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Inside BPO call centres: Uncertainty looms - Politicians' hopes of boosting employment through call centres could flop

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 12:00 AMAndre Poyser and Jovan Johnson
Minister of Energy, Science and Technology Dr Andrew Wheatley collecting his Instrument of Office from Governor General Sir Patrck Allen.
Davon Crump: The attrition in Jamaica is relatively low compared to United States.

During the recent election campaign period, both the then governing People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) pointed to the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector as an area which would provide thousands of jobs over the next five years.

The JLP had promised that the sector would deliver 75,000 jobs while the PNP said BPOs would provide a big portion of the 100,000 jobs it expected to be created over five years if it was returned to power.

But now, industry sources are warning that even if the sector provides some jobs, high turnover, low wages and issues of security of tenure could rob them of some of their lustre.

These are issues of concern for Dr Andrew Wheatley, the country's new minister of energy, science and technology.

Wheatley told The Sunday Gleaner that he is concerned about the security of tenure of BPO call centre jobs and what some say is a high attrition rate in the sector.

"We have noticed that there is a high attrition rate. We cannot deny that so we need to examine what are the reasons why we have a high attrition rate. Is it the attrition rate for persons moving from one company to another company or is it that persons are leaving the sector completely? So we will need to examine it," said Wheatley.

While he welcomes the jobs created by the BPO sector, Wheatley said steps need to be taken to ensure that labour conditions are suitable.

"We need to ensure that the overall conditions are such that they encourage investment and more BPOs coming into Jamaica, but also now on the flip side for Jamaicans being employed, we have to also ensure that the work conditions are such that they stay in the industry, and that we improve the relationship with them and the BPOs," added Wheatley.

The new minister, who shadowed the sector while in opposition, said he will be meeting with Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Karl Samuda to look at the issues facing the industry.


Short-term contracts


Trade unionist and government senator Lambert Brown has alleged that some players in the sector use short-term contracts to keep workers in check.

According to Brown, in this way the workers are reluctant to join unions for fear that their contracts may not be renewed.

But one call centre operator argued that Jamaica's attrition rate in the BPO sector is low in comparison to other countries.

"Globally, BPO attracts a large percentage of young people who are at the start of their career. For some of them, it is a transition job until they go on to college or university. The attrition in Jamaica (average about 15 per cent-20 per cent) is relatively low compared to United States and several other countries where it is in the high 80s.

"Some companies have attrition as low as two per cent on some projects within particular companies as well," said Davon Crump, president of Global Outsourcing Solution, in an emailed response to our news team.

Crump also responded to concerns about short-term contracts.

"Different companies have different benefits, some projects are short-term projects and the agents are hired on that basis. However, if a project is temporary, once that particular project is completed we usually place the agents on other projects that are available and on projects that our HR thinks would be a motivational fit for that employee.

"However, most client contracts are on a three-year basis and are usually renewed at the end of the contract, considering all things well. We employ agents on a permanent basis with the usual probationary 90-day period," added Crump.

He pointed out that employees are afforded medical, meal and transportation benefits after a three-month probationary period.

Keith Graham, who operates FullGram International Contact Centres (FICC), also affirmed that security of tenure was the standard in the industry.

"There are call centres all over the place, registered or unregistered, hidden or clean, so I would not want anyone to use what their experience was at those other call centres because at FICC, after three months you are entitled to your full benefits," said Graham.