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Press Release

Thousands of call centre workers in Tunisia and Morocco at risk of infection and labour abuse as COVID-19 exposes weaknesses in opaque customer service outsourcing

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

Amid existing long hours and high-pressure working conditions for call centre workers, our survey finds:

  • Many workers were forced to work in cramped conditions without adequate protection in the first months of the pandemic.
  • Due to threat of substantial loss of income from sickness or absence, countless workers endured pressure to work through infection and ignore quarantine.
  • Despite the enhanced safety of home-working, call centre management report they need workers on-site to meet the demands of tech-giant clients. This conflicts with client reports which permit home-working.
  • Lack of transparency in tech-giant supply chains, and obstacles to representation of worker voice, means workers can be left exposed to risk, and accountability is undermined.
  • Call centre companies report taking measures to protect health and safety, and clients report that they engaged with call centres to implement remote working policies. Only Samsung shared guidance to call centres it had issued in March.

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London, United Kingdom – Tunisia and Morocco’s call centre sectors continued providing essential services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as existing risks around economic hardship and psychological strain worsened, and new health hazards left over 100,000 workers at even greater risk. With cases of COVID-19 on the rise in Tunisia and Morocco, call centre companies and clients must work together to improve working conditions.

A new report by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) looks at the steps five call centre companies and four clients were taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, assist workers who become infected, and ensure workers do not suffer disproportionate economic hardship; companies included: Microsoft, Orange, PayPal, Samsung, AXA Services Maroc, Majorel, Téléperformance, Transcom and Webhelp.

This research follows allegations of imposed work, intimidation, and threats of dismissal, as workers operating in packed call centres also reported a lack of clarity around COVID-19 working policies and personal protective equipment. Business & Human Rights Resource Centre spoke with ICT union representatives, international labour rights groups and workers and contacted companies to investigate working conditions, both before and during the pandemic.

While call centre companies reported taking important steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, new research also indicates that call centres, and international clients who can influence their treatment of workers, need to do more to improve conditions, including systemic issues around pay and work-induced stress, as well as the risk of disproportionate harm to their workers as a result of the pandemic.

Systemic risks include:

  • Long hours, high pressure and a stressful environment for which the sector is notorious, due to constant supervision of employees by multiple managers, extensive irregular hours, and limited individual control over schedules.
  • 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. Typically, only large foreign call centre companies have union representation and worker-employer negotiations, with more than 80% of the Moroccan sector lacking union affiliation. This inhibits workers’ voices and their ability to negotiate better terms and address grievances.

Hayat, a Tunisian worker interviewed for this research (renamed for her safety) said:

“In the last call centre I worked for, I arrived five minutes late and my salary was cut by a third. Initially you think the salary is good enough to maintain a decent living but soon you realise you can’t even be absent when sick if you want to make ends meet.”

In response to the pandemic, all five call centre companies outlined steps they were taking to reduce the number of on-site workers and safeguard those that remained, including high risk workers such as pregnant women and workers with chronic health conditions. Despite this, none of the call centre companies committed to pay sick or quarantined staff their wages in full, an approach which is likely to incentivise workers to hide illness out of fear of income loss.

Although all five reported introducing home or teleworking policies for some workers, three out of five (Majorel, Téléperformance, and Webhelp) said that home or teleworking is not possible for all. Yet none of the four call centre client companies reported asking call centres to keep workers on site or mentioned concern about confidentiality as a hindrance to homeworking. Microsoft, Orange, and Samsung all said they had engaged with their providers in Tunisia and or Morocco to implement remote working policies, while PayPal said they were “supporting [their] outsourcing partners” but did not explain how.

“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.”
Salma Houerbi, MENA Researcher and Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

// ENDS

Media Contact:

Salma Houerbi, MENA Researcher & Representative, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected] (Arabic, French & English speaker, Tunis-based),

Harriet Wood, Communications Team, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, [email protected] (English speaker, London-based)

Read the report

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