American Call Center Workers Rally for Their Filipino Counterparts

Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP Images

In solidarity with call center workers in the Philippines, CWA members have rallied for better wages and conditions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Under Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, labor unions in the Philippines have experienced arrests and brutal backlash for speaking out against the repression of labor activists as well as poor working conditions. Home to more call center workers than any other nation, the Philippines has for years subjected these workers to low pay and frequent misuse of contract labor. Just last year, the International Trade Union Confederation listed the Philippines as one of the ten worst countries in the world for working people, writing that “in a context of extreme state violence and suppression of civil liberties, workers and trade unionists in the Philippines faced threats and intimidation.” On the southern island of Mindanao, the Duterte regime has extended martial law until at least the end of the year, putting thousands of people at risk of repression.

As call center workers in the U.S. continue to face the very real threat of further offshoring, one might assume they would be less inclined to take action on behalf of their Filipino counterparts. But for many American workers, and their union leadership, that’s not at all the case.

“Even though we are fighting against having American companies offshore call centers,” says Roland Anderson, AT&T worker and vice president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9410 in San Francisco, “we still have to stand in support and solidarity with folks wherever they may be who want to utilize their right to organize.”

That includes workers like Sarah Prestoza in the Philippines. When the working conditions at her call center began to deteriorate, Prestoza and her co-workers began to organize. Alorica, Prestoza’s U.S.-based employer, which mostly services U.S. callers, refused to acknowledge wrongdoing, so the workers started a union. They wrote letters. They campaigned. Soon, Prestoza became union president. The company tried to cancel the union’s registration more than once, but was barred by the Filipino Department of Labor and Employment.

And then, Prestoza, along with the rest of the union leadership, was fired. They were also arrested after holding a demonstration against Alorica. Consequently, the union filed a notice of strike in September (though they have yet to strike).

As I reported in January, some call center workers in the Philippines have long been organizing for better pay and conditions. Their union, the Unified Employees of Alorica (UEA), is the first to come out of the Filipino business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, a sector that contracts out services, like call center support, to third-party providers. The UEA began at one major call center near Manila in 2015, at a company—Alorica—that is based in Irvine, California. Alorica workers serve multiple multinational corporations, including AT&T, and until recently, Comcast.

Like many multinational corporations, AT&T pinches pennies by moving work overseas. CWA alleges that AT&T has eliminated approximately 23,000 jobs based in the U.S. since the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, offshoring many of them.

Prestoza says that though jobs might be offshored to the Philippines, that doesn’t necessarily mean that new Filipino workers are hired—instead, one call center worker may be working the jobs of four, with no change in pay or benefits.

“We don’t want to get [American] jobs,” she says. “We want their jobs to go back to them. We also want [American workers] to have decent jobs and wages.”

Since this past winter, the situation on the ground at Alorica in the Philippines has grown both better and worse. The good news is that the employees who were terminated have at least seen their criminal charges dropped. Yet, Alorica lost the Comcast account, and consequently, numerous union members have either lost their jobs or were moved from their original call center location to different call centers, which of course makes it much more difficult for them to organize.

Though Prestoza is no longer an Alorica employee, she is still serving as the UEA president and attempting to organize workers even across multiple work sites.

In response to Alorica’s actions, CWA is strengthening its ties with the workers in the Philippines—and using its ties with AT&T to pressure the company for doing business with Alorica. CWA has a relationship with AT&T, as many of the mobile provider’s workers are unionized under its umbrella. However, the current relationship has been rocky, reflecting the state of contract negotiations with some AT&T unions: Many workers have been working under an expired contract for more than a year.

Even so, as conditions worsened for UEA workers, “we felt we needed to escalate,” says Nell Geiser, assistant director of research at CWA, in order to “build these bridges and counter the U.S. xenophobia [against] Filipino call center workers.”

Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and CWA President Chris Shelton sent separate letters to President Trump and Alorica CEO Andy Lee, urging a response to Alorica’s labor conditions in the Philippines. Trumka and Shelton wrote to Trump that his administration should “request that the government of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines halt the ongoing and growing repression of trade union members and activists in the country.” The letter goes on to urge the Trump administration to refuse to negotiate a trade agreement with the Philippines until Duterte changes his ways. They also wrote to Lee: “Especially in light of the current political climate in the Philippines, we are concerned with Alorica’s efforts to use frivolous legal charges to silence and intimidate workers attempting to organize.”

And CWA has done more than write letters.

Erik Loomis, associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and author of Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, told me in January that in the long term, call center workers in the Philippines need laws to protect them. For example, if American companies could be held responsible for their contractors’ actions, changes on the ground might come faster. But in the short term, displays of international solidarity could help move us, albeit slowly, to that point. Such actions could look like people campaigning outside of AT&T stores. Speaking about Comcast in particular, Loomis said:

Whether it’s picketing in front of the Comcast building, people doing media campaigns against Comcast … we can do more to publicize what’s going on—to make Comcast sweat a bit.

Comcast is no longer an Alorica client, but the sentiment is certainly the same for AT&T, a company that prides itself on being the only unionized mobile service provider.

Loomis’s idea for a short-term strategy is exactly what CWA members—AT&T workers—did last month when they rallied in front of an AT&T flagship store in San Francisco and another store in Los Angeles to pressure the company regarding its contract with Alorica. As a major Alorica client, AT&T could sway the company to end its union-busting.

“We believe that organization of labor is a human right,” says Anderson, who spoke at the San Francisco rally. “We’re not looking at borders,” he says, “we’re looking at fellow members of the workforce who are being persecuted for trying to organize.”

The treatment of UEA members, including receiving death threats, reminds Anderson of “the origins of the American labor movement when people literally died on the picket lines.”

In San Francisco, Anderson says that about 50 people gathered: AT&T workers as well as other allies in the labor community. Because both San Francisco and Los Angeles have huge Filipino populations, it wasn’t just CWA that gathered in front of AT&T, but also organizations that represent Filipino workers here in the U.S.

The actions were small, but workers in the Philippines heard the message. The rallies “really boosted our morale,” Prestoza says. “We feel we are not fighting alone. We have friends and allies who support us.”

It’s unlikely that the Trump administration will take action against the Duterte regime, and it will almost certainly not threaten any future trade agreements for the labor cause. But any mainstream American strategy for international worker solidarity remains so underdeveloped, these small steps can at least act as signals—a model of what unions working together looks like.

Perhaps one of these steps will push AT&T to act.

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