BPO companies vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks

Employees of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies getting exposed to COVID-19 has always been a concern since the pandemic kicked in. Roughly 6 months later, it looks like companies are still struggling to provide a safe working environment for their workers.

Not all BPO employees were given the chance to work from home, and some of those who had to go on-site reported unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment from their employers. Back in May, they sat close to each other, shared headsets, and slept on-site on futons spread on the floor – failing to observe physical distancing. (READ: Double whammy: BPO employees get exposed to COVID-19, lose income)

Four months later, the situation has improved slightly but employees are still at the losing end, as outbreaks of the disease have started occurring in workplaces.

BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) Pilipinas, an independent network of BPO employees, said they have tracked at least 16 BPO companies all over the country with reported outbreaks among employees as of end-August. BIEN Pilipinas said they classified “outbreaks” as those instances where no less than 20 employees were infected in a single site.

There are at least 365 BPO companies in the Philippines, according to Cabalona. One of the biggest outbreaks BIEN Pilipinas recorded was in a BPO company in Pasay, where at least 102 workers tested positive. An earlier report by GMA News also said that at least 99 BPO employees got infected while at work in Iloilo City back in May.

Ito lang ‘yung may nagrereport sa amin. Siyempre tinatago naman nung iba ‘di ba? Ayaw nilang ma-disclose,” BIEN Pilipinas president Mylene Cabalona told Rappler in a phone interview. (These are only those that were reported to us. Of course, some don’t like to speak up about it, right? They do not want to disclose.)

Getting infected in the workplace

In Bacolod City, Cabalona said there was even a reported death due to COVID-19. This prompted Bacolod mayor Evelio Leonardia to hold a virtual meeting with representatives of 13 BPO companies in the city to assess the preventive measures they have in place and check their compliance with health protocols.

Sadly, other BPO employee deaths were reported in the area due to COVID-19 even after the meeting.

Twenty-three-year-old Catherine* has been working for a BPO company in Bacolod for 9 months with her boyfriend, a 44-year-old fellow agent. Her boyfriend had been with the same company for about 5 years.

Catherine’s boyfriend tested positive on August 18, just 3 weeks before she got her own results. By the time Catherine found out she was also infected, her boyfriend had already passed away. He died on August 25.

Sa akin po ‘yung pinakamabigat po yung hindi ko sya napuntahan sa ospital noong mga panahon na ‘yun nga…” Catherine trailed off as she was answering Rappler’s questions in a phone interview. (The heaviest thing for me was that I was not able to visit him in the hospital during the time that… [he passed away].)

She had to do home quarantine while her boyfriend was hospitalized. She was asymptomatic.

Catherine lived together with her boyfriend, and they’d been working on-site since the pandemic started earlier in the year. “Tingin ko po doon niya po nakuha eh, wala naman po kaming pinupuntahan na iba (I think that’s where [office] he got infected, we haven’t really been anywhere else [aside from the workplace and home]),” she said.

To Catherine’s knowledge, there were at least 16 employees in their company who tested positive for the virus in August alone. She wasn’t sure if she and her boyfriend were already part of that number, because they were not originally identified by the company in the contact tracing they conducted.

Noong una kasi po, may isang positive doon. After noon, hindi sila nag-lockdown – nag-disinfect lang sila. Pina-absent nila ‘yung mga taong na-contact trace nila sa taong nag-positive,” she said. (There was one employee who tested positive. After that, the company did not impose a lockdown – they just disinfected the office. They also advised the people they identified through contact tracing to just go home.)

But after her boyfriend – who already had heart complications – started feeling symptoms, they decided to get tested on their own. The company did not assist in the process, but Catherine said the costs were covered by their health insurance.

They were also paid their regular salary during the time they failed to report to the office, but no additional financial assistance was given to them by the company – not even hazard pay.

This lack of support is not unique to Catherine’s employer.

Carlo*, a 43-year-old call center trainee from a different BPO company in Bacolod who also tested positive, said his company did not provide him proper assistance after he got infected.

Carlo got exposed to the virus after his trainer tested positive. A returning BPO employee after briefly working as an artist, Carlo was one of the 19 trainees under the COVID-19-positive trainer. Nine of them tested positive, but they were not the first employees who got infected in the company.

Ang pinakamasakit is that after na-contact kami sa trainer namin na positive, ang ginawa nila pinagtabuyan lang kami na parang asong gala (The most painful part was that after we were identified through contact tracing, what the company did was to drive us out like stray dogs),” Carlo told Rappler in a phone interview.

Carlo and his fellow trainees were told to report to their respective barangays, which would supposedly arrange the testing for them. They were also told to do home quarantine for 14 days – about 10 days of which were unpaid. Carlo said he is still asking the company for an explanation of why he wasn't fully compensated.

Since Carlo is still a trainee, he didn't have the private health insurance provided by the company yet. Fortunately, his PhilHealth membership covered his quarantine expenses. He was also able to get tested for free, thanks to the mass testing conducted by his local government unit.

Carlo, Catherine, and Catherine's boyfriend were just 3 out of the millions employed by the BPO sector in the country. Industry group IT & Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) said the BPO sector in the country is a multibillion-dollar industry that employs about 1.2 million workers.

Since 2016, the number of full-time employees of BPO companies grew by 7% in just two years.

BPO employees are a vulnerable lot

During a virtual press briefing on September 7, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the Department of Health had identified 9 BPO companies as areas with clustering. Clustering of cases occurs when there is a concentration of infections within a geographic location, a specific time, and/or by common exposures.

The Philippines had 1,742 clusters nationwide as of September 5. Communities take up the majority at 84.9%, followed by other settings – mainly found in modes of transportation and BPO companies – at 8.09%, hospitals and health facilities at 5.11%, and jails at 1.84%.

Apart from the work setting, Cabalona said that the working environment in which BPO employees move also poses risks that may make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. In fact, a 2014 study on call center agents in India said that BPO workers are “exposed to a volley of problems” concerning physical, mental, and social health.

Having underlying medical conditions is known to increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. In the country, data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) released in 2018 showed that pulmonary diseases such as lung disease and asthma are among the most common occupational diseases acquired by call center employees.

Out of the total recorded diseases, 16.84% of the employees acquired lung diseases while in the workplace while 13.77% acquired asthma. PSA surveyed about 575,600 BPO employees nationwide in 2015.

“Because of the environment, what's really common are cough, colds, low immune system, and lack of sleep,” said Cabalona in a mix of English and Filipino. She has been a BPO employee herself for 10 years now.

Vergeire noted that while the BPO employees' low immune system is a factor that causes vulnerability to the disease, exposure to the virus should also be considered.

"We need to remember that for a person to be infected, there needs to be an exposure. So it means that if they are exposed and they are vulnerable, they might be more susceptible to the disease," Vergeire said in a mix of English and Filipino during the press briefing.

A study in South Korea compared the “attack rate” of COVID-19, or the percentage of the population that contracted the disease, of different settings within a building. The results showed that the floor where a call center company is located had the highest attack rate.

“This outbreak shows alarmingly that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) can be exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings such as a call center. The magnitude of the outbreak illustrates how a high-density work environment can become a high-risk site for the spread of COVID-19 and potentially a source of further transmission,” the study said.

To be fair, many BPO companies in the country have safety and prevention protocols in place. This includes regular disinfection, requirement of face masks and face shields while inside the premises, and enforcement of a “one-seat-apart” policy. But as the reported outbreaks show, it just seems not enough.

Whose responsibility is it?

The Department of Labor and Employment and Department of Trade and Industry released joint memorandum circular No. 20-04 on August 15, which mandates free COVID-19 testing for workers.

However, BIEN Pilipinas pointed out that the guidelines were unclear as to who should shoulder the costs. While the guidelines said regular testing should be at no cost to the employees, it only said that employers are “encouraged” to collaborate with the national and/or local government for testing efforts.

The reality on the ground is that BPO companies, like Catherine's and Carlo’s employers, don’t arrange regular testing for their employees. Through Carlo’s case, it’s also apparent that not all BPO employees already have health insurance. And even if they do, Cabalona said that not all private health insurance companies even cover COVID-19 expenses.

“In the end, workers may be burdened by having to pay for their own swab test or displaced in their jobs if their company does not allow them to come back to work unless they underwent a swab test,” said Sarah Prestoza, BIEN Pilipinas vice president.

The cost of testing for COVID-19 in Metro Manila ranges from P4,000 to P13,000, depending on the turnaround time for results. Rates might be lower in the provinces, but it is still a huge cost for an employee to shoulder on his own.

Carlo, for instance, disclosed that his monthly rate is at P18,000 because he already has 6 years of call center experience. Some of his less-experienced colleagues, he said, are only paid P14,000 a month.

For Carlo, responsibility should start with the employers as he views what happened to him and his colleagues as lapses on the part of the company. He said that the outbreak in their office did not start with his trainer, but with a different employee whom the company did not send home even though he showed symptoms of the disease.

"The companies should be the one to look after their employees and make sure they avoid getting infected. At the same time, it should be their responsibility to track all those who test positive and ask them not to come to the office in the meantime. And of course, because the agents are only human beings and they need to live, companies should shoulder the expenses," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Meanwhile, BIEN Pilipinas said that what BPO employees need the most right now is access to regular testing – especially for those who continue to work on-site – and financial support from the government.

"We can’t leave everything to the companies. There really needs to be responsibility from the government to conduct regular swab testing while we still don’t have a vaccine," Cabalona said.

Cabalona added that many BPO employees are also still on either no-work-no-pay or floating status schemes, and called on the government to provide financial assistance to all BPO employees.

Kasi nagbibigay ka rin naman ng financial aid, isama mo na rin kaming mga call center workers sa financial support, sa financial aid,” Cabalona said. (Since you’re already rolling out emergency subsidy programs, you should also include us call center workers.)

Not ready to go back to the office

After completing their respective quarantine periods, both Catherine and Carlo are expected to report back to work, on-site, by October. But both of them are hesitant.

Carlo is more apprehensive about it and was even thinking of just transferring to a different company that offers work-from-home arrangements. “I’ve been thinking about it, kasi parang may trust issue na ako kay [employer] sa nangyari. Parang na-trauma ako eh, pinauwi lang kami. Pinag-iisipan ko pa nga kung babalik ako o hindi,” he said.

(It’s like I’ve developed a trust issue with my employer after what happened. It’s like I was traumatized after they just sent us home. I’m still thinking about whether or not I will return to the company.)

Catherine, meanwhile, said she had little choice but to go back even though her employer does not offer work-from-home arrangements anymore.

She said in Filipino, "I really want to work from home because I think all of us also get scared of the risks while working on site. I also fear the risks sometimes, but I really don’t have money anymore." – Rappler.com

*Names were changed to protect their privacy.

Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is part of the Rappler Research Team’s fact-checking unit. Aside from debunking dubious claims, she also enjoys crunching data and writing stories about the economy, environment, and media democracy.

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