“For them you’re not a human being”: Meet the migrants answering phones for Big Tech

After moving to Greece to work for call center giant Teleperformance, workers say they were exploited

By Moira Lavelle
Photography by Demetrios Ioannou for Rest of World

When she first came to Athens from Turkey, Aylin felt free. She originally visited on a volunteer trip and quickly fell in love with the city, charmed by the pockets of it that felt like a quiet village, the cheap vegetables at the weekly bazaar, and most of all, the way she felt free to wander, even in the middle of the night. There were few job opportunities for her at home, so four years ago, she took a gig at a call center in Athens run by a company named Teleperformance. She and her now husband rented an apartment, made a group of friends who would pass hours in the tiny local bars, and began learning Greek.

But it’s difficult to settle down when you feel like everything could be gone in a month or two. Aylin says she has never been offered a work contract by Teleperformance that lasted more than three months. Because her job is tied to her residency permit, she constantly worries about the possibility of suddenly being forced to leave the country. “I was always scared,” says Aylin, who is now 30. “How could you build your life?”

(Like all Teleperformance workers interviewed for this story, she asked to use a pseudonym because she feared that speaking out could endanger her job and residency status.)

Teleperformance isn’t a household name, but if you’ve ever called customer support for companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, or Sony, one of its agents may have answered the phone. Headquartered in France, the corporation has offices in 80 countries and is one of the largest call center operators in the world. It has maintained a presence in Greece for over 30 years and is currently the biggest customer service outsourcer in the country. About 10,000 employees work at 9 campuses dotted across Greece’s mainland and islands, over 50% of whom are foreigners like Aylin.

Teleperformance lures workers to Greece from nearby countries, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, with generous welcome packages, which include plane tickets, two weeks in a hotel, and assistance finding permanent housing. But workers said they are often asked to sign contracts as short as one or two months in length. Five current and former Teleperformance employees told Rest of World the arrangement left them no choice but to accept ruthless productivity quotas and frequent harassment from managers — or risk being terminated and, eventually, deported. “I couldn’t say anything because I was afraid to get fired,” Aylin says. “I came here; I moved my life here; I won’t go back to Turkey; we don’t have any chance.”

Teleperformance did not respond to multiple detailed requests for comment from Rest of World about the allegations made in this story. We also reached out to Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Facebook, and Netflix for comment. All declined to comment on the record or did not respond.

Experts say that poor working conditions are a hallmark of the global call center industry, which employs millions worldwide to help multinational businesses cut costs. Subra Ananthram, an international business professor at Curtin University in Australia, has studied the industry for years. He told Rest of World that in India, the U.K., and the Philippines, jobs in call centers are characterized by repetitive tasks, limited breaks, high-pressure situations, high turnover, and substandard conditions.

Some workers say they viewed working for Teleperformance as the only way out of a dangerous or precarious situation at home. Greece awards asylum to less than 50% of applicants from many of the countries where the company recruits, and the government has been vocal about rejecting people it considers to be economic migrants. “I came here for Teleperformance, actually,” says Yasmine, who says she accepted a welcome package to move to Athens from Tunisia. In her home country, Yasmine says, her political activism was causing problems for her family, and she was already looking for a way out when Teleperformance hired her. “So it was better for me to leave,” she says.

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Another worker, Mehmet, also talked about applying for one of Teleperformance’s welcome packages. (It didn’t work out, but he was later able to come to Greece via other methods and eventually applied for asylum). He says that, in Turkey, the company was fairly well-known for providing a way out of the country. His friends warned him that the job would entail unfair working conditions, but he still decided to apply: “I thought, okay it’s better than Turkey,” he says. “If you are living in Turkey in these political conditions, honestly, you just care about the country.”

But once workers made it to Greece, they said they found that working for Teleperformance meant enduring a barrage of stress and impossible demands. The employees who spoke to Rest of World reported being constantly pushed to multitask and satisfy customers at ever-increasing speeds. “I decided to move to Europe to have a better opportunity, to have a better job, to have a better life,” says Kerim, a Turkish national who has been working for Teleperformance in Greece for nearly a year. “It was a failure for me.”

Kerim said that, at Teleperformance, he helped customers from a number of companies, including Apple. While agents are technically allowed to spend up to five minutes assisting people who call about the tech giant’s warranty program, “the supervisors push you to do it in less than one minute,” he says. “So you have to log the case while on the call; you have to talk with the customer. At the same time, you have to check articles to fix the issue.” After a call ends, the next one can be sent to a worker’s desk in as little as seven seconds. Apple did not respond to requests for comment from Rest of World.

Call center agents said this kind of pressure is the norm at Teleperformance. “For them, you’re not a human being. They don’t take under consideration that you can be sick, that you cannot have the same performance every day,” says Rania, a Teleperformance worker from Tunisia. “When they would detect that change in your productivity numbers, they would actually have a meeting and ask you why.”

Workers say that Teleperformance gives the most productive employees bonuses, while threatening to fire those who fail to meet the company’s escalating and unrealistic standards. These ultimatums are forcefully communicated by Teleperformance managers, who workers say often bully and harass them. “Our management always scares us,” says Aylin.

According to Aylin, supervisors would frequently berate her and other agents when they didn’t meet speed or customer satisfaction metrics. One time, after she failed a required work exam, she says her supervisor publicly harassed her on the office floor. “He said to me, ‘I will send you to Turkey,’” she says. “And he said, ‘No, I will not send you to Turkey; I will kick you to Africa. And the Africans will rape you. And, as well, I will send your husband, and the Africans will rape him.’” (Teleperformance did not respond to questions about the incident.)

Experts say this kind of treatment isn’t unusual in call centers. “Team leaders and managers are somewhat ruthless in the sense that they want to get the maximum out of workers,” Ananthram, from Curtin University, explained in an email. “Underperforming workers or workers who do not accept the working environment or culture get fired easily, as the call centers know that these workers can be easily replaced.” In Greece, 32.9% of Teleperformance workers leave the company every year, according to the Greek survey Best Workplaces 2020.

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Teleperformance was also criticized by name last year for what workers said was a sluggish and insufficient response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Long after outbreaks began in Greece, France, and the U.K., the company insisted on keeping workers in the office. In the Philippines, Teleperformance employees who worked for Ring, a security system owned by Amazon, told the Financial Times that they were not permitted to work from home at the start of the country’s outbreak, and many were forced to sleep on the floor of their office. In Greece, when workers were finally able to work from home, they were told they would be monitored through cameras provided by the company. (A spokesperson later said that Teleperformance had never meant to monitor employees inside their homes with the devices.)

Constant surveillance is another common feature across the industry, explains Jamie Woodcock, a researcher and lecturer at The Open University who took a job in a London call center for his book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres. “When I worked in this call center, they would measure everything,” he says. “How long every single call was, the gaps at the end of the call, how long you were on a break for, how many toilet breaks you took, how far you got in each call.” Woodcock found that, much like in the Teleperformance call centers in Athens, surveillance was used as a form of discipline. Each time a worker deviated from the script or was perceived to be slacking could be used to threaten termination.

But, for foreign workers at Teleperformance’s Greece offices, the possibility of being fired or not getting their contracts renewed comes with an additional risk. Workers could not only lose their jobs but also their residence permits, and their lives in Greece. Every mistake made during a phone call or negative comment from a manager feels like an existential threat. “Stress becomes a part of your life,” says Rania. “You’re at risk even when you have a six-month contract, because you can be fired in the middle of that contract. Nothing is granted, nothing is guaranteed.”

If non–European Union employees want to leave Teleperformance and remain in Greece, their only option is to find another job at a call center. For at least the first five years after they are issued a work permit, they are required to be employed in precisely the same field that they were hired in. Yasmine briefly quit her job at Teleperformance several times but always came back because of the residency permit. “It’s the only reason that I’m staying. I cannot do this job anymore; I cannot,” says Yasmine. “I never got depressed in my life like these past [few] years.”

These short-term contracts give Teleperformance the flexibility to take on limited projects, like when Apple wants extra customer support for a temporary period after releasing a new iPhone. But workers say the company also uses short contracts as a form of control. “I got always one-month, sometimes two-month, contracts,” says Aylin. “Because they wanted to scare me.”

According to multiple employees, Teleperformance sometimes issues work contracts under different company names. Contracts reviewed by Rest of World show that agents were hired by various entities for what they say are the same roles, including Teleperformance SA, Randstad Hellas SA, and LMW SA. A Greek labor lawyer says the practice of employing workers through shell companies may be a way to deny them benefits they’re entitled to under Greek law.

In Greece, if an employee is fired from a job with a standard indefinite contract, they’re entitled to severance pay. But offering short-term contracts could allow Teleperformance to skirt this requirement. None of the former workers who spoke to Rest of World reported receiving severance pay from Teleperformance. Two workers also told Rest of World that they were notified about whether they were being terminated only a week before their contracts ended.

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Greek labor regulations stipulate that workers who are given consecutive fixed contracts must have their positions converted into full-time roles after 36 months. At least two Teleperformance workers who spoke to Rest of World will soon meet this requirement, but because some of their contracts involved companies with different names, they might not qualify — at least not on paper.

Greek labor lawyer Dimitrios Vasileiou says that although the qualifications are complicated, offering contracts through shell companies should not recuse an employer from granting workers standard employment contracts.

“Legally, who is the employer is not always easy to determine,” he says. “The courts in Greece say the employer isn’t necessarily the one who signs the contract or even the one who pays you, but the employer is the one who gives you the orders when you work and he who benefits from your work. If you can prove that this change of employer, the sham employer is only to hide the real employer, one can sue.” (Teleperformance did not respond to questions about whether it gives workers contracts under different company names or for what purpose.)

Teleperformance is part of a growing outsourcing industry in Greece. In many ways, the country is an ideal market, as it has relatively low corporate taxes and labor costs as well as sophisticated technological infrastructure. After decades of economic crisis, Greece is also seeking foreign investments by offering international companies valuable business subsidies. The government has specifically tried to entice the business process outsourcing and call center industries to set up shop in the country. “Much in the way that businesses in the U.K. and USA outsourced to India and Ireland, Greece is attracting this sort of economic activity,” says Robert Quartly-Janeiro, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Hellenic Observatory.

But the profits earned by companies such as Teleperformance often don’t trickle down to their non-European workers. Employees who spoke to Rest of World said that their counterparts who worked in northern European language departments in Athens were given longer contracts and higher salaries. At one point, Rania says, she met with a Teleperformance human resources representative to ask why she was making less than her northern European colleagues. “The answer that [they] gave us was, ‘Ok if you don’t want to work, tomorrow I can bring 10 other potential employees from your country, and they will do your job without asking any questions,’” she says. “I guess we people from Africa don’t have rights, because we are replaceable.”

Rania’s current contract will finish at the end of September, and she doesn’t know if she will get a new one. She has long been looking for other work, but so far hasn’t found anything that would allow her to stay in Greece. She now wonders if she should just give up entirely. “Because after three years, I’ve found … I need to have a break and just ask myself, Okay, after this period, what did I gain?” Rania says. “What’s the benefit I get out of being in Greece and working in Greece? Honestly, nothing.”

Published at restofworld.org