us were proud to build this solidarity through a delegation of U.S. call center workers from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) who recently traveled to the Philippines. During the visit, U.S. CWA members from AT&T and Verizon and Filipino members of the Unified Employees of Alorica (UEA) discussed common concerns about job security and forced overtime. Alorica, whose headquarters are in Irvine, CA, employs more than 40,000 Filipinos who provide outsourced customer service for U.S. companies like AT&T and Citi. The Filipino workers described a climate of hostility to unions that has allowed Alorica to fire dozens of union supporters and bring trumped up criminal charges against Sarah and other union officers, just for holding a protest outside an Alorica office. 

The hostility to workers’ rights in the Philippines extends outside the workplace as well. The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has engaged in ongoing retaliation against union organizers, most recently in the unlawful early November raids and mass-arrests of nearly 60 progressives and trade unionists in the Bacolod region by military police. Witnesses to one of the raids report that police planted two pistols and eight bullets as a pretext to arrest union organizer and journalist  Anne Krueger. Anne and her husband Mike are longtime activists for BPO workers’ rights, and they even hosted CWA members visiting the country during the 2016 Verizon strike.

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It’s the latest reminder of ongoing efforts to silence those seeking to improve the lives and conditions of Filipino workers and a reminder of some of the real consequences inherent in the corporate outsourcing model. Multinational corporations operating in the massive BPO industry in the Philippines and BPO operators such as Alorica should use their voices to speak out against the climate of fear and retaliation targeting workers that is on the rise in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, to rein in the harms of offshoring and outsourcing, global trade policy should empower cross-border collective bargaining to strengthen workers’ capabilities to negotiate jointly with multinational employers, while policymakers should pass anti-offshoring legislation in the U.S. and a “BPO workers bill of rights” in the Philippines.

But to make real and lasting change, we must fully recognize the shared interests between working people in the U.S. and offshoring hub countries such as the Philippines and reject the idea that for some of us to succeed, others must fail.

From the perspective of Filipino workers, there is a belief in our common interests and the need to support U.S. workers who are fighting for their jobs, especially when we work for the same companies. Alorica workers are standing with AT&T workers, just as U.S. union members have supported the rights of Filipino workers to form a union and now stand with Anne Krueger, her families, and others unlawfully arrested for trying to improve workers’ lives. The urgency for our solidarity building is real, as AT&T has eliminated nearly 3,000 U.S. call center jobs in the past two years, while relying on vendors like Alorica..

Employees on both sides of the offshoring equation are in the same fight and have much in common—the same struggles, the same workplace concerns, and even the same types of stories about memorable customer calls. It’s time to reject efforts to pit workers against each other and to embrace and build on our common interests.

Brenda Roberts

Brenda Roberts

Brenda Roberts is Vice President of Communications Workers of America District 7 and Chair of CWA’s Customer Service Program

Sarah Prestoza

Sarah Prestoza

Sarah Prestoza is the President of the Unified Employees of Alorica.

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