Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | BPO growth at what expense?

Published:Thursday | February 23, 2017 | 2:00 AM

It baffles me how deafeningly silent we are about the complaints of persons employed in one of the 55 call centres and business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in Jamaica. They often lament that they are paid low wages, treated inhumanely, dismissed without good reason, and that they are forced to work long hours to take home a 'decent' salary, among other things.

I don't know the extent to which these claims are true, but I am inclined to believe them because of an ad by JAMPRO in FDI Supplement which states that individuals in Jamaica are paid up to 60 per cent less than in North America, and a survey among companies in 2014 which revealed that nearly 40 per cent of them (BPOs) lose between 30 and 60 per cent of their staff.

The industry, like tourism, seems to be the panacea to our development (at least that's how our Government behaves). There seems to be nary a concern, except among the young people who have no other option but to seek refuge in one of them for 'gainful' employment - or stay home. I know a few who would rather stay home than subject themselves to working in a call centre.

The Ministry of Labour & Social Security (2015), in a report - Labour Market Trends and Prospects for Employment Opportunities in Jamaica - highlights that a 'BPO is a business practice which involves contracting the operations and responsibilities of a specific business process to a third-party service provider'. The services offered by BPOs are quite expansive. However, 'the local BPO Industry is structured around front office services or predominantly call or contact centres,' according to a 2014 BPO sector study by HEART Trust-NTA.

 

LOW WAGES

 

What frightens me is the ease with which parliamentarians and successive governments boast about the growth in the sector despite the very low wages. I spoke out about this some time ago and was accosted by a member of parliament who felt it necessary to apprise me that we have used low-paying jobs to attract a number of investments to the country. I'm not quite sure that that is anything to be proud of. This is especially so when you juxtapose the low salaries against their profitability.

JAMPRO reports that the ICT/BPO sector boast the highest employment growth rate of any sector in the last 10 years (no surprise there), and there was an estimated US$323 million spent in the ICT/BPO sector in 2016. In 2011, there were 12,000 persons employed in the sector and by the end of 2016, that number climbed to 22,000. It is expected that 30,000 people will be employed in the sector within the next five years. What is the point, though, of creating jobs that do not enable people to significantly improve their livelihood and well-being?

Why are we so unwilling to discuss these issues? Is it that we are afraid that any attempt to investigate these claims and/or challenge employers to pay better salaries and treat their staff humanely would impact the $41 billion being spent in the sector?

I believe there are assessments and innumerable tweets and posts on Twitter and Facebook to at least warrant a national conversation about a sector which is so critical to successive government's efforts to grow the economy. I've seen people online, having worked in a few in recent years, talking about which companies are among the worst.

One would think we would be a little more open to such discourse given the vast number of Jamaicans, including university graduates, who must rely on these job opportunities for employment. How can someone take care of themselves and their family, repay their student loan, or save for rainy day if they are barely being paid anything? Something must be done.

Sadly, as Dr Dayton Campbell said last year, "The rights of employed persons in Jamaica are safeguarded in a piecemeal fashion by a kaleidoscope of laws which, unfortunately, has gaps and loopholes in protection." Hopefully, at some point, Parliament will set aside some time to talk about workers' rights and economic justice and security, rather than squabble and heckle each other.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.