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Industry Research : BPO Workers Opt for Jobs Overseas
Health and work-quality issues are pushing Filipino workers to leave call centers in the Philippines for locations abroad in an apparent exodus that may hobble the business-process outsourcing (BPO) industry to meet its jobs target by 2016.
The night shift contributes to the attrition rate, since call-center agents look for countries nearer to time zones of clients in order to avoid working late in the evening and into early dawn, according to Executive Director Joselito Uligan of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines Inc. (CCAP).
Uligan told the BusinessMirror that the attrition rate of 9 percent to 10 percent that the Business Processing Association Philippines (BPAP) cited affects mostly the call-center sector.
In a recent forum, he said the attrition rate in the sector runs up to 18 percent of the current estimated 416,000 headcount. This means that the industry loses 18 employees for every 100 workers.
There are employees who go from one call center to another, Uligan added.
"But most of them leave for overseas destinations like Malaysia and Singapore," he said.
Since it began as a temporary answer to local unemployment in the 1970s, the country’s labor-export phenomenon has witnessed a horde of Filipino workers departing from the Philippines, with an estimated 1.124 million of them leaving in 2010.
This was a 2.89-percent jump from the 1.092 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) recorded in 2009, based on latest government data.
The BPO industry, according to BPA/P, was able to generate only half that at roughly 600,000.
The $18.3-billion remittances from Filipinos abroad coursed through banks for the first eleven months of 2011 invites envy from the BPO industry, which, according to BPA/P, targets a $15-billion revenue by 2016.
For such target, BPA/P said it needs 1.1 million workers.
Uligan said the voice segment of the BPO industry remains the major source of growth, with the contact-center sector overshooting its target of 20 percent for last year. He also told the BusinessMirror that CCAP aims to grow between 15 percent and 20 percent for 2012.
"We’re happy to grow at that level, especially since it’s better to over-deliver than over-promise," Uligan said.
He added that this has been a trend in the contact-center industry, which grew 23 percent in 2010 and 21 percent in 2011.
The industry was able to generate between 80,000 and 100,000 new jobs, Uligan said.
The issue of quality of work continues to hound the contact-center sector and is one of the factors that push employees out of the work site.
Uligan said health issues are not unique to call centers but cuts across all industries.
In a study on "shift work" by Jingky Lozano-Kühne, et al., of the University of Oxford Department of Public Health, "aside from the BPO industry, establishments such as hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, entertainment businesses, security agencies, transport establishments and health-care industries also employ a lot of shift workers."
Citing the BPA/P, the study said shift-work schedule in the Philippine BPO industry is generally divided into "morning" and "mid" shifts. The morning shift typically starts before 12 noon for regular office functions of the company related, for example, to human resources and also for Australia/New Zealand client support. The mid shift "typically starts between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. and for UK client support. The "night" shift begins after 3 p.m. and is aimed to support clients in the United States.
The Oxford study cited several studies by the Philippine government’s Occupational Safety and Health Center that said health complaints concerning the eyes, cough, voice disorders and insomnia are common in call centers.
"An increase in shift length and more work days [i.e., 6:1 work: rest ratio] both increased the probability of workers’ health complaints. Not only the health of the workers but also their productivity is affected," it said.
Citing other studies, Lozano-Kühne’s said the "prevalence of insomnia [36 percent], restless leg syndrome [4 percent] and Obstructive Sleep Apnea [7.4 percent] among call-center workers were also observed."
"The prevalence of insomnia among call-center workers [36 percent] was significantly higher compared to the prevalence among regular office workers [10 percent]."
Diana Joy Romero of the Department of Labor and Employment’s occupational health and safety division also told the BusinessMirror that there is a study being conducted by the International Labor Organization on these health issues.
Still, she said stress and eye strain can be expected to run up higher on the list of health issues of call-center agents.
Romero spoke in the same press briefing that launched the CCAP sports and fitness program.
She also told the BusinessMirror that to further address health concerns, each contact center should have a clinic, with at least a first-aid kit, and a health and safety officer.
Those with hundreds of employees, Romero said, should provide a medical doctor for every 400 employees.
"They could hire a part-time doctor if they have fewer than that number of employees," she added.
Romero said the physician should also be available for every shift.
She added that a call center can have one or two of their employees trained in health and safety programs and get certified.
Romero said these companies could also dip their hands into the pool of surplus Filipino nurses in the country.
Uligan said health and well-being, while relative to how employers treat their workers, are on the topmost concerns of contact-center firms.
"This is the only industry where companies provide facilities like gym, spa, cafeteria, gaming rooms and even day-care centers. They even allow Facebook access. There’re a lot of things we provide to our people than other companies in other industries don’t, won’t, can’t or couldn’t."
Uligan said that most call centers also require a supervisor for every 15 to 20 workers.
Also, he added, most companies "give a lot more" in terms of salaries and health-care benefits.
Uligan said the entry rate in the industry is between P16,000 and P18,000 that, on a 30-day work period, is nearly P200-more than the minimum wage rate of formal non-agriculture workers in the National Capital Region (NCR or Metro Manila) at P389 to P426 a day.
But according to him, CCAP cannot agree to another round of wage increases if it is across-the-board as proposed by some sectors in society.
"While Filipino call-center agents receive one of the highest compensation packages, we’re going to lose our competitive edge," Uligan said.
He added that China-based firms offer more but Filipino workers have an advantage because of their English-speaking skills.
Still, he said the better package also lures Filipino workers to migrate to China and other countries.
Henry Schumacher, European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines (ECCP) vice president for external affairs, agreed, saying in the same press conference that a wage hike would curtail the BPO sector’s target of generating more jobs.
"Speaking as ECCP, I don’t think we can accept a wage increase across-the-board, across the industry. We should be more concerned on getting more people employed than overfeeding those who already have a job," he said.
But Noel Valencia of the nonprofit Kanlungan Center Foundation Inc. said increasing wages is the least of the concerns of the BPO industry.
The sustainability of the Philippine economy is, he added.
Valencia said in an interview that he agrees that health and safety issues are common.
"These are universal concerns of the Filipino working class, whether they’re in the formal or informal industry; whether they’re inside or outside of the workplace," he added.
Valencia said these workplace issues should be seen in the context of the quality of life of Filipino workers.
"They still go home to a community that’s beset by social ills. Some get to see houses of neighbors whose families receive remittances. They get to hear stories of how cosmopolitan life in other countries is. If they’re young, they’d have these dreams, too," he added.
Valencia said aside from health and safety concerns in workplaces, the government should also look into the factors that push Filipino talent out.
"The problem is systemically-tied to how highly-developed economies divide the structure of global labor. The BPO industry only feeds these economies’ demand. The Philippine government only feeds, and not stare directly at, the beast," he added.
Valencia said the government could help the BPO industry meet targets via development of the local economy. "When we say local, it’s really local, as in provinces and rural areas. I dream of a time when we have call centers catering to the local market."
Valencia said that when that time comes, the call-center industry will have employees who don’t cross international lines for work.
"They wouldn’t have reasons to do so."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Friday, March 30, 2012