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9 Sep 2020

Disconnected: The COVID-19 pandemic & call centre workers‘ rights in Tunisia & Morocco

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The global spread of COVID-19 has prompted unprecedented measures to contain the virus, including the temporary shutdown of business and widespread restrictions on movement. Yet throughout the pandemic, it has been business as usual for some offshore call centre agents in Tunisia and Morocco, who continued handling calls and queries on behalf of multinational companies to serve the needs of clients and customers abroad. As soon as COVID-19 reached North Africa, allegations of forced work, intimidation and threats of dismissal emerged, as workers operating in packed call centres also reported a lack of personal protective equipment.

This briefing summarises some of the key human rights risks to workers in this sector, and considers the steps taken by five call centres - AXA Services Maroc, Majorel, Téléperformance, Transcom and Webhelp - operating in and four clients - Microsoft, Orange, PayPal, Samsung - outsourcing services to Tunisia and/or Morocco to protect workers during the crisis. While call centre companies reported taking important steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, our research also indicates that call centres, and international clients who can influence their treatment of workers, need to do more to mitigate existing human rights risks which have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.

Systemic risks include:

  • Long hours, high pressure and a stressful environment for which the sector is notorious.
  • The struggle to receive full wages and benefits driven by unrealistic targets and employer expectations around sick leave.
  • Lack of effective representation and barriers to unionisation.

Key findings from the survey of companies include:

  • All five call centres reported taking measures to protect workers’ health and safety, particularly via enabling remote work arrangements.
  • No call centre explicitly committed to paying sick or quarantined workers their salaries in full, leaving workers to “pay the price” for the pandemic.
  • Lack of transparency in the sourcing of these services.
  • Three out of five call centres said they were unable to implement remote working policies for all workers due to client demands. Yet, all four clients reported supporting call centres in implementing homeworking.
  • Only one client company, Samsung, shared specific guidance it issued to call centres on how to manage COVID-19.

Salma Houerbi, MENA Researcher and Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre says:

“The clear disconnect between call centre and client companies sparks concern around the opacity of these partnerships and raises questions around how much oversight tech giants like Microsoft, Orange, PayPal and Samsung have over their customer service supply chains, not to mention whether they would have greater concerns over this workforce if it were under store roofs closer to home.”