The call center seems like the workplace of the future, the cubicled office job that brings modern development to anywhere with a phone connection, from Boston to Bangalore. But throughout AT&T’s network of call centers in the Global South, cries of frustration over low wages, long hours and union busting are ringing out.
A new report by the union Communications Workers of America (CWA) outlines how AT&T’s outsourcing of jobs to overseas third-party contractors is turning once-stable, US-based union jobs into exploitative low-paid gig work in Asia and Latin America. The profits netted from outsourcing exacts a heavy price, they argue, both for underpaid workers and for poorly served consumers worldwide.
The report affirms rising unrest among CWA members in AT&T’s US divisions, who have threatened to strike in the coming weeks as contract talks for call centers workers stagnate amid what they call a global “race to the bottom for the lowest wages.” After raging for years about the loss of jobs through offshoring, AT&T workers have made it a major flashpoint in long-running contract talks which also touch on similar grievances among wireless, retail and cable employees about declining job quality. With at least 29 call centers shut down nationwide, about 12,000 jobs have vanished since 2011—many of them from low-income rural and urban communities who had relied on call centers to support stable service and technical careers. Meanwhile, the telecom giant’s subcontracted overseas workforce has mushroomed in poorer countries like India, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
Workers at call centers in the Philippines, for example, might earn just $2 an hour for a job that would have paid a living wage with benefits in the US. Mexican call center base wages range from $3.97 to $4.58 an hour, and in the Dominican Republic, as little as $2.13. Though the pay is often better than wages in ordinary local jobs in these countries (Mexican factory workers, for example, make less than $3 an hour, and the estimated living wage in the Dominican Republic is about $2.83), in terms of how workers are treated, the offshored jobs can’t compare to the US jobs that AT&T has abandoned.