Decent work

A new book by the International Labour Organization (ILO) says that "remote
work" - the offshoring and outsourcing of business services from developed to
developing countries using information and communications technologies - is
creating jobs that are of "reasonably good quality by local standards", but
that the industry has some way to go before achieving full decent work.

"Offshoring and Working Conditions in Remote Work" presents the first in-depth
study of the workplace in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry,
which can broadly be divided into "voice" services, such as call/contact
centres, and "back office" services, like finance and accounting, data
processing and management, and human resource development.

"This is a rapidly growing industry worth an approximate US$ 90 billion", says
Jon Messenger, Senior Researcher with the Conditions of Work and Employment
Programme of the ILO and co-editor of the study with Naj Ghosheh. "A lot has
been written about this phenomenon and its implications for economic growth and
employment. However, very little is known about the working conditions in the
BPO industry".

The book presents case studies in four major "destination" countries:
Argentina, Brazil, India and the Philippines. It examines remote work, its
impact on the labour market in general and the workforce in particular, and the
possible implications for working and employment conditions in countries where
the BPO industry is growing.

A mixed picture emerges when analyzing the working conditions in these
countries. "On the positive side, and unlike previous assumptions, remote work
jobs are of a reasonable good quality by local standards. For example, wages of
Indian BPO workers are nearly double the average wages in other sectors of the
Indian economy. In the Philippines, BPO employees earn 53 per cent more than
workers of the same age in other industries", says Mr. Messenger.

On the other hand, night work is common to serve customers in distant time
zones in ‘real time’ and work is generally stressful. "BPO employees face heavy
workloads backed by performance targets combined with tight rules and
procedures, all this enforced via electronic monitoring. This type of
high-strain work organization is well-known to produce high levels of
job-related stress", adds Mr. Messenger.

Another negative aspect of the BPO industry is the high rate of staff turnover,
which in some companies can reach as high as 100 per cent or more annually.

The book by Messenger and Ghosheh finds that "back office" positions tend to be
of higher quality than call centre positions in terms of their wages and other
working conditions. In addition, workers serving outside markets appear to have
better quality jobs than those focused on domestic markets, mainly as a result
of the higher skills required in international positions.

Analyzing the impact of the global economic crisis on the BPO industry, the
book says that some companies - particularly in the banking and insurance
sectors - have suffered a considerable blow which could affect the industry as
a whole, but only in the short term.

The study goes on to explain that the factors driving the industry's expansion
- such as the continuous search for cost savings and increasingly sophisticated
and inexpensive technologies - are unlikely to diminish and could even
accelerate in the medium to long term.

The book describes the BPO workforce as young, generally well-educated and
predominantly female. With a few notable exceptions, most prominently India,
women constitute the vast majority (60 per cent or more) of BPO employees in
nearly all countries with a substantial BPO industry.

The book concludes by offering some suggestions for government policies and
company practices that could further improve the quality of jobs in the BPO
industry and increase productivity.

These changes include stronger measures to protect the health and safety of
night workers, in line with the ILO Night Work Convention; a redesign of work
processes, especially in call centres, so that BPO employees have more freedom
to make use of their often considerable qualifications, as well as greater
latitude in when to take rest and toilet breaks; and policies and practices
aimed at improving workers’ collective voice and promoting social dialogue in
the industry - which ultimately would benefit both workers and employers alike.

"The BPO industry has at times been heralded as the wave of future knowledge
work in a service and information economy, and alternatively, demonized as a
‘brave new world’ of electronic sweatshops. The reality, as one might imagine,
is far more complex. The bottom line is that this is an industry with the
potential to offer a model for a future of good quality service sector jobs and
high-performing companies in the global economy", concludes Mr. Messenger.

More info - Source: International Labour Organization