Big Tech call center workers face pressure to accept home surveillance

Colombia-based call center workers who provide outsourced customer service to some of the nation’s largest companies are being pressured to sign a contract that lets their employer install cameras in their homes to monitor work performance, an NBC News investigation has found.

Six workers based in Colombia for Teleperformance, one of the world’s largest call center companies, which counts Apple, Amazon and Uber among its clients, said that they are concerned about the new contract, first issued in March. The contract allows monitoring by AI-powered cameras in workers’ homes, voice analytics and storage of data collected from the worker’s family members, including minors. Teleperformance employs more than 380,000 workers globally, including 39,000 workers in Colombia.

“The contract allows constant monitoring of what we are doing, but also our family,” said a Bogota-based worker on the Apple account who was not authorized to speak to the news media. “I think it’s really bad. We don’t work in an office. I work in my bedroom. I don’t want to have a camera in my bedroom.”

The worker said that she signed the contract, a copy of which NBC News has reviewed, because she feared losing her job. She said that she was told by her supervisor that she would be moved off the Apple account if she refused to sign the document. She said the additional surveillance technology has not yet been installed.

The concerns of the workers, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, highlight a pandemic-related trend that has alarmed privacy and labor experts: As many workers have shifted to performing their duties at home, some companies are pushing for increasing levels of digital monitoring of their staff in an effort to recreate the oversight of the office at home.

The issue is not isolated to Teleperformance’s workers in Colombia. The company states on its website that it offers similar monitoring through its TP Cloud Campus product, the software it uses to enable staff to work remotely in more than 19 markets. An official Teleperformance promotional video for TP Cloud Campus from January 2021 describes how it uses “AI to monitor clean desk policy and fraud” among its remote workers by analyzing camera feeds. And in its latest earnings statement, released in June, Teleperformance said it has shifted 240,000 of its approximately 380,000 employees to working from home thanks to the TP Cloud Campus product.

At the end of 2020, workers at Teleperformance in Albania, including those working on the Apple U.K. account, complained to the country’s Information and Data Protection Commissioner about the company’s proposal to introduce video monitoring in their homes. The commissioner later ruled that Teleperformance could not use webcams to monitor Albanian workers in their homes.

“Surveillance at home has really been normalized in the context of the pandemic,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “Companies see a lot of benefit in putting in software to do all kinds of monitoring they would have otherwise expected their human managers to do, but the reality is that it’s much more intrusive than surveillance conducted by a boss.”

Teleperformance spokesman Mark Pfeiffer said that the company is “constantly looking for ways to enhance 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, “and we will continue to do everything we can to uphold these values for both our teams and all our key stakeholders.”

The contract seeks consent for a wide range of possible scenarios to ensure that Teleperformance complies with data privacy laws as it continues to develop tools to optimize long-term work from home for employees and clients, he said.

He added Teleperformance has just been certified in Colombia as a Great Place to Work, a third-party certification that’s based on confidential surveys of thousands of employees, for the fourth consecutive year, which, he said, “validated that the vast majority of our employees in Colombia view us favorably as a fair, caring and trustworthy employer, despite the challenging times we are all living in.”

But it does not appear that this pressure is directly coming from some companies like Apple. Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy said that the company “prohibits the use of video or photographic monitoring by our suppliers and have confirmed Teleperformance does not use video monitoring for any of their teams working with Apple.” Leahy said that Apple had audited Teleperformance in Colombia this year and did not find any “core violations of our strict standards.”

“We investigate all claims and will continue to ensure everyone across our supply chain is treated with dignity and respect,” he added.

Working from home

During the pandemic, Teleperformance, like many other companies, shifted the majority of its employees globally to working from home. At the start, the company faced international scrutiny from labor unions after photos were leaked to news outlets of some of its staff in the Philippines — the country with the highest number of Teleperformance workers — sleeping at work so they could be in the office to respond to Amazon Ring customers in U.S. time zones. At the time, some workers complained about the office conditions and said they wanted the convenience and safety of working at home. There are no signs that workers from Colombia slept at the office.

However, that convenience and safety appears to have come with a privacy infringing catch, said workers. In March, members of Teleperformance’s global workforce, including 95 percent of its 39,000 Colombian employees who were working remotely, were sent an eight-page addendum to their existing employment contracts that asked them to agree to new home surveillance rules, workers said. Workers said that management told them clients requested the additional monitoring to improve security and prevent any data breaches while they were working from home because of the pandemic.

The document asks workers to agree to having video cameras installed in their home or on their computers, pointing at their workspace, to record and monitor workers in real time. It also states that workers agree to Teleperformance using AI-powered video analysis tools that can identify objects around the workspace, including mobile phones, paper and other items that are restricted by Teleperformance’s security policies. They must also agree to sharing data and images related to any children they have under the age of 18 — who might get picked up by video and audio monitoring tools — and to sharing biometric data including fingerprints and photos. There is also a clause that requires workers to take polygraph tests if requested.

Pfeiffer, the Teleperformance spokesperson, said that cameras were used for spot checks of the company’s clean desk policy and occasionally to ensure compliance with data security processes and that no data is recorded from employees. He said that the AI-powered video analysis was currently being tested in just three of Teleperformance’s markets. He said that employees consented to sharing biometric data and that polygraphs are used in specific security studies with employees’ consent. The company acknowledged asking workers to consent to sharing data relating to minors, but said that it did not share this data outside of Teleperformance.

Unlike Apple, Uber said that it requested monitoring for its workers, but not the entire workforce. Uber spokesperson Lois Van Der Laan said that its customer service agents have access to private and sensitive user information, including credit card details and trip data, and that protecting that information is a priority for Uber. As a result, Uber requested Teleperformance to monitor staff working on its accounts to verify that only a hired employee is accessing the data; that outsourced staff weren’t recording screen data on another device such as a phone; and that no unauthorized person was near the computer. Uber does not require any additional monitoring beyond that, she said.

Raising concerns

The prospect of the level of surveillance at home detailed in the contract, when calls are already closely monitored by software, alarmed some of Teleperformance’s customer service agents.

One worker on the Amazon account works night shifts from Colombia so she can serve customers in Spain. The only room in her apartment that is quiet enough to take customer calls is the bedroom she shares with her husband. She takes calls from a desk while he sleeps on the bed. She’s worried the microphones might pick up the sound of him snoring, she told NBC News.

She was required to keep her computer’s camera on during training, but said Teleperformance has not yet installed additional cameras or monitoring in her home.

“It’s a violation of my privacy rights, and the rights of my husband and mother-in-law who live with me,” she said.

Amazon spokesperson Alyssa Bronikowski said that Amazon did not request any additional monitoring for at-home workers. “It is not true to say we required or asked for these measures,” she said, adding that Amazon “does not tolerate violations” of its vendor code of conduct, which stipulates that contractors must respect labor rights, including the right to establish or join a union, “and we routinely audit our vendors for compliance.”

Worker organizing

Some Teleperformance workers have become so concerned about the pressure to agree to sweeping surveillance that they have started to organize to improve their working conditions. On Monday they submitted a set of demands to their employer with the Utraclaro y TIC union, which typically organizes workers in the IT sector and has already created a union within the Colombian operations of call center giant Atento, a Teleperformance competitor. The demands include the right to freedom of assembly without fear of retaliation, less intrusive surveillance, overtime pay, 30-second breaks between calls, clearer disciplinary processes and covering the cost of equipment used to work from home, including a chair and desk, as well as a reliable internet connection.

“We want workers at Teleperformance to have the freedom to join a trade union without fear of losing their jobs,” said Yuli Higuera, president of the union, which has about 1,200 members in Colombia. So far, about 100 Teleperformance workers have joined the union, she said.

Pfeiffer, the spokesperson, said that the demands submitted by the union were “not all based on practice or facts” and that the company intends to address each one with the union directly. “We value our people and their well being, safety and happiness,” he said. “We are a people-centric business and we will continue to act in good faith regarding all aspects of collective bargaining.”

The stakes for organizers in Colombia are particularly high, as violence against trade unionists is common and labor protections are weak. From March 2020 to April, 22 trade unionists were killed in Colombia, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2021. Teleperformance has not been linked to any of this violence.

“I myself have been threatened with death twice because of my organizing,” said Higuera. “Making a union in Colombia is not easy, but it’s work I have to do and we have the confidence, disposition and faith that we are going to achieve a good outcome with Teleperformance.”

Higuera’s primary focus is to get Teleperformance to recognize the union and agree to allow workers to organize without facing retaliation. In July, the French National Contact Point to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which acts as a watchdog for responsible multinational businesses on behalf of the OECD, issued a set of recommendations to Teleperformance, which is based in Paris, including that the company should have “respect for the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining of workers.”

The recommendations came after Teleperformance terminated several Colombian worker organizers in 2020 after they started to organize during the pandemic. The French National Contact Point, or NCP, described the dismissals as “akin to anti-union practices.”

Teleperformance’s Pfeiffer said that the NCP process referred to just 9 cases out of almost 39,000 employees and that it found no evidence that Teleperformance was engaging in systematic anti-union activities. Teleperformance Colombia complies with local labor law and international labor guidelines, he said. “We welcome the NCP’s recommendations for enhancing our approach,” Pfeiffer said. “We are fully committed to the workers’ right to organize.”

The workers’ concerns over surveillance builds on reporting by The Guardian, which detailed, based on documents sent to staff, how Teleperformance planned to use specialist webcams connected to an artificial intelligence system that would scan live video for breaches of work rules during the work shift and, if detected, send a still photo of the infraction to a manager.

According to the report, workers would have to click “break mode” in a company app if they wanted to leave their desks and add an explanation, such as “getting water,” to ensure the system didn’t report them. The system would also detect if the worker had not typed or clicked the mouse and mark the worker as idle during that time.

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

Growing problems

Christy Hoffman, global secretary of UNI Global, which supports workers’ rights to unionize across the world and has been coordinating with organizers at Teleperformance, said that the call center industry has been booming during the pandemic. That’s because more work has shifted online and large, U.S.-based companies are increasingly relying on outsourced workers at companies like Teleperformance based in countries like Colombia and the Philippines where labor is cheaper.

“The shift of workers out of call centers and into people’s homes and the increased monitoring and data capture as a result has really degraded their working conditions,” she said.

Hoffman called on Teleperformance’s clients such as Apple and Amazon to use their influence to improve the working conditions of their outsourced workers.

“They are not directly responsible from the point of view of Colombian laws,” she said. “But they have leverage and they ultimately control the conditions for workers who perform duties for their operations.”

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