QUEZON CITY, Philippines — To his seven children, Glen Palaje was a jack of all trades: carpenter, cook, musician. His colleagues called him “Dad” because he was the oldest member of a call center team that dealt with 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. He collapsed the weekend before he was allowed to start remote work. After a mad rush to the hospital at midnight, his daughter Marigold Palaje said that he was declared dead upon 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 their spread. According to reports to the Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees Network (BIEN), and interviews with agents, there are dark sides to this highly sought-after career among Filipinos. From poorly ventilated offices, which became hotbeds for viruses, to workers who find themselves in financial ruin.
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. According to city’s disease surveillance group, call centers were top locations for clusters that could be traced back to work places. Palaje’s relatives and a coworker, speaking under the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal, claim that Palaje contracted the virus while at work. However, it is difficult to prove this because there are not enough contact tracer and testing early.
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 didn’t respond to our request for comment.
BIEN estimates 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 Pena-Reyes, associate director of the Ateneo de Manila University Center for Economic Research and Development. Pena-Reyes urged employers for free and regular testing as well as humane, sanitary accommodation.
“I find it hard to believe that given what you are earning right now, you cannot devote resources to these,” Pena-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. She said that companies are not afraid of the consequences and officials only warn those who break rules to avoid repeating it.
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. Instead, he went to a smaller clinic. However, he didn’t get a coronavirus testing.
“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. Mel spoke under the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. She said that the company had reached almost its full capacity by July, in violation of regulations to prevent spread.
“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 any virus cases originated on-site. It stated that “Working from home” is still Tech Mahindra’s top priority in the current pandemic. However, it did not exclude work for essential services.
Maddy Thompson, a labor researcher at Britain’s Keele University, 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. He said that the most serious violation was when too many employees are present in the call center at one time.
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 was the head of the national contact tracing group and the mayor. He said that there were too many cases to warrant the establishment of an isolation center for call-center workers.
The call centers received a warning and were threatened with temporary closure. They explained their situation to us, but we were able to accept it. It was. . Magalong stated that they realized it could harm the company’s operations and reached a compromise. “The cases were reduced.”
The pandemic pushed the Philippines into recession, fueling record hunger and unemployment. According to Cruz of Quezon City’s surveillance unit, workers who refused to return for duty after being tested positive frequently cited financial reasons.
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. Marigold, his daughter said that workers fear being discovered to be sick and would be left behind if found.
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. On social media, colleagues still on site complained about the conditions of their work and how they were disinfected.
“If someone [tests] positive, the whole floor stops,” said Banate, who declined to name his former employer. Those who have exhausted their leaves were not paid.
The Labor Department said it inspected some 200 outsourcing establishments last year but did not provide data on sanctions. According to Assistant Secretary Maria Teresita Cucueco, affected workers can be eligible for compensation. However, the burden of proof rests with them.
For Palaje’s family, obtaining such aid would be difficult as they were unable to detect the virus early on. Funeral costs were covered by the financial assistance provided by the company as well as social welfare services.
A year after his death, Palaje’s absence is felt in the family home. The roof has leaked due to Typhoon Damage, something Palaje would normally have done. They cannot afford an urn so the family keeps his ashes in a chest close to where he planned to build a home office.
Marigold had considered following her father into the call-center 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. The family ate the instant noodles and oatmeal they packed for Palaje. They found the veteran award for longest tenure in their locker.