The Washington Post Sunday
To help American customers, Filipinos put their lives on the line
Covid deaths among call-center workers put spotlight on billion-dollar industry
QUEZON CITY, PHILIPPINES — To his seven children, Glen Palaje was a jack of all trades: carpenter, cook, musician. To his colleagues, he was also “Dad,” the eldest on a team of call-center workers that handled queries from AT&T customers.
Palaje had spent eight years at Teleperformance, a business process outsourcing company. As the pandemic ravaged the Philippines last summer, he joined a team that worked and slept in the office.
Three days after he developed a cough, he was sent home, his daughter Marigold Palaje said. The weekend before he could begin remote work, he collapsed, and after a midnight rush to the hospital, was pronounced dead on arrival. A week went by before his relatives learned the cause of death: covid-19.
When Americans place calls to their banks, online retailers and telephone providers, many are answered by call-center workers in the Philippines, who number more than a million. Until August 2020, Palaje, 50, was one of them.
Conditions in the industry are facing scrutiny as advocates tally thousands of coronavirus cases and accuse companies and the government of not doing enough to stop them from spreading. Reports to the Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees’ Network, or BIEN, and interviews with agents paint a dark side to one of the most coveted careers among young Filipinos — from badly ventilated offices that became virus hotbeds, to workers plunged into financial precarity.
In Quezon City, where Palaje lived and worked, the local government found over 2,600 coronavirus cases and six deaths across 57 call centers this year. Call centers were the top venues among clusters traced to workplaces, according to the city’s disease surveillance unit. Palaje’s family and a colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, say he caught the virus at work. But a lack of contact tracing and early testing makes it difficult to prove.
In response to questions, Teleperformance did not directly address Palaje’s case, but a representative said the company had taken “all appropriate health measures” for its 47,000 employees in the Philippines, including free vaccinations. AT&T did not respond to a request for comment.
BIEN estimates that outbreaks in offices and work-related facilities such as shared dorms accounted for almost 1,000 virus cases across cities including Baguio, Cavite and Davao in the first half of this year.
Continued outbreaks suggest that “companies might be scrimping” on measures to protect workers, said Ser Percival Peña-Reyes, associate director of the Ateneo de Manila University Center for Economic Research and Development. He urged employers to provide free, regular testing, as well as humane and sanitary accommodations.
“I find it hard to believe that given what you are earning right now, you cannot devote resources to these,” Peña-Reyes said. Outsourcing revenue rose 1.4 percent to almost $27 billion last year, according to industry data.
Few companies have provided free testing for workers, said BIEN Vice President Sarah Prestoza, nor taken the government’s covid-19 protocols seriously. Companies are “not afraid” of consequences, she said, as officials simply warn rule breakers not to do it again.
In the absence of a coronavirus test provided by Teleperformance’s on-site clinic, Palaje avoided going to a hospital, fearing additional expenses and exposure to the virus, his family and the co-worker said. He went instead to a small clinic — but he never got a coronavirus test.
“Why didn’t the [office] clinic help him with a checkup, a swab?” said Palaje’s colleague. “If it weren’t for that neglect, daddy Glen wouldn’t have died.”
In one regional office of the outsourcing company Tech Mahindra, an employee said agents removed face masks and shields — a requirement in the Philippines — to breathe or unmuffle themselves on long calls. The employee, Mel, who spoke on the condition that they be identified only by a nickname because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said the company was operating at almost full capacity as of July, against regulations designed to prevent contagion.
“I feel like they don’t care that much,” said Mel, who recalled catching the virus after sitting near a coughing colleague and said a request to work from home after they were hospitalized was denied.
Tech Mahindra, in a statement, denied that any virus cases originated on-site. “Work from home continues to be our first priority during the pandemic, barring work on certain essential services,” it said.
Maddy Thompson, a labor researcher at Britain’s Keele Univer sity, said Filipino outsourcing workers “have been put at risk to avoid longer wait times for consumers.”
“Left unchecked, corporate responses to covid-19 will further heighten inequalities in an already unequal world,” she wrote in a London School of Economics blog post last year.
Companies working over capacity is a common concern, said Rolly Cruz of the Quezon City disease surveillance unit. “The most common violation is the sheer number of employees present at a particular work time in these call centers,” he said.
In Baguio City, where an outsourcing company doctor died after an office outbreak in March, hundreds of cases were traced to two major call centers where agents shared common dormitories. Benjamin Magalong, the mayor and head of a national contact tracing team, said there were so many asymptomatic cases that the city had to put up an isolation facility exclusively for call-center employees.
The call centers received a warning and were threatened with temporary closure. “But when they explained to us their situation . . . we saw that it would hurt the operations of the company, then we had a compromise,” Magalong said. “The cases were reduced.”
No work, no pay
The pandemic pushed the Philippines into recession, fueling record hunger and unemployment. Workers who continued to report for duty after testing positive often cited financial reasons, said Cruz, of the Quezon City surveillance unit. Palaje’s family said he downplayed his sickness at first, as he had maxed out his paid leave and could not afford to be absent. “The workers are afraid of being found to be sick — like they’d be abandoned if they were,” said his daughter Marigold.
In another call center in the same city, former agent Jeffrey Banate said that when some workers were let off duty at the beginning of lockdown, their paid leave was docked. Colleagues still working on-site complained on social media about sleeping on the floor and irregular disinfections.
“If someone [tests] positive, the whole floor stops,” said Banate, who declined to name his former employer. That meant those who had exhausted their leave went unpaid.
The country’s Labor Department said it inspected some 200 outsourcing establishments last year but did not provide data on sanctions. Affected workers are eligible for compensation, but “the burden of proof is really from the worker,” said Assistant Secretary Maria Teresita Cucueco.
For Palaje’s family, obtaining such aid would be difficult as they were unable to detect the virus early on. Financial assistance from the company and social welfare services went to funeral costs.
A year after his death, Palaje’s absence is felt in the family home. Typhoon damage has caused the roof to leak — something he typically would have fixed. The family cannot afford an urn, so they keep his ashes in a chest near a spot where he wanted to install a home office.
Marigold had considered following her father into the callcenter industry, but now she’s not so sure.
When Palaje’s family went to his office to collect his belongings, they found about $10 in change. They ate the oatmeal and instant noodles they had packed for him. And they found a certificate in his locker: a veteran award for the longest tenure.