After deindustrialization in the United States and the subsequent loss of manufacturing jobs, many US politicians and leaders faulted a foreign “other,” rather than government policy and profligate corporations. As a result, many former manufacturing workers and union members blamed, and continue to blame, workers in other countries for “taking American jobs.” This racism and xenophobia undermines parts of the labor movement, a movement otherwise concerned with social justice and fair treatment.
Senior Fellow Kalena Thomhave is supportive of the American labor movement, but, like many Americans, did not connect the fight for unions in the U.S. to similar struggles abroad. Kalena was intrigued by the fact that, though Americans may be unaware of international labor struggles, they often interact with foreign workers, citing the example of the Philippines now being the “call center capital of the world.”
When Americans call a customer service line, chances are they will be connected to a worker in the Philippines.
With this in mind, Kalena wanted to create an Action Project that highlighted the experiences of workers at a call center in the Philippines and their solidarity work with an American labor union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). It was her goal to highlight the need for international labor solidarity, as well as the ill-treatment of Filipino workers by an American company. She decided to write a series of articles for the public policy magazine The American Prospect.
Kalena worked with CWA and BPO Industry Employment Network (BIEN) to conduct interviews with key stakeholders and did extensive research on the effects of globalization and offshoring jobs. Given the difficulty of connecting with workers abroad, it was not always easy to find sources for her project. Additionally, many of the workers have previously received death threats for speaking to the press, which meant they were hesitant to further endanger their lives.
American CWA jobs had been lost and pushed to the Philippines, but CWA workers did not blame the Filipino workers for their companies’ actions.
Despite these challenges, she managed to secure a Skype interview with Sarah Prestoza, president of a call center union in the Philippines. Sarah was being fired for organizing workers. Kalena was struck by Sarah’s passion and commitment for the work, despite losing her job due to the Duterte regime’s efforts to turn union organizers into enemies. It was clear that the support of American call center workers meant a lot to Sarah and her colleagues.
The solidarity between CWA and BIEN surprised Kalena. American CWA jobs had been lost and pushed to the Philippines, but CWA workers did not blame the Filipino workers for their companies’ actions. Kalena shares that, “For someone undertaking a similar reporting project on human rights violations overseas, my advice is that supportive organizations are essential. CWA connected me to BIEN in the first place, otherwise I would not have had that connection.”
You can get involved with this issue by checking your own consumption habits.
While this project is finished, the struggle for human rights and labor unions in the Philippines continues. Call center workers have been especially affected by COVID-19 and have been forced to work under poor conditions.
You can get involved with this issue by checking your own consumption habits–do your favorite brands work with companies that contract call center organizations with inhumane labor practices? You can also lobby your congressmembers to pass laws that would raise labor standards for American companies operating/contracting abroad.
You can read Kalena’s articles by following the links below.
Building Worker Solidarity Across Borders
New Legislation Would Rein in Corporate Offshoring
American Call Center Workers Rally for their Filipino Counterparts