THOUSANDS HOMEBOUND

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Today, as the government’s island-wide 14-day shutdown of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry takes effect, thousands of call centre workers will find themselves in unfamiliar territories – with some facing drastically reduced salaries in the face of rising expenses, and others facing imminent unemployment as the anti-COVID-19 measures continue. And, despite provisions being made by most BPO companies to assist their employees, some leaders in the industry believe that even harder times are ahead.

“It’s tough, and it’s going to get tougher, honestly,” shared O’Neil Brown, Head of Operations, Worldwide BPO. “A number of our clients – who have their businesses in transportation, utilities and finances, and are based in the US and other places, are now seriously considering taking back a large percentage – if not all, of their businesses back to their home sites. Those are actually discussions being had right now because our industry currently cannot adequately meet their demands due to our reduced workforce. If this continues, it may even get worse.”

Brown, in his interview with the Western Mirror, continued: “On that end, there are also other things to consider – things that may have deeper implications than we realize. Because we’ve had to reduce the size of our workforce on some accounts while still keeping operations going, some of these clients are looking at it and saying, ‘You’re doing the same amount of work with half the number of people so you know what? Keep it that way after things better.’ So long term, we may find some of these accounts requiring fewer workers than they did before because it’s cheaper for them.”

THE CORE WORKERS
“I’m concerned about our employees. They are the core of what we do, and I’m worried about how some of them will survive if this continues for too long. How will they pay their bills? How will they survive and provide for their families? It’s inevitable that we’ll have to consider laying off staff, and when that happens, what are they going to do?” Brown revealed that despite measures being taken to have employees working from home, under the current conditions, those measures won’t be sustainable for the long term, especially when other elements are considered.

SECURITY CONCERNS
“In our industry, we deal with highly sensitive customer and client information and the fact is, while we are happy to make work-from-home arrangements to ensure our employees are still able to work and earn an income, there are security concerns,” Brown shared. He explained that for employees who work from home, clients have to agree to having their information accessed under those conditions. Once they agree, Brown shared, and employees begin working from home, it becomes increasingly difficult to monitor who actually gets access to that information.

“We’ve had to be careful, because we don’t want to set ourselves up for lawsuits if customers’ and clients’ information gets compromised, so we’re monitoring that as much as we can. To be honest, for some of these accounts, it makes more sense for us to wait out this lockdown, than to make work-from-home arrangements, because of the risks involved.” Brown related, however, that once normalcy resumes, they will be seeking to get all their employees back to work.

ANXIETY AND UNCERTAINTY
A call centre worker, operating from one of the more prestigious centres in Western Jamaica, spoke to the Western Mirror on condition of anonymity, revealing that there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety currently in her workspace, despite work-from-home arrangements being made. “I honestly don’t know. Some of us are lucky to have a small business on the side and extra income, as well as persons helping, but there are a lot of us who don’t have that. What will they do? I imagine that the government will extend the closure, and when that happens, what then? I’m already on rotation and bills are a killer, so I don’t know,” she shared.

She added that though she feels safer working from home – an environment that she can control, the uncertainty of what the future holds for her primary source of income is unsettling – a sentiment shared by many of her coworkers who are now facing reduced hours, family expenses and loss of job security.

Those concerns are not unique to mid to lower level staff, but senior management as well. Yoni Epstein, Founding Chairman and CEO of itelbpo, has added his voice to the mix.

“As we face the pandemic, our first concern is to safeguard the health and wellness of our employees, and secondly, to preserve their jobs. The two go hand in hand if our country is to make it through this difficult period and rebound quickly,” Epstein expressed. “It’s important for the public to see that we must remain open as long as possible and that we are adhering to a strict set of health and safety guidelines in the Disaster Risk Management Act in order to do so responsibly. These protocols are actually costing us more. So, it isn’t about turning a profit, but more so about safeguarding jobs so that our team members have an income to support their families. Profits are for the future; job preservation is for the now.”

With the lockdown taking effect later today, Epstein had this to say: “We urge the public to remain calm and level-headed, even at a time when there is so much uncertainty. It’s natural to want to take some control over the situation, but closing down the BPO sector is not the answer. We need to put more focus on the positive side of things. In my eyes, the government has been doing the best job it can to make the right decisions to safeguard the country. As business sector leaders, we must also rise to the occasion in our own companies and sectors while supporting the government & safeguarding our team members.”

Thousands are expected to be affected by the fallout of the halt in business activities in the sector.

Michael Nattoo – Staff Reporter

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