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Amazon Ring call center workers in Philippines 'scared' to go to work during pandemic

Workers at the call center say that six months after they first complained, things have only gotten worse.
Elise Wrabetz / NBC News

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, call center workers in the Philippines who are contracters for Amazon's Ring home security division have been required to report to the office.

At first, employees said, they had no choice but to sleep at work so they could respond to the calls of Amazon Ring's customers in American time zones. The conditions spurred an Amazon investigation after pictures of employees on mattresses and blankets on the floor became public in news reports. So the contractor, Paris-based Teleperformance, pledged to make improvements.

But six months after the original complaints surfaced and Teleperformance promised to make changes, four workers at Amazon's call center in Cebu City in the Philippines, who shared their stories with NBC News, said their work conditions have only gotten worse. The workers asked to remain anonymous because they fear losing their jobs and being forced to pay fines for breaching confidentiality agreements equivalent to two years of their annual salaries.

In recent months, Teleperformance, which also provides customer support for many other large companies including Netflix, stopped letting people who work for Amazon Ring sleep on the floor. But the company, which generated 5.4 billion euros in revenue in 2019, didn't provide any alternative accommodations, the workers said.

Some employees said they rent shared rooms nearby that cost about 20 percent of their salaries or they bunk with colleagues. Those who can't find nearby accommodations or who can no longer access public transit to get to work have tried to use the infrequent shuttles the company provides. But the shuttles sometimes take several hours to arrive, the workers said, and deliver them home exhausted after their shifts end. When they do make it to work, employees said, they feel scared to work busy shifts when social distancing isn't possible and workstations aren't adequately sanitized.

The working conditions have increased the fear of Covid-19 among the employees, who estimate that dozens out of hundreds of workers have developed flu-like symptoms. But they said requests to work from home have been denied.

IMAGE: The Teleperformance office in Cebu
Workers slept on mattresses in the Teleperformance office in Cebu City, Philippines early in the coronavirus pandemic.obtained by NBC News

"People are scared because we don't know who has it and who doesn't have it," an Amazon Ring contractor said. "But people don't have a choice, because it's either you will be infected or you will die of starvation."

Mike Lytle, the chief operating officer at Teleperformance Philippines, said that if workers are sick with flu-like symptoms, they are sent home and asked to visit a doctor. The company provides workers with health insurance to cover Covid-19-related hospitalizations and contacts sick employees regularly to "check on their wellbeing."

The BPO Industry Employees Network, a workers organization for what are called business process outsourcing workers in the Philippines, has been highlighting Covid-19 outbreaks in call centers across the country and advocating for the safety of workers since the start of the pandemic. The group has been calling for the industry to allow staff members to work from home or to provide them with near-site accommodations, door-to-door shuttles, free coronavirus testing and medical care. It has also been asking for a ban on sharing headsets in call centers during the pandemic and for hazard pay for working in dangerous conditions.

But unlike other Teleperformance clients, Amazon Ring doesn't allow its Philippines-based call center staff members to work from home.

Lytle said in an email that "safety and wellbeing of our employees will always be the top priority."

Still Emma Daniels, an Amazon Ring spokeswoman, said the company wouldn't change its work-from-home policy.

"Ring does not allow customer service contractors in the Philippines to work from home to ensure the data security and privacy of our customers," she said — even though workers note that they can't access confidential information anyway without the consent of the customer.

Vital jobs

The conditions for Amazon Ring workers highlight how numerous tech companies have embraced outsourced labor to provide a human touch for their platforms — often in places where labor protections are relaxed and wages are low.

Call centers and other outsourced business operations are critical to the Philippines' economy. They are estimated to account for 9 percent of its gross domestic product and 1.2 million jobs.

So when the county went into lockdown in March, only a few professions were exempted from home quarantine, including police, health care workers and outsourced workers.

From March through April, hundreds of Amazon Ring workers slept and worked in what they described in an open letter obtained by NBC News as "subhuman" conditions. The sleeping conditions were previously reported by the Financial Times in April, and Amazon said it would investigate the situation. Amazon told NBC News that it conducted audits of the facility in April to ensure proper sanitation, protective equipment and social distancing. "We are urgently investigating these new allegations and addressing them with Teleperformance at the most senior level," a company spokeswoman said in response to the allegations made by the workers interviewed for this article.

The company declined to offer any more detail.

After photos of the cramped and distressing conditions of workers living at the call center became public, Amazon Ring's and Teleperformance's operations were widely criticized and the photos were submitted to the Philippines' Department of Labor and Employment, after which Teleperformance stopped providing sleeping arrangements in the office.

While Teleperformance offered shuttles to its workers, the company required some riders to wait in the office for hours after their shifts or to walk for miles to get to a pickup point at strange hours. A worker described walking 45 minutes from his home to catch the last shuttle to work at 8:10 p.m. for a night shift that doesn't start until 2 a.m. His shift ends at 11 a.m. But the next shuttle to pass by his neighborhood isn't until 4:30 p.m., leaving only a few hours to sleep before he catches the next shuttle to work.

"If you are the breadwinner for your family, you need the money," the worker said.

Teleperformance said it has significantly increased its shuttle service for workers in Cebu since the pandemic began. It also said it was helping employees find off-site accommodations.

Even with Amazon's call for changes, all four workers who were interviewed said Teleperformance hasn't been disinfecting shared workstations and computers between shifts. Housekeeping staff members clean tables periodically, but with only a pail of water and a towel. Social distancing is possible only on less busy shifts, they said. But that doesn't happen during the busy parts of the night, when shifts overlap.

Teleperformance disputed the workers' allegations. The company said that its offices are only half full to allow for social distancing and that it provides masks and face shields to every employee. Teleperformance added that employee workstations are cleaned twice daily.

Sick workers

But workers and management seem to agree that Amazon Ring workers have been getting sick in recent months. Three of the workers said dozens of people in the office, which hosts several hundred workers, recently had been sick. That included a team of about 15 people who all were sick in late May and early June and were sent home to quarantine without pay. One of the team leaders, who was diagnosed with Covid-19, spent about a month in the hospital, two of the workers said. The site manager for the Amazon Ring call center, who was in her 40s, died during the pandemic, the workers said, and they weren't told why.

"That caused panic," said one worker, who took a leave of absence in June over fears of contracting the virus. "She was always walking on the floor and looked very healthy."

The worker said many employees were developing coughs. But they were afraid to go to the doctor, because if they were found to have Covid-19, they would be sent home without pay for two weeks.

"We don't have a choice," a worker said. "If we don't work, we will die of hunger."

Lytle of Teleperformance said the company couldn't discuss details about the manager who died, but he added that "our hearts go out to any Teleperformance family member that we have lost."

He said the other employees who were sick were sent home and had health insurance to cover hospital stays. "Employees were contacted on a regular basis to check on their wellbeing," he said.

He said the company does daily check-ins with all of its employees and asks that they go home if they are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms. The company said it offers paid time off, depending on tenure, "in excess of the industry standards in the Philippines," which employees can use if they are sick. Teleperformance confirmed that it doesn't offer extra sick pay to workers who show symptoms and need to stay home to quarantine.

Growing consequences

Amazon Ring contractors at Teleperformance took on great risk by speaking about their working conditions because of a nondisclosure agreement in their employment contract: If they breach the confidentiality clause, they could face a fine equivalent to about two years' salary, according to a copy of the contract seen by NBC News.

The contract showed that customer support workers earn 21,500 Philippine pesos per month, equivalent to about $444. The "liquidated damages" for breaching the confidentiality agreement are 500,000 pesos.

Lytle said that the confidentiality agreement was "standard business practice" and that the company had set up an internal hotline for workers to report concerns about Covid-19 safety without fear of retaliation.

When NBC News notified Daniels, the Amazon Ring spokeswoman, about the conditions, she said: "We are investigating this allegation. This and other forms of retaliation against workers is a violation of our Code of Conduct, and will not be tolerated."