White Papers

Health, Safety and Working Conditions in a Contact Center

(A Case Study done by the Occupational Safety and Health Center, Department of Labor and Employment)

 “What are call contact centers?

     A contact center is a central customer service operation where agents, often called customer care specialists or customer service representatives handle telephone calls on behalf of a client. Contact center workers use telephones and computers to conduct their business. The services provided by the contact centers include Technical support or customer care,Ticket booking, Telemarketing, Market research and survey, Financial services, Fundraising, medical services, among others.

      “Work in contact centers is highly standardized and controlled. Operators give rote responses taken from per- written scripts and manuals and ,hours of the work is controlled by computers. Electronic performance, onto ring of work volume, error rates, voice quality and content of telephone conversations is done remotely.

 x x x x

 “What are the occupational safety and health conditions in contact centers

     “x x x Among the identified health problems in contact center employees were pains in the neck/shoulder, wrist and back areas. These problems were associated with poor workstation design such as computer monitors placed above eye level, work surfaces that were to high or non-adjustable chairs. Other factors mentioned that contribute to the development of muscle and joint pains were long uninterrupted hours of work with the computer, invariable and sedentary work and low job satisfaction.

      “Another health issue that affects contact enter operators is the risk of having voice problems. Symptoms noted were dry and itchy throat, hoarseness, frequent clearing of throat. One of the factors identified to contribute to the problem is the high demand on the vocal system because of the interactive nature of the task of contact center operators. Workers also reported eye strain associated with the physical environment such as poor lighting conditions and uninterrupted use of computers.

      “the major psychosocial and work organization stressors identified by participants include: very little job security fearing that their call center might close suddenly; dealing with rude clients; unrealistic performance quotas assessed in terms of call rates, call times, sales quotas; constant electronic performance monitoring; and random taping of phone conversations. Other job stressors identified were work schedules that interfere with family and social life; very early or late shifts created transportation problems and concerns for safety and performing simplified, highly fragmented, repetitive, fast paced workloads. The interaction of these psychosocial factors and other work related and other work factors have been related to injury and other health issues in the workplace.

      “Contact center workers have been documented to have occasional exposure to higher noise levels, for example from fax tones, holding tones, and high pitched tones from mobile telephones.  High sound levels in the room may also occur from the simultaneous talking of the employees.  Though it is recognized that in general, the levels of noise transmitted through the headsets or levels present in the contact centers are incapable of damaging the ear directly, a large number of workers studied were concerned that their hearing was being damaged as a result of exposure to noise at work.


      “In 2001 to 2002, the study was conducted to add to the little knowledge available on OSH issues related with contact centers. x x x In the Philippines, there is a lack, if not total absence, of information on occupational safety and health conditions in contact centers.  The OSH standards cover practically all workplaces in the formal sector but the peculiarity of certain hazards and risks in Contact Centers needed addressing.

      “In addition to susceptibility to health problems from computer use, contact center workers have to deal with work organization and psychosocial factors such as fear of not being able to meet performance quotas, anxiety over constant electronic monitoring of performance, predominant night work to coincide with regular working hours in Northern America or Europe, disruption in social and domestic life and safety concerns because of night work.

      “This rapidly expanding industry also has to deal with concerns of  women especially working mothers as well as with work issues of young workers.  It also related to the aspirations of young workers in terms of career opportunities and training.

 Results of the Study:


     “The main objective of this study was to determine the prevailing safety and health conditions and to look at the nature and frequency of job-related complaints among the workers.  By undertaking this study, the study team was able to find out critical information about aspects of contact center work that influences the health and well-being of workers.


   “The results of the study showed that musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) significantly impact the well-being of workers.  As demonstrated by the results of the study, the health complaints commonly reported by the respondents were MSDs affecting the upper back, neck and lower back.  Ergonomic risk factors observed that contributed to these disorders were highly repetitive typing or mouse use, static muscle contractions from postural fixation such as prolonged sitting brought about by intensive computer use, inadequate workplace dimensions and layout, unfavorable physical environment, and long working hours.


     “Visual symptoms can be linked to conditions surrounding computer use in the contact center.  Glare, inappropriate monitor heights, long hours of computer work, dry cold air, and high air speed have been associated with eyes train in many epidemiological studies.  These conditions were identified in all the Contact Centers visited during the conduct of the study.  Furthermore, computer work is associated with elevated viewing angle, reduced blinking rate and widening of the ocular surface area that would consequence,t produce drying of the eyes and increased eye discomfort.


     “x x x The voice problems were associated with vocally demanding tasks in the company.  In fact, a study on the prevalence and risks factors for voice problems among telemarketers showed that telemarketers were twice as likely to report 1 or more symptoms of vocal attrition.  x x x complaints referable to hearing may emanate from the

Noise explore through headsets.  Making and receiving class present little disturbance, however, other sources of noise may crate problems for the workers.  Background. Noise may stem from within the workplace such as colleagues tailing simultaneously, music or. Noise coming from the other end. Extraneous high frequency noises from mobile telephones, fax tones or for. Bad line connection ,ay also expose workers to short-term high noise levels and cause ringing in the ears or decrease in hearing ability. Hearing problems may arise from sharing of headsets as this practice increases the risk of ear infection.


     “The odd work schedule is a peculiarity in contact. Enters in the Philippines. This is characterized by predominantly ninth work to coincide with the regular work hours of the clients in Northern America or Europe. Night work, thus, becomes an important occupational safety and health issues.  Prolonged nocturnal work forces the worker to invert the ‘activity-rest’ cycle and has been documented to have negative impact on the health and well-being of the workers.  Health effects may include sleep disorders, eating disturbances and gastrointestinal disorders, mental problems and cardiovascular disturbances.


     “Effects on work performances and efficiency leading to errors and accidents have also been documented. The increased use of caffeine, alcohol or drugs such as metaamphetamines or sleeping pills by workers trying to overcome the effects of fatigue or trying to get to sleep have also been observed.  Night shifts and weekend work may cause problems with the social and domestic lives of employees and their families.  The workers’ activities are essentially ‘out of synch’ with their families, friends and community in general.” x x x x x.

Philippine Call Center Work Conditions

Philippine calls centers work under the principle of contracting and subcontracting or what they termed outsourcing. Local subcontracting was reported to be most often done to achieve “numerical flexibility” which aims “to render workers disposable rather than adaptable” by creating a secondary workforce in addition to that which is permanently employed (core workforce) (Hutchison, 2001). This kind of flexibly cam be achieved by employing a casual workforce or putting excess production out to other local firms.

Rose (2004) quoted a description of Bain, et al. Of the type of work in call centers –

“For many employed in this sector, the daily experience is patently of repetitive, intensive and frequently stressful work, based on Taylorist principles which can result in employee burn-out. These pressures are exacerbated through the performance of emotional labor. Employee performance is measured and monitored to an unprecedented degree by electronic surveillance, augmented by more traditional methods. Involvement and communication techniques, particularly team working, are more concerned with the exercise of managerial control, productivity and I prove nets and social objectives than with any meaningful commitment to developing employee empowerment. Flat organization structures severely constrain opportunities for promotion and further contribute to the sector’s high labor turnover.” Quoted from the Dissertation of Ms. ARLENE C. BOOL, entitled “The Future of Unionism in The Philippine Call Center Industry”, De La Salle University College of Business and Economics, Graduate Studies.

In her dissertation, Ms. Bool cited the following work related problems of employees in the call center sector:

  1. Lack of security of tenure due to contractual or non-regular employment. Ms. Bool quoted Michael Cooke’s article published in Union Network International, January 2005, ” Cooke in his study “Stretched to theLimit noted that workers have the impression That they can be terminated with little or no warning if they fall out with their team leaders or lag behind their targets. Call center agents said that even though they have been with the company for more than one year, they could still be terminated once the client decided to pull out of the program x x x.”
  2. Related Health problems as noted by Ms. Bool, “Call center employees are concerned about the health implications of constant changes in their work schedules because their sleeping patterns are disturbed. They sometimes do not get lunch and/or short breaks when there is high volume of incoming calls, which increases the risk factor to uri ary tract infection (UTI) and other health risks associated with such working conditions. X xx prolonged exposure to computers causes eyes train, back pain and migraine.””BPO India described BOSS (Burn-Out Stress Syndrome) as commonly occurring among young people working in call centers. Symptoms of thus syndrome include chronic fatigue, insomnia and complete alteration of the 24-hour biological rhythm of the body. Anew, repetitive call-center disease called ‘centre-itis’ is identified and prevalent. Long work hours and little opportunity for even a drink of water are behind the condition.”

    “Stress Comes from the job itself–all day on the phone, assisting or appeasing customers, it’s repetitive nature and pressure to meet performance targets x x x are found to be the the four key stressors.”


Dr. Rene Ofreneo, Professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relation, University of the Philippines, an article co-authored with Mr. Christopher Ng and Ms. Leian Marasigan, in an article published in the IJIR, (Vol. 42, No. 4, April 2007, noted:

“Call center agents are dubbed ‘professionals’ or ‘managerial employees’ and are made to believe that they are a class apart from the working population and do not need the services of a union given the supposedly high wages they are getting. And yet it is abundantly clear that these agents need a union or an organization to defend their welfare and advance their collective interests just like any group of workers. Some urgent issues which should galvanize the call center employees are the following:

– How to have a say on the labour process, e.g., on the determination of call quotas, on the number and length of breaks, etc.

– How to make work conditions in the call centers more bearable and humane, e.g. Setting the temperature just right, having ergonomic chairs and cubicles, etc.

“And yes, employees should have a say on tenure, discipline and grievances. On tenure, why are employees not regularized and why are they hired on a project-to-project basis? On discipline, are the work rules, e.g. on electronic monitoring, reasonable and made known to employees? Why should call center agents be classified by some centers as ‘managerial employees’? To ease the process of terminating unwanted or erring agents? Is the principle of due process – in meting disciplinary actions and serving suspension/termination orders — understood and respected in the industry? There are reports that some expatriate American managers even try to impose American-style firing-at-will practice, which is a ‘no-no’ in both Indian and Philippine industrial relations setting.

“As to grievances, a good company, whether unionized or not, should have a system of hearing and processing employee complaints and grievances. But how is this possible in a place where work is almost hundred percent dedicated to servicing global clients and where interaction within the office is very limited (with agent’s movements limited to the trips to the rest rooms or to the coffee makers or, in the case of a few centers, to the nap rooms)? How can employees raise their concerns about the following:

– Health and safety,
– Career pathing and development,
– Skills development and personal advancement,
– Savings for the future,
– Having a social life,
– Raising a family, and
– Long-term occupational or job security.

“Employees should be allowed more discretion on how to handle calls instead of requiring repetitive and rigidly scripted responses. The mass production style of call center operations require employees to finish calls within 4 minutes or so — longer call times in international call centers shorter for domestic call centers (Batt, et.al. 2005). There is strict implementation of the Service Level Agreements (SLAs), which are part of the contract between the call centers and client firm. SLAs specify both qualitative and quantitative criteria for calls, including call volumes, abandonment rates, call handling times, etc. In a research (Batt, et.al. 2005), managers from international and domestic call centers in India were asked how much discretion do workers have in terms of daily tasks, pace of work, work methods and interaction with customers. Around 60-78 per cent of managers said their employees had little or no discretion over these things.

“Very few call centers use problem-solving groups or work team approaches. Large call center outfits in particular are seen as more impersonal. As a result, they are harder to manage, often have higher levels of turnover and have more workers experiencing alienation. In smaller call centers which usually cater to domestic rather than international markets, there is more opportunity to develop closer relationship among employees and managers and adopt more flexible work arrangements (Batt, et.al. 2005).

“It is interesting how some studies in India reveal that workers show resistance to highly monitored workflows. Some employees who know precisely when they are monitored maximize rewards by working ‘better’ than when not monitored. Others are able to creatively resolve customer problems by manipulating procedures, despite the company’s requirement on the use of scripts. Still others give false or ‘hoax’ solutions to clients just to meet the speed requirement or escape irate customers or calls that are more complicated (Taylor and Bain, 2005).


On unionism, resistance by industry has been fierce and unqualified. The industry has resisted any organizing efforts, while the host Asian governments have been silent on the issue of unionism and employee representation in the call center industry. In 2005, NASSCOM blasted a study by VV Giri Institute, a research institute under the Indian Ministry of Labour, portraying the call centers as 19th century sweatshops located in 21st century ‘swanky glass towers’ (Sharma, October 24, 2005). The report, based on a survey of 280 call center agents, denounced the labor monitoring practices in call centers as “comparable with the situations of the 19th century prisons or Roman slave ships”. It added that all interactions among employees are recorded or taped, mistakes in work immediately get written reprimands and warnings, and a leave without prior notice even if the employee is sick is considered terminable cause. Overall, it appears that call center employers and investors have a narrow concept of unionism and have the misplaced idea that unionism will wreak havoc on their business. This is 19th century thinking.

Ironically, like in the old conflict-ridden manufacturing industry of the 19th century, unionism, if accepted, can be a factor for the stabilization of work and work relations in the global call center industry studies commissioned by the UNI’s Asia-Pacific Regional Organization in India and the Philippines (UNI-APRO, Forum on Outsourcing, 2005) show a uniform acceptance by majority of the call center agents of the idea of having and joining a union. In the Philippines, almost all the respondents expressed interest in joining the union, for purposes of addressing wage and work condition concerns. In India, the survey showed that majority have a positive view of the role of the unions and have expressed numerous employee concerns which the present HR system in the industry is unable to address such as the high work load, the commensurate pay needed from such work and respect employees are entitled to.

On the other hand, the industry represents an entirely new frontier for organizing for trade unions. It is obvious that old-style bread-and-butter or fire-and-brimstone union proselytizing will not work. New creative cyber-age tactics are needed. Unions must also understand the nature of the business and must demonstrate readiness to accept cooperative partnership to make business and jobs sustainable concerns. At the same time, unions should be able to develop capacity in negotiating the rights of call center employees for health and safety, career mobility, skills development and personal advancement, savings for the future, having a social life, raising a family,many long-term occupational or job security.