Why Can’t We Form Unions in BPOs?

Disclaimer to the Disclaimer: I hate that writing nowadays always have to start with a disclaimer. People on the net flame each other like hell. Some are prone to over-sensitivity. This article is pure opinion (therefore, most of it is bullshit) so your opinions (therefore, your bullshit) are welcome as well. I don’t seek to bash my colleagues in the industry that has made a large part of who I am today. I don’t write in absolutes, only in puny generalizations. Not everything I say here applies to everyone and everything. This article is not based on any fact or research. This post is merely based on my oh-so-limited observations of my oh-so-limited worldview. I’ve only been in the workforce for a mere eight years, for just two companies so far. I’m just a kid, by most smart people’s standards. Commenters, please play nice with each other. Let’s make respect a more common commodity in the internet.

Disclaimer: I am not here to state that union-forming in Business Process Outsourcing companies (BPOs) would not be beneficial for the employees. I truly believe that if workers take a stand in an organized and official fashion, they would be more protective of each other’s rights and would be empowered against exploitation. This article is not about the benefits or the disadvantages of forming employee unions in Philippine BPOs. This article is about why BPO workers of the present time would find it extremely hard to form labor unions.

Why Can’t We Form Unions in BPOs?

Generation Me

Let’s first take a look at the background of current BPO workers. A typical BPO worker would be in their 20’s or 30’s, being proficient in English and all, most likely educated in a nice (read: conservative, Catholic) school. Growing up in the relatively quiet 90’s era, contentment means bfs/gfs, swanky smart phones, Starbucks every day, perhaps a car someday.

From a very early age, we were taught in our conservative, Catholic, English-as-a-medium schools to shut up, pray and obey. We were taught that speaking up for our rights is rash, brazen and wrong. The purpose of our education is to serve. We were taught to shun those noisy, strange, unfashionable rally-going kids who speak deep Tagalog, as if the government will ever hear their diatribes over their cheap megaphones. This culture had served the nuns and priests who run the schools and it sure does serve our current white masters.

We BPO workers are notorious for being transients, staying in a company for a few months, 2 years maximum, at our leisure. Supervisors and managers are in the same age group, with only a few years of experience. We manage to stay afloat… Nay, not just afloat but aggressively progress.

These factors keep unionization as the last thing on our minds. Not happy with your immature supervisor? Pack up and go. Not happy with your unfair manager? Go AWOL. Not happy with the way the company is run? There are plenty of other centers out there, desperate for workers. Tenure? Retirement? Who cares? Just keep the medical benefits and the money rolling.

How many of us really chose to be in this industry, anyways? How many of us actually studied to work for a call center? How many of us are actually nurses, teachers and engineers? We take this job because it pays, not because we love it, not because we are meant for it. We are told that we are paid more than we deserve. We are expected to shut up and just roll with it since we are paid more than the minimum wage. Do your job well. Do it perfectly, because after all, no other industry will give you a decent pay.

Fear Itself
Although we have certain bravado of easy employment from one center to another, in our very hearts, we are also haunted by the idea of unemployment. We are afraid to rock the boat because we fear that we may not find employment outside of this industry.

It is the culture of a call center to make their employees intensely aware of other BPOs who are competing for clients. The outsourcing business is competitive, even cut-throat. We know that clients can take their business to other centers. We know that that one wrong move can send them packing to India or other countries.

A typical call center agent is intensely aware of every contract, memo and agreement that he signs. He knows that one step out of line and he’s toast. There is no real job security, only the hope of a new one.

Growing Up
Twentysomethings turn to thritysomethings, the thritysomethings hit their forties. Kids’ needs grow as families are formed, broken and reformed. We begin to think of mortgages, tuition fees, even retirement. We seek security, in our careers as well as our relationships. I cannot tell what the fate of the BPO worker population will be. I cannot say if and when they would realize their power as workers. I cannot say if and when they would realize the need for this power. Was it the same when the dot-com industries began and everybody was of the same age? I wonder.


Breaking the Call Center Stereotype


I start my day with a fish and gulay breakfast, light workout while listening to news on AM Radio http://dzmm.abs-cbnnews.com/.

I take pride that I have broken most BPO worker stereotypes. I don’t spend so much on gadgets, clothes or other luho. I listen to the news, have a relatively healthy lifestyle and have run-of-the-mill relationships. A lot less drama than I care to take in. 

Living in the night shift isolates us workers from what is happening in the country. I try to reconnect by keeping up to date via the radio. Recently, my coworkers lose sleep watching Senate hearings and have water-cooler chats around it. 

My mild (almost non-existent) social life actually works for me. The occasional drink comes around every three months, and usually just a tipple. I don’t smoke. I’m not into gossip or gimiks so much but I keep my few precious friends close. 

I had to quit volunteering, boxing and swimming due to an ankle injury but I plan to get back in the game soon. I’m starting with light exercise. All this extra weight is slowing me down, not to mention the healing process. 

My family and my relationships are quite vanilla. I wouldn’t say its boring. Every day with these wacky, spirited people takes work and loyalty. They’re all inspiring and challenging to love. Why add even more drama by complicating things?

I cannot say that I live the perfect life or I have the mildest temperament. I can be a real bitch when I lack sleep. The heat, humidity and my emotions affect my judgement at times. Sometimes, I let the pressures at work get to my head and I tend to snap at people. My blood is 30% coffee.

I still observe some behaviors among some BPO workers that outsiders tend to turn into generalizations about us. I don’t want to judge my coworkers who fit the stereotypes to some degree because I know and I understand some of their reasons. Some cases, I have to admit, are understandable but not acceptable. But to each his own, I guess.

I am just grateful that people who love me have helped me to cope with this crazy up-side down life. Living and working with BPO workers proves that most of them are just normal as anyone.

I still fit some of the stereotypes in the picture above. Try to guess which ones!


credits: thanks to a certain friend from the internet for the lovely cartoon!