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Big tech pressuring its call center workers

Big tech pressuring its call center workers

Workers at one of the biggest call centers in the world said that more monitoring would invade their families’ privacy at home.

An investigation by AutoNews360 found that call center employees in Colombia who work for some of the biggest companies in the United States are being pressured to sign a contract that lets their employers put cameras in their homes to watch how well they do their jobs.

Six Colombian employees of Teleperformance, one of the largest call center companies in the world whose clients include Apple, Amazon, and Uber, said they were worried about the new contract, which was first given out in March. The contract lets AI-powered cameras in workers’ homes be used to keep an eye on them, analyze their voices, and store information about their family members, including children. More than 380,000 people work for Teleperformance around the world, including 39,000 in Colombia.

“The contract lets them keep an eye on what we do, but also on our families,” said a Bogota-based Apple employee who was not allowed to talk to the press. “I really don’t like it.” We don’t have a place to work. I work in my bedroom. “I don’t want a camera in my bedroom.”

The worker said that she signed the contract because she didn’t want to lose her job. AutoNews360 looked at a copy of the contract. She said that her boss told her that if she didn’t sign the document, she would be taken off the Apple account. She said that the extra surveillance tools have not yet been put in place.

All of the workers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media. Their concerns show a trend related to the pandemic that has privacy and labor experts worried: As more and more people do their jobs at home, some companies are pushing for more digital monitoring of their employees to make up for the lack of supervision that comes with working from home.

The problem is not limited to the people who work for Teleperformance in Colombia. On its website, the company says that its TP Cloud Campus software, which lets employees work from home in more than 19 markets, can do the same kind of monitoring. In a January 2021 official Teleperformance video for TP Cloud Campus, they talk about how they use “AI to monitor clean desk policy and fraud” by looking at camera feeds from their remote workers. And in its most recent earnings report, which came out in June, Teleperformance said that the TP Cloud Campus product has allowed 240,000 of its 380,000 employees to work from home.

At the end of 2020, Teleperformance workers in Albania, including those who worked on the Apple U.K. account, complained to the country’s information and data protection commissioner about the company’s plan to put video monitoring in their homes. Later, the commissioner said that Teleperformance couldn’t use webcams to keep an eye on Albanian workers at home.

Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings, said that in the wake of the pandemic, surveillance at home has become the norm. “Companies see a lot of value in putting in software to do the kinds of monitoring they would have expected their managers to do, but in reality, it’s much more intrusive than surveillance done by a boss.”

Mark Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Teleperformance, said that the company is “always looking for ways to improve the Teleperformance Colombia experience for both our employees and our customers, with privacy and respect as key factors in everything we do.”

“We are committed to fair practices, equality, inclusion, diversity, non-discrimination, labor sustainability, ethics, and transparency,” Pfeiffer said. “We will continue to do everything we can to uphold these values for our teams and all our key stakeholders.”

He said that the contract asks for permission for a wide range of possible situations. This is to make sure that Teleperformance is following data privacy laws as it keeps making tools to improve long-term work from home for employees and clients.

He also said that Teleperformance had just been certified as a “Great Place to Work” by a third party based on confidential surveys of thousands of employees in Colombia for the fourth year in a row. This, he said, “validated that the vast majority of our employees in Colombia view us positively as a fair, caring, and trustworthy employer, even though we all live in tough times.”

But it doesn’t look like companies like Apple are directly putting pressure on the government to do this. Nick Leahy, a spokesman for Apple, said, “We don’t allow our suppliers to use video or photo monitoring, and we know for sure that Teleperformance doesn’t use video monitoring for any of their teams that work with Apple.” Leahy said that Apple had checked out Teleperformance in Colombia this year and did not find any “core violations of our strict standards.”

“We look into all claims and will keep making sure that everyone in our supply chain is treated with respect and dignity,” he said.

Big tech pressuring its call center workers

Home-based work

During the pandemic, like many other companies, Teleperformance moved most of its employees around the world to work from home. At first, the company was under a lot of scrutiny from labor unions around the world after photos were leaked to news outlets showing some of its employees in the Philippines, where most Teleperformance workers were located, sleeping at work so they could be there to help Amazon Ring customers in U.S. time zones. At the time, some workers didn’t like how the office was set up and said they’d rather work at home because it would be easier and safer. There is no evidence that Colombian workers slept at the office.

However, workers claim that this convenience and safety appear to have come at the expense of their privacy. Workers said that in March, Teleperformance sent all of its workers around the world, including 95% of its 39,000 Colombian employees who worked from home, an eight-page addendum to their employment contracts that asked them to agree to new rules about home surveillance. Workers said that management told them that clients asked for extra monitoring to improve security and stop any data breaches while they were working from home because of the pandemic.

The document asks workers to agree to have video cameras pointed at their workspaces installed in their homes or on their computers so that they can be watched and recorded in real time. It also says that workers agree to Teleperformance using AI-powered video analysis tools that can find mobile phones, paper, and other items that are against Teleperformance’s security policies. They must also agree to share fingerprints, photos, and other biometric information about themselves and any children under 18 who might be picked up by video and audio monitoring tools. There is also a clause that says if workers are asked, they have to take polygraph tests.

The Teleperformance spokesperson, Pfeiffer, said that cameras were used for spot checks of the company’s “clean desk” policy and sometimes to make sure that data security procedures were being followed. He also said that no data from employees was being recorded. He said that Teleperformance was only testing the AI-powered video analysis in three of its markets at the moment. He said that employees gave their permission to share biometric information and that polygraphs are used in certain security studies with the permission of employees. The company admitted that it asked workers for permission to share information about minors, but it said it didn’t share this information with anyone outside of Teleperformance.

Uber, unlike Apple, said it wanted to keep an eye on some of its employees but not all of them. Lois Van Der Laan, a spokesperson for Uber, said that its customer service agents have access to private and sensitive information about users, like credit card numbers and trip details, and that protecting this information is a top priority for the company. So, Uber asked Teleperformance to keep an eye on staff working on its accounts to make sure that only hired employees are accessing the data, that outsourced staff isn’t recording screen data on another device like a phone, and that no one else is near the computer who shouldn’t be. She said that Uber doesn’t need any more monitoring than that.

Bringing up worries

Some of Teleperformance’s customer service agents were worried about the level of surveillance at home described in the contract since calls are already closely monitored by software.

One Amazon employee works night shifts in Colombia so she can help Spanish-speaking customers. Only in the bedroom, she shares with her husband is it quiet enough for her to take customer calls. He sleeps on the bed while she answers calls from a desk. She told NBC News that she’s afraid the microphones might pick up the sound of him snoring.

During training, she had to keep the camera on her computer, but Teleperformance hasn’t put up any more cameras or monitoring in her home yet, she said.

She said, “It violates my right to privacy and the rights of my husband and mother-in-law, who live with me.”

A spokesperson for Amazon, Alyssa Bronikowski, said that the company did not ask for any extra monitoring of work-from-home employees. “It is not true that we required or asked for these measures,” she said, adding that Amazon “does not tolerate violations” of its vendor code of conduct, which says that contractors must respect labor rights like the right to start or join a union,” and that “we regularly audit our vendors to make sure they are following the rules.”

Worker organizing

Some Teleperformance employees are so worried about being forced to agree to wide-ranging surveillance that they have started to work together to make their jobs better. On Monday, they gave their employer a list of demands through the Utraclaro y TIC union. This union usually represents IT workers and has already set up a union in the Colombian operations of call center giant Atento, which competes with Teleperformance. The demands include the right to gather without fear of retaliation, less intrusive surveillance, overtime pay, 30-second breaks between calls, clearer rules about discipline, and paying for the equipment needed to work from home, such as a chair, desk, and a reliable internet connection.

“We want Teleperformance workers to be able to join a union without worrying about losing their jobs,” said Yuli Higuera, the president of the union in Colombia, which has about 1,200 members. She said that about 100 people who work for Teleperformance have joined the union so far.

The company’s spokesperson, Pfeiffer, said that the union’s demands were “not all based on practice or facts” and that the company plans to talk directly to the union about each one. “We care about our people and want them to be healthy, safe, and happy,” he said. “We are a business that puts people first, and we will always act in good faith when it comes to collective bargaining.”

Organizers in Colombia have a lot to lose because trade unionists are often hurt by violence and workers’ rights aren’t well protected. According to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2021, 22 trade unionists were killed in Colombia from March to April 2020. None of this violence has been linked to Teleperformance.

“Twice, I’ve been told I’m going to die because of what I’ve done,” said Higuera. “Making a union in Colombia isn’t easy, but it’s my job, and we’re sure Teleperformance will help us succeed.”

Higuera’s main goal is to get Teleperformance to agree to recognize the union and let workers organize without fear of being punished. In July, the French National Contact Point to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which acts as a watchdog for responsible multinational businesses, sent a list of suggestions to Paris-based Teleperformance. One of the suggestions was that the company should “respect the right of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

The recommendations came after Teleperformance fired several Colombian worker organizers in 2020 because they had started to organize during the pandemic. The National Contact Point (NCP) in France said that the firings were “like anti-union practices.”

Pfeiffer, who works for Teleperformance, said that the NCP process only looked at nine cases out of almost 39,000 employees and found no evidence that Teleperformance did anything to hurt unions on a regular basis. He said that Teleperformance Colombia follows both local and international rules for work. “We’re glad that the NCP has suggestions on how to improve our approach,” Pfeiffer said. “We fully support the right of workers to form unions.”

The workers’ worries about surveillance are based on a report by The Guardian, which used documents sent to staff to describe how Teleperformance planned to use specialized webcams connected to an artificial intelligence system that would scan live video for violations of work rules during the work shift and, if found, send a still photo of the infraction to a manager.

According to the report, if a worker wanted to leave their desk, they would have to click “break mode” on a company app and add a reason, like “getting water,” so the system wouldn’t report them. The system would also mark the worker as idle if he or she had not typed or clicked the mouse for a while.

Teleperformance said that remote scans for infractions would not be used in the U.K. and that webcams would only be used for meetings and training. The company said that the level of remote monitoring would be different in other countries. The company said that the monitoring had been expanded to India, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Growing problems

Christy Hoffman, the global secretary of UNI Global, which supports workers’ rights to unionize around the world and has been working with organizers at Teleperformance, said that the call center industry has been booming during the pandemic. That’s because more work has moved online, and big U.S. companies are relying more and more on cheaper workers from places like Colombia and the Philippines who work for companies like Teleperformance.

She said, “Their working conditions have really gotten worse since workers moved out of call centers and into people’s homes, where they are more closely watched and more data is collected.”

Hoffman asked clients of Teleperformance, like Apple and Amazon, to use their power to improve the conditions of the workers they outsource.

“From the point of view of Colombian law, they are not directly to blame,” she said. “But they have power, and in the end, they decide what the conditions are like for the people who work for them.”


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