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Alleged ‘subhuman conditions’ in BPO to be checked

DOLE-7, Cebu City officials to deploy teams to check BPO firm if report's claim amid ECQ is true

By: Delta Dyrecka Letigio, Morexette Marie Erram - Reporters/CDN Digital | April 03,2020 - 07:30 AM
Cebu City is one of the centers of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Central Visayas. | via Google Maps

Cebu City is one of the centers of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Central Visayas. | via Google Maps

CEBU CITY, Philippines — Government officials in Cebu are now checking reports alleging that workers of a business process outsourcing (BPO) company operating in Cebu City have endured poor living conditions — a story that has reached international attention.

This developed after the Financial Times (FT), an international news organization, published a story on Thursday, April 2, 2020, reporting that several call center agents in Cebu City had been suffering from ‘subhuman conditions’ inside their offices.

The report was referring to the customer support service staff of Amazon’s Ring subsidiary, which is managed by a BPO operating in Cebu City.

Ring is the tech giant’s popular camera system.

Salome Siaton, director of the Department of Labor and Employment in Central Visayas (DOLE – 7), said they would be deploying a team to inspect the BPO office on Friday, April 3, 2020.

“What we received right now is information. So, we have to validate this (and) at the same time do an inspection to see if this is COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019)-related,” said Siaton in a phone interview with CDN Digital.

“Because if the reports are true, these (will) mean (that) the BPO should follow certain protocols for letting their workers camp there,” she added.

CHD, CDRRMO tapped

Councilor Eduardo Rama Jr., for his part, also asked the City Health Department (CHD) and the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (CDRRMO) to check on the conditions of the firm’s office and their call center agents.

Rama, who sits as the council’s chairperson of the committee on information and technology, told CDN Digital that this report is alarming especially since number of positive COVID-19 cases in the city is increasing, which is now at 21.

Results of the CDRRMO’s investigations would be released by the CHD, said CDRRMO Chief Harold Alcontin in a separate interview.

“If it were up to me, these kinds of practices should be put to a stop. I will also contact DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) to investigate the situation as soon as possible,” said Rama in a separate phone interview with CDN Digital.

CDN Digital has contacted the BPO firm in question, and will not disclose its name until an official statement from their authorized representative will be made.

ECQ, protocols

According to Siaton, offices that have continued to operate amid the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) must comply with several measures that have been laid down by the national government to ensure the welfare of their workers.

“We’re talking about a workplace wherein the arrangement is that workers are allowed to stay in. So this means, the company must abide by occupation health and safety standards,” added Siaton.

Read more: BPOs told: Submit contingency plans for employees

Meanwhile, Cebu City Vice Mayor Michael Rama, the chairperson of the council’s committee on health, told CDN Digital that such incidents could have been prevented if the city had not exempted them from the ECQ.

He said the exemptions granted for the BPO prompted difficult decisions for firms, leading to the subhuman conditions experienced by some employees today.

Read more: Businesses, hotels to be closed when Cebu City goes into ‘lockdown’

He encouraged Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella to stop the operations of the BPO so that the employees could go home and stay safe in their homes.

“Mao na primero natong buhaton (That is the first thing we should do) — to appeal to the principal business owners to provide compensation or subsidy to their employees during the ECQ,” said Rama.

The vice mayor also asked Labella to find an immediate solution to the BPO employees’ problem because these companies were the leading industries keeping the city’s economy afloat.

Living in the office

Images published by FT showed workers sleeping on the floor with meager sleeping mats, one of them even sleeping on the treadmill of the office.

The workers are also seen crowding with no regard for social distancing.

The report also reached the attention of UNI Global Union, one of the world’s largest labor groups representing workers from the skills and services industries such as BPOs.

In a tweet, UNI Global Union General Secretary Christy Hoffman tagged the BPO company and stated that workers clinging to their jobs have to crowd and sleep on their office’s floor.

Meanwhile, a worker of the BPO company confirmed to CDN Digital that many of their workers had been living in the office since the ECQ was implemented in Cebu City on March 28, 2020.

The worker who asked for anonymity for his/her protection since the company allegedly prohibited them to talk to the media.

According to the FT report, employees may be penalized for talking to the media or sharing information about their work and cited a confidentiality agreement which could make an employee liable to damages for breaking it.

Meanwhile, the worker said they had been given a chance to work at home, but only if their internet speed could reach up to 60 to 100 megabits per second (mbps) — something that would be expensive for middle-class earners.

Many of the workers chose to live at the office because this was convenient, and that most of them could not afford to install high-speed internet cables in their residences.

“Foam ray gihatag, wala ganiy habol. (They only gave out foam mattresses. They did not even gave us blankets),” said the worker, who also expressed disappointment because they were promised decent accommodations.

However, another employee told CDN Digital that the report might have been ‘sensationalized’ because although the workers were indeed staying in the office, they were “comfortable and safe.”

The employee said their BPO company had ensured that health measures had been put up to fight the pandemic./dbs

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