Is the Jamaican government giving BPO investors the “green light to disregard labour laws”?

There are currently 40,000 workers in Jamaica’s global services industry; the government is aiming for 300,000 jobs in the industry by 2030. But “at what cost?” trade unions are asking. (Alamy/Artur Marciniec )

With tens of thousands of jobs linked to the tourism sector lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jamaican government has heralded the island’s fast-expanding business process outsourcing (BPO) sector as a much-needed source of jobs. However, there are major concerns about the widespread breech of workers’ rights in the sector. Of the 40,000 BPO workers in Jamaica – whose roles vary from customer services to technical support, sales and more – nearly all are working on fixed-term and temporary contracts, and not one of the 70-plus companies operating on the island has allowed trade union representation within their firms.

As a result, thousands of young workers are lured into call centre jobs, enticed by promises of good salaries and skilled work within a high-tech, global industry, only to find themselves facing a completely different reality once the training is over and the contracts are signed. “Pretty quickly you realise that things are not what they said it would be,” says Sharon (not her real name) a 27-year-old who has worked at three different companies in the global services sector, as the BPO sector is also known.

An informal survey of workers by Equal Times indicates that companies frequently breach their basic contractual agreements on everything from pay to breaks, transport allowances and holiday allocation.

“My pay was supposed to be J$500 per hour as an experienced worker but it is actually J$250 per hour, and J$250 per hour as a performance incentive,” Sharon says. In some companies, wages are as low as US$2.50 per hour (approximately J$340) before tax. “This is barely enough for people with children to survive on,” she says.

Although employers often lament the high staff turnover in Jamaica’s call centres, the prevalence of short-term contracts means that there is no job security for workers. Workers who spoke to Equal Times under the condition of anonymity complained that while deductions for health insurance begin 90 days into their contracts, it can take up to seven months or more before insurance cards are issued, which means that in the middle of a pandemic, many workers can’t access this crucial benefit. They also described long hours, short or no breaks during busy periods, and environments where employers hire and fire at will, instilling a sense of fear that makes workers reluctant to speak up. Workers interviewed for this article also say that while not explicit, the language in their contracts implies that organising and collective bargaining are grounds for dismissal, even though freedom of association is enshrined in the Jamaican constitution.

Call centre operators “do as they like”

The BPO sector is one of the fastest-growing industries in the Caribbean. The region’s close proximity to the United States and large pool of young, English-speaking, skilled workers has made it an increasingly popular destination for global companies like Teleperformance, Xerox, itel-BPO and IBEX Global, particularly as coronavirus outbreaks in various call centres in the Philippines impacted business in the world’s top BPO destination.

Jamaica is the region’s largest BPO market. Operators covering telecommunications, banking, insurance, health care, finance and accounting, gaming and tech support produced estimated revenues of US$230 million in 2012, rising to US$430 million in 2015. The sector is currently valued at approximately US $600 million, and it is for this reason that the government has made global services a priority in the island’s strategic development plan, Vision 2030.

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Many of the sector’s workers are university graduates that struggle to find employment in a shrinking job market. Undoubtedly, the BPO sector has attracted significant foreign direct investment to Caribbean nations that are struggling to bounce-back from the economic downturn of 2008 and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. As professional jobs have dried up in the banana, sugar and manufacturing sectors, governments have embraced the BPO sector for providing economic growth and youth employment opportunities.

But Jamaica’s trade unions want to see better adherence to fundamental workers’ rights, particularly with regards to fixed-term and temporary contract employment.

There is a widespread feeling that “investors are given the impression that they will be afforded certain protections,” says Khurt Fletcher, island supervisor at the National Workers Union (NWU).

“I’m concerned that JAMPRO [the Jamaican government’s trade and investment agency] is not doing enough to advise them of our strict labour laws and union-friendly society,” he notes, particularly as many of the BPOs operating in Jamaica are not registered there. Phone calls and emails to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security made by Equal Times went unanswered.

There is also a perception that workers’ rights in the sector are impeded by conflicts of interest, with some BPO operators making financial donations to various political parties. This concern is borne out by the government’s own declarations. In an August 2020 press release on the BPO sector, the Jamaica Information Service said: “Jamaica’s BPO industry is built on a very strong partnership among the industry, industry players and the Government, which respond strongly to the needs of the industry…”. There is no mention of labour rights or social dialogue with the trade unions.

Many point to the sector’s designation as an essential service to bypass Covid-19 lockdown regulations at the height of the outbreak as further evidence of the industry’s undue influence over the government. It was only after an Alorica call centre in Portmore became a hotspot for coronavirus infections, with more than 200 staff testing positive for Covid-19, that the government instituted a 14-day shutdown of the sector, resulting in losses of approximately US$13.4 million. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, almost 50 per cent of the BPO workforce has been working from home, and the government is considering new legislation to allow BPO workers to continue to do so.

Time for minimum standards

In April 2020, towards the start of the pandemic, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) echoed calls from the largest BPO sector unions in Jamaica to observe minimum standards for the global services industry as proposed by UNI Global Union, the global trade union federation for skills and services workers. As well as measures to protect sector workers from the spread of the coronavirus (remote work where possible, especially for high-risk workers, social distancing for those who have to work in offices, the prohibition of hot desking, and paid leave for the sick and self-isolating, etc.) these standards include respecting the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

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Today, Fletcher of the NWU and John Lee, general secretary of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees (UCASE) are amongst the leaders of the country’s 12 largest unions backing the calls for adherence to labour standards, with Fletcher proposing that the International Labour Organization (ILO) updates its reporting requirements to make it essential that unions contribute to the country reports that are currently written by the government.

As the Jamaican government sets its sights on a target of 300,000 BPO jobs by 2030, unions fear that the government seems more concerned with the number of jobs created than the quality. BPO insiders reportedly made spurious claims that unionisation would cause a “mass pull-out” of outsourcing firms from the island.

But union leaders like Fletcher say that investors must follow the laws that protect Jamaican workers. “Investments must not take away from the rights of the workers,” he says.

Lee is also calling on the government to “state its position on the unionisation of workers in the sector” in response to comments from Gloria Henry, president of the Global Services Association of Jamaica (GSAJ). Last October, Henry dismissed the importance of unions telling the Jamaica Gleaner: “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.” The idea that “well-managed, highly motivated and, in many cases, competitively paid workers are in need of unions is outdated,” she continued.

Lee acknowledges the industry’s contribution “to the expansion of the telecommunication and digital industries, providing new opportunities and jobs in the rural areas”. But he agrees with Fletcher that government is not doing enough to ensure that investors understand Jamaica’s strong labour laws: “There is the perception that the BPO and other investors are given assurances that encourage them to operate outside the laws that protect workers.”

BPOs already have special privileges as they operate under Special Economic Zone (Free Zones) legislation as ‘public utility services’. This arrangement has resulted in a range of tax exemptions and anti-union laws: for example, there can be no strikes unless unions give employers six weeks’ notice. Describing the better-paying jobs in the sector as “the best of the worst,” Fletcher muses: “I wonder how much they are being helped to circumvent legislation and whether these investors are given the green light to disregard our laws?”

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