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No BPO unions - Insider warns of mass exodus of outsourcing firms should workers be unionised

Published:Tuesday | October 20, 2020 | 12:12 AMMark Titus/Staff Reporter
John Levy, general secretary of UCASE.
John Levy, general secretary of UCASE.
Gloria Henry, president of the Global Services Association of Jamaica.
Gloria Henry, president of the Global Services Association of Jamaica.

Trade unionist John Levy is hoping to break down the resistance from operators in the global services sector to have union representation within their firms, pointing out that several government and private-sector entities have scuppered attempts to establish formal arrangements to protect the rights of the workers.

“We have no connection with the outsourcing sector at this time,” Levy, the general secretary of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees (UCASE), told The Gleaner. “It is a major challenge because they have been using fixed-term contracts as a weapon.”

Fixed-term contracts are subject to renewal or extension at the sole discretion of the employer, and the union executive believes that such an arrangement creates an inequality in bargaining, especially in a market like Jamaica’s, where the supply of labour is greater than the demand.

“It is more skewed in the employers’ favour and they have taken very good advantage of that, and they have also looked at the labour laws and have creatively applied loopholes to avoid certain responsibilities,” he charged.

Other employers pushing back

However, Levy was quick to point out that the outsourcing sector was not the only employers pushing back unionisation.

“The concern is that it is becoming a trend for firms who offer fixed-term contracts. The private sector and even government agencies have started this practice,” the UCASE executive said.

A player with vast experience in the global services sector – formerly referred to as business process outsourcing, or BPO, sector – told The Gleaner that any attempt to unionise the work pool would result in an exodus of the clients to other destinations.

“Any sort of governing of the sector would see a mass pull-out. That I can assure you,” said the operator, who did not wish to be named. “The clients want to be able to do things in the way they conduct business in their country.”

The BPO operator said that several things would have to be fixed before the sector could countenance such a move, chief of which is the how the labour ministry handles complaints against employers.

“There is no proper investigation, and the expectation of the labour board is that you have to stop all you are doing and find their office to answer to what you, as the employer, is accused of; and if I cannot make it, I might have to hire an attorney at an additional expense,” said the operator, who added that employers would not want to sully the names of their multimillion-dollar operations by mistreating employees.

“We seek to ensure that the standard of the client – which are mostly international or Fortune 500 firms – is used to operating by in their own country is what we maintain.”

The local BPO sector has grown from just over 12,000 employees to an estimated 40,000 in the last seven years and is currently valued at US$780 million. Approximately 80 players are operating in the sector, with 80 per cent of them registered as members of the Gloria Henry-headed Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ), formerly the Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica.

Henry said that the sector is misunderstood by many who are advocating for union intervention.

“Arguably, unions provide some value in addressing gaps in work environments where management is non-responsive to things such as poor working conditions and health standards, but this is not the case for BPO employees within the GSAJ,” Henry said. “The suggestion that well-managed, highly motivated and, in many cases, competitively paid workers are in need of unions has been and, unfortunately, continues to be purely based on unfounded allegations and a conflation of outdated stereotypes.”

She pointed out that it was now commonplace for locals to advance in the companies instead of expatriates being hired for top jobs.

“Firms are not hiring expatriates to managerial roles anymore. Jamaicans have done extremely well and have been promoted to senior management positions,” she boasted.

The industry has been under increasing scrutiny since the Portmore plant of international outsourcing firm Alorica became the epicentre of a surge in COVID-19 cases in April, triggering a temporary, massive scaling down of operations of BPO firms across the island and work-from-home order implemented as the Government moved to prevent any similar situation.

Alorica has since announced the permanent closure of its Portmore operation, but has reopened its Kingston site and is now a member of the GSAJ.

“What happened at Alorica is being used to vilify other members of the sector, allegedly that they are not doing what they are supposed to do, but members of the sector have spent millions of dollars to keep their workers safe,” added Henry, who is also assistant vice-president of operations at the Port Authority of Jamaica and in charge of the Montego Bay Free Zone (MBFZ). “I will say, without fear of contradiction, that employee wellness was an integral part of this sector long before COVID and is one of the competitive strategies that the sector uses.”

Last Friday, the MBFZ, which has the largest concentration of BPO companies in Jamaica, emerged the winner in three categories of the fDi Intelligence Global Free Zones of the Year Awards for 2020. It was the sole winner in two categories – Business Process Outsourcing and Employee Wellness – and shared top spot with an Iranian free zone in the Site Conversion category.