Offshore Outsourced Jobs Pay Well, but Are Stressful

Developing countries are benefiting from business process outsourcing jobs (BPO) that are of "reasonably good quality" by local standards, but the industry has some way to go to improve stressful working conditions, according to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) released on Monday.

A large number of companies in countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. have outsourced call center and back-office work to low-cost locations such as India, the Philippines and Brazil. A lot of the work gets done at night because of the time zone differences.

Employees have benefited with higher salaries. The wages of Indian BPO workers are nearly double the average wages in other sectors of the Indian economy, according to the study titled "Offshoring and Working Conditions in Remote Work." In the Philippines, BPO employees earn 53 per cent more than workers of the same age in other industries.

On the flip side, the ILO study confirms to a large extent concerns raised by social workers and trade unions in India about stressful working conditions at BPO companies.

Workers have to cope with heavy and variable workloads driven by performance targets, tight rules and procedures enforced through electronic monitoring, and unpleasant tasks such as dealing with difficult customers over the phone, the study said.

Efforts by trade unions to introduce collective bargaining in the BPO industry in some key outsourcing places such as India and the Philippines have not been successful.

"We have not had any success in introducing collective bargaining in call centers and other BPO companies in the Philippines," said Anna Fos, who heads research at the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

A key reason is that BPO workers in the Philippines find it easy to move to another BPO job if they have a problem with their current employer, Fos said. "They will not come to us, if there is a problem, as there are lots of jobs available", she added.

Workers in BPO companies also do not join trade unions because they are scared of reprisals from employers, Fos said.

Moves to unionize Indian BPO workers have also been frustrated by lack of interest from employees, according to analysts.

The BPO industry employs about 1 million people in India, according to the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom).

The work conditions faced by BPO workers constitute a "tailor-made recipe" for stress-related hazards, according to the ILO study. These problems are also clearly linked to the high rates of staff turnover in the industry -- which can be as high as 100 per cent annually in some companies -- and represents a serious problem for BPO companies, it added.

The study suggests a number of measures that governments and companies can take to improve working conditions, including measures to protect workers' health and safety at night. It also suggests a redesign of work processes, particularly in call centers, in order to allow BPO employees more discretion to "make use of their often considerable qualifications." ILO also recommends policies and practices aimed at improving workers' dialog with management.

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