Building Worker Solidarity Across Borders

Mayday Productions

BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) activists rally in Manila on November 30, 2018, for better working conditions in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry. (November 30, the anniversary of the birth of Andrés Bonifacio, a leader of the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonization, is traditionally a day for protests.) 

If you make a call to a customer service agency, say, because you’re having problems with your service provider—Comcast, perhaps, or AT&T—there’s a good chance you’ll be connected to a call center worker in the Philippines. You might not realize the worker is in the Philippines, and you likely don’t know that the Philippines has the largest number of call centers in the world, having taken the mantle from India in 2011.

There are actually more than one million call center workers in the Philippines, whose jobs exist because of a complicated web of global outsourcing and offshoring which benefits the bottom lines of multinational corporations. 

And if you are indeed talking with a Filipino worker, there is also a chance that, on the other end of the line, beyond the headset and the cubicle, workers are organizing to challenge some of the symptoms—low pay, union busting, bad working conditions—of this system of global capitalism.

 

AFTER BEING IN THE AIR for about 17 hours, labor activist Jane Siwa landed in Miami from the Philippines in early January for a U.S. call center workers conference coordinated by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which also invited Filipino call center workers and activists to attend. Siwa is the national coordinator of the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) in the Philippines. BIEN is trying to organize the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which includes workers—including those at call centers—employed by third-party vendors performing tasks for multinational corporations. Through such arrangements, companies like Comcast minimize their labor costs, avoid more stringent labor laws, and reap the benefits of a U.S. tax code that has lower rates on work done abroad than work performed in the States.

Siwa’s latest fight involves a U.S. company actively busting the union in one of BIEN’s call centers. There have been retaliatory firings, and the company pressed charges against organizers after a rally. 

“The [labor] situation in the Philippines is really dark,” Siwa tells me. The problem goes well beyond the authoritarian Duterte administration, to the systemic low pay and abuse of contractor labor. Monthly base pay for workers contracted with AT&T in the Philippines, for instance, is roughly between $281 to $361, according to a 2017 report from CWA, with figures gathered from the Filipino Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research. 

As the Prospect previously reported, under the Republicans’ 2017 tax reforms, income that corporations earn abroad is taxed at half the rate of income earned domestically. Even before the tax reform took effect, for a company like Comcast or AT&T, “Everything in the American economy has been set up in the last 50 years to move production offshore—and [you can] then separate yourself from any responsibility for the bad conditions of production,” says Erik Loomis, associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe. The subcontracting of work, he continues, “exists to protect corporations from any kind of responsibility for the workers—even though [the corporations] have tremendous power over these workers’ actual lived experience” and likely employ lawyers to ensure that workers’ efforts to unionize or win higher pay are unsuccessful.

“It’s like gravity—just moving the jobs wherever it’s cheapest and where rights can be trampled,” says Larry Cohen, the current board chair of Our Revolution and former president of CWA. He quotes the former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, who once said, “Ideally, you'd have every plant you own on a barge to move with currencies and changes in the economy.”

Many of the workers in the Philippines who answer calls from Comcast customers are not, for example, Comcast employees—they may well be Alorica employees instead. Alorica, a U.S. company with a subsidiary operating in the Philippines, is just one of several multinational companies operating call centers in the Philippines. Alorica employs about 40,000 people in the country, working as a third-party vendor to Comcast, AT&T, Barclays, and Citi, among others. Business is booming: Alorica Asia president Bong Borja told the Philippines’ ABS-CBN news network that the company’s growth in 2018 outperformed that of the Filipino economy. As they’re not sharing in that bounty, in 2015 Alorica employees at one call center formed a union, the Unified Employees of Alorica (UEA), which was recognized by the Filipino government. Since then, however, Alorica has refused to recognize the union and has made repeated attempts to undermine it.

One reason the workers formed UEA was the company’s attendance system, which penalizes workers even when absences are due to medical issues. This is a business strategy: According to an article on Alorica by Michael Sainato in The Guardian, “By firing workers on a regular basis, the outsourcing companies are able to replace them with even cheaper labor, while the [fired] worker has to find a job at another call center where they start over at entry level wages. As a result, the new call center receives an entry-level employee with the training and experience of a senior employee.”

Last September UEA filed a notice of strike. Three days later, the secretary-general of the union was terminated, and firings of other union officials followed. Alorica management also filed criminal charges against several other union leaders and BIEN activists following a protest rally later that month. Siwa herself was charged with “malicious mischief” for streaming video of the event via Facebook Live. Her case is pending.

As of yet, UEA has not begun to strike.

Within the BPO industry in the Philippines, there are no other unions besides UEA, Shane Larson, legislative director at CWA, tells the Prospect

“And [the industry] is very proud of it,” Siwa adds. 

 

FILIPINO CALL CENTER WORKERS are not organizing alone. CWA has a history of working with communications workers around the world—indeed, call center workers make up the biggest portion of the union. CWA brought the Filipino call center workers to Miami, and they brought Siwa to Washington. 

“These companies are trying to pit us against each other,” Larson says, which only reinforces that “these workers are not the enemy—we have a common enemy, so we’ve been really focused on continuing to develop the relationship with BIEN.” 

Putting the focus on old-school protectionism—only emphasizing protecting American middle-class jobs—can “bleed into xenophobia very quickly,” says Loomis. CWA’s strategy is different. Of course, the union focuses on preserving its members’ jobs in the U.S., but it also has provided material support to the workers in the Philippines and campaign support for their union.

This support has gone both ways. In 2015, during the U.S. Verizon worker strike, CWA brought American workers to the Philippines to meet with workers there. The Filipino workers took the CWA delegation to show them one of the call centers—and the company greeted them with armed security guards, who also called a SWAT team. Workers from both countries were detained at gunpoint.

This September, CWA President Chris Shelton made a video addressed to UEA workers in which he recalled how Filipino call center workers stood with American workers during their Verizon strike, and promised that “We will stand with you when your fight against Alorica has to take to the streets.”

Cohen says that bringing Americans to meet foreign call center workers in their home countries, and vice versa, is one way that unions can try to build solidarity across borders. Global solidarity, he adds, is essential in an industry where “the work gets moved at the flip of a switch—not even a switch, a keystroke on a computer.”

Larson says that CWA has put pressure on companies doing work overseas. Because CWA has what Larson describes as “a working relationship” with AT&T, when AT&T vendor Teleperformance attempted to bust a new union of call center workers in the Dominican Republic, Shelton reached out directly to AT&T’s CEO. Teleperformance backed off.

CWA, which is also working with the AFL-CIO on this campaign, is currently preparing letters to Comcast, AT&T, and Alorica to address the similar situation now happening in the Philippines. 

While Comcast, which is the biggest client of the unionized call center, did not return a Prospect request for comment, an AT&T spokesperson expressed confusion in an email to the Prospect that AT&T would be implicated, since it does not contract with Alorica at the call center in question, even though it contracts with Alorica at other call centers across the Philippines.

“This kind of response from AT&T is not surprising,” says Loomis, who adds that it reflects “an opaque system that protects AT&T even though AT&T benefits from [the subcontracting system] every day.”

CWA’s Larson notes that AT&T is the only wireless provider in the U.S. that utilizes bargaining and card check, and therefore has contracts with a number of unions, a fact which the company publicly celebrates. When it comes to the company’s contractors, he adds, “They should ensure their contractors are living up to those standards as well. It’s kind of hypocritical for them to be using a contractor that’s this aggressively anti-union.”

But the system of outsourcing and subcontracting is designed to enable the global companies that depend on it to evade responsibility for its problems. The problem is compounded when the offshored work doesn’t produce a tangible product. 

“It’s harder to do with a call center than with somewhere [branded] like Gap,” says Cohen. With Gap, “You can show up at the store, say ‘These are sweatshop clothes! Workers have died, what are you going to do?!' ”

Even so, consider the aftermath of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,130 workers and injured 2,500 more. Walmart was one of the companies that had clothes made in the factory, though it initially denied this—many companies were only implicated when their clothing tags were found amid the rubble. But the consumer backlash against Walmart was minimal at best, and many American companies did little to ensure that any kind of reform that would actually improve worker safety would be adopted and enforced.

 

“IN THE LONG-TERM, we should be creating legal accountability for companies like Comcast,” Loomis says. “But in the short-term … whether it’s picketing in front of the Comcast building, people doing media campaigns against Comcast … we can do more to publicize what’s going on—to make Comcast sweat a bit.”

What we really need to make this issue prominent, according to Loomis, is a left vision for trade—and politicians to push it. There’s a tendency for the most progressive politicians on trade—Senators like Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders—to “fall back on old ideas of protectionism instead of new ideas of global solidarity,” which Loomis says really reflects “a failure of the left broadly to put new ideas in front of them.” 

Loomis proposes what he calls a “Corporate Accountability Act” that holds companies accountable to human rights standards wherever they do business—and would also apply to these companies’ contractors throughout their supply chain. He also says that we should open up American courts to foreign workers to sue American companies if they violate these standards.

Following the Miami conference, Siwa traveled to Washington to meet with lawmakers about what could be done to keep American companies from abusing workers’ rights, whether directly or through their contractors. Siwa and Larson spoke with the Democratic staff on the Education and Labor Committee about pursuing something like France’s due diligence law, which requires French multinational companies to abide by French law globally and to warrant that their contractors do as well. Loomis’s proposal to open American courts to foreign workers could ensure actual enforcement of such a law.

Cohen believes that politicians like Sanders would certainly support laws holding multinational corporations accountable. But the issue isn’t on the public’s, or even the left’s, agenda.  

“You look at what life is like here for working-class people, and it’s hard to imagine supply-chain bargaining,” Cohen says. Political pressure to change the trade system should come from unions, he adds, but “if anyone expects unions in this country, at this state, after collective bargaining rights have been destroyed here, to lead that fight—it’s not realistic.” 

And yet the consequences of global capitalism aren’t mysterious—they’re being felt all over the U.S.

Siwa says that what she learned at the call center conference was “how common the issues are [regarding] the complex manner of how [corporations] attack your rights,” even across borders. Despite all the challenges, the kind of global solidarity that CWA is trying to build holds opportunities for call center workers to organize internationally. 

In spite of the difficult situation for the Philippines’ first call center union, she says those opportunities are “where hope is.”

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