UNI Global Union affiliates from France to the Philippines and Bangladesh to Brazil, gathered in Antwerp, Belgium, this week to put forward a workers’ agenda for the radically changing nature of the contact centre industry and the physical and mental health risks of remote work.
Around 120 participants from UNI ICTS affiliates in 26 countries assembled for the Organizing for Change at Contact Centres conference from 27 to 29 September, hosted by Belgian affiliate union ACV-PULS.
The global contact centre industry, which includes workers involved in providing customer support, content moderation and other remote services is worth around US$90 billion* and is growing by three to five per cent a year.
Since, the Covid-19 pandemic the trend towards remote work in the sector has exploded. Associate Professor Jimena Botero-Sarassa from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia, presented highlights from a UNI-commissioned report which provides a global overview of the impact of remote work through analysing 32 worker studies in 29 countries.
“We found enormous discrepancies between working conditions in the office and working conditions in the home. Legislation needs to catch up to protect remote workers,” said Botero-Sarassa. The report will be issued in the coming weeks.
Excessive surveillance either in the office or of those working remotely is a hallmark of the contact centre industry. In addition, the increasing use of artificial intelligence is driving down wages:
“Algorithms won’t take your jobs, they’ll take your salary,” said Professor Adrian Todoli Signes who said that AI enables companies to reduce recruitment costs, monitor performance so closely that they can manage workers with threats instead of incentives, and find out who is more likely to join a union and fight for better wages and working conditions.
Barbora Černušáková, who spoke about call centre workers’ digital rights, advised trade unions to raise key questions about the worker information being collected by contact centre companies. For example, is it really necessary? Is it proportionate? What happens to biometric data collected about a workers’ physical characteristics and appearance? And fundamentally – is there worker consent?
Trade union leaders and organizers shared methods used to organize contact centre workers – and in particular remote workers, who are harder to contact and isolated from their peers.
UNI ICTS President and CWU deputy general secretary, Andy Kerr, said:
“This forum and the tools we have been given mark a turning point for our movement, getting to grips with the effect of working from home. It is the tangible evidence that shows what workers went through and continue to go through when they are working from home in a very unregulated industry. This forum will allow us to go forward and be proactive in our organizing efforts and our advocacy with employers and governments.”
The meeting was supported by FES foundation.
UNI Principles for Collective Bargaining to Advance Remote Workers’ Rights
Algorithmic Management – A Trade Union Guide
*Source: Everest Group (2021)