Via Financial Times

Amazon has said it is urgently investigating claims of “subhuman” conditions at a Philippines call centre, where workers say coronavirus travel restrictions have left them sleeping in close quarters on makeshift beds.

Video footage and stills, taken at the weekend and provided to the Financial Times, appear to show several employees sleeping on the floor at a facility in Cebu City. One employee appears to have set up a bed on a treadmill.

The Amazon-contracted workers at the site, which is managed by managed by French outsourcing company Teleperformance, provide support to customers who have bought the US tech giant’s internet-connected Ring camera systems.

While it is typical for some Filipino call centre workers to sleep on-site to avoid long commutes, workers said lockdown restrictions meant the facility had been overwhelmed. Employees said they were only able to leave the site to buy groceries or use showers at a nearby hotel.

As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, Cebu City has been put in a state of “enhanced community quarantine”, with police-enforced movement restrictions and public transport shut down. Unable to take a daily commute, workers at the facility have been faced with a choice of remaining at the site round the clock or forgoing their work entirely.

UNI Global Union said the Amazon contract stipulated that all work be done on-site. A Ring spokeswoman declined to go into specifics regarding the terms of its contract.

In a letter to their bosses, the workers say promises of adequate sleeping arrangements have not materialised, which has led to “hundreds” of workers sleeping in the facility, including on the call centre floor itself and in a small gym.

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“We are urgently investigating these allegations and addressing them with Teleperformance at the most senior level,” the Ring spokeswoman said.

“Ring does not tolerate violations of our vendor Code of Conduct, and we expect our vendors to follow government orders and recommendations regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, including our strict guidelines for social distancing.”

Executives at Teleperformance declined to offer an immediate comment on the conditions.

Workers queueing at the Amazon facility before their shift: in the letters, workers said conditions had become ‘subhuman’ © UNI Global Union

Streaming giant Netflix also contracts Teleperformance employees out of Cebu, though a spokesman said its workers had been encouraged to work at home — and the vast majority were doing so.

Amazon said its understanding of the sleeping arrangements was that they were voluntary. But the UNI Global Union, which advocates for call centre employees, said that since the outbreak of the virus, those on the Amazon contract were offered extra financial incentives — the equivalent of three months’ pay — if the adherence to a normal work schedule was maintained to at least 95 per cent.

In their letter, workers said conditions had become “subhuman” after the travel ban meant staying at the location was their only option if they wished to get paid. “Our choices are only between going to work or else to starve,” the letter said. “And you are all aware that in this desperate time, we will choose the former. But that does not excuse you from your responsibility to treat [us] fairly, as human beings.”

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Teleperformance employees face severe penalties for talking to the media or sharing information about their work in any way. A contract seen by the FT suggested that workers would be considered liable for “damages” of “at least” 500,000 pesos — roughly two years’ salary — for breaking confidentiality agreements, on top of losing their job.

“While it is not unprecedented for some number of call centre workers to stay overnight, housing hundreds of workers for weeks in extremely close quarters during a pandemic is a tragedy waiting to happen,” said Christy Hoffman, UNI’s general secretary.

“Teleperformance and clients like Amazon are responsible for providing workers safe, sanitary work conditions, and if they cannot do so, workers should not have to suffer because of their failure.”