The “best kept secret” of multinational call center employees
Young people from around the world have found a place in the Greek labor market at global customer service call centers. Their daily work routine is a common secret.
It’s been five years since Deutsche Welle published an article questioning whether Portugal had become the new “India of Europe.” It was then, when multinational companies based in Portugal offering customer support to other multinational giants were proliferating through outsourcing. Five years later, strolling around the Athenian districts of Moshato, Tavros or Kallithea around 6 o’clock in the evening, this question seems to reverberate in present-day Greece. The premises of the Greek subsidiary of the French multinational Teleperformance Group, TP Greece, are located in these districts. Despite being active in Greece since 1989, TP Greece now even employs people from the most distant parts of the world.
At a recent TP Greece event, the president noted that the company employs “more than 8,500 workers, and more than half come from abroad.” This is contrary to the case in Portugal, where in 2014, job opportunities at the local subsidiary were touted as a way out of the unemployment crisis for many multilingual Portuguese. However, in Greece, the local subsidiary of the international group now seems to promote a rather postmodern narrative.
Piraeus Street and the surrounding metro stations have a different vibe at the end of the shifts of the call center agents (as the employees are referred to). Passers-by in the area, “eavesdropping” on conversations are mostly to hear English being spoken. The agents however, according to TP Greece’s official numbers, speak a total of 35 languages and dialects, other than English. Therefore, the company promotes a multicultural profile while its executives refer to it as “the best-kept secret of the Greek businessworld” – others even call it a “sweatshop”.
The concrete complexes housing the facilities of TP don’t reveal much to the naked eye. “There’s a f*cked up secrecy surrounding many projects, even towards their agents,” Cristian, who wants to conceal his real name, tells Solomon MAG. It is common among many of TP’s corporate conglomerate – clients to have their agents use fake names that “fit” the cultural background of the target audience. “Cristian” (age 28), for example, is an employee of Greek origin in one of TP’s Spanish departments.
TP Greece’s corporate clients – whether their identity is known or kept secret – vary. Banks, telecom companies, computer firms, and others, opt for subcontracting with TP, which, since 2006, has also acquired third party customer services. Although the company is not the only one of its kind in Greece, it is predicted that it will have increased its workforce from just over 2,000 employees in 2012 to 9,500 employees by the end of 2019 – which makes it a unique case.
However, circa 2006, the global model of establishing such call centers (offshoring) in India, the Philippines and South Africa, which exploited the cheap labor force in these countries, began to be less attractive than in early 2000. The solution for multinational groups was found in the form of “near-shoring” – the establishment of call centers closer to the West, bringing to the fore countries like Portugal and Greece, among others.
By using the Mediterranean climate and different pace of life (compared to northern Europe) as “bait”, TP urges people from all over the world to come to Greece. When near-shoring began to spread in the business world, these were the reasons that southern European countries prevailed over other areas for the relocation of international call centers.
By approaching the subject not as refined as multinational corporations would advocate, the major reasons for the relocation were rather connected to the global criticism they had been receiving since 2006 for the misuse of offshoring practices and the benefits of the businesses being in closer proximity to their clientele. The free movement of European citizens within EU Member States, the common currency and the common business market coupled with significantly smaller differences in time zones, were more than enough to attract the companies.
The Mediterranean experience (sic), as promoted by TP Greece, seems to have successfully attracted a multinational workforce to Greece. Jerome, 35, had already lived in 11 countries before choosing Athens as his current place of residence. Originally from Luxembourg, he left his country at the age of 17, and decided to seek work in the South after this year’s particularly cold winter in Switzerland. Deciding to move to Greece was a mindful choice, Jerome explains to Solomon MAG: “I found myself working in very high positions, and I realized that I was just chasing money instead of concentrating on myself.” Additionally, he says that he was already familiar with the call center agent’s position as in the past he had worked for the company’s Portuguese subsidiary.
Jerome has been in Athens since February when he signed his first quarterly contract with TP Greece to work on a German project. His contract has been renewed since then and he says that the life advertised by TP is very close to what he is experiencing. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that everything in call centers depend on the client company.
“I’m lucky because I have a relatively small workload for the project that I’m working on now. Fixed hours, which are consistent with the German market and a small number of calls per day. In Lisbon, on the contrary, the conditions of the project were quite tough. The most calls I had to answer within a shift were 122. There were employees who were going mental and couldn’t stand the pressure,” he continues.
For André, who is ten years younger than Jerome, the circumstances were different. He was not lured by the sun, rather it was unemployment that brought him here. “I come from a small island in the Azores where there are not many jobs. I was unemployed for six months, therefore I sent my resume everywhere – to Portugal, Poland, Germany, England and elsewhere, in positions requiring knowledge of English or Portuguese. Greece never crossed my mind,” he tells Solomon MAG. He ended up at TP Greece when he was approached by a Portuguese recruiter via Linkedin.
“After a few weeks, a few calls, interviews and exams, I was offered two positions, one in Greece and one in Poland. I finally landed in the Greek reality on March 25, 2018 (Greek Independence Day),” he adds, and continues to laugh, recalling the experience of walking
through downtown Athens for the first time, on perhaps the most crowded day of the year.
Both André and Jerome have benefited from a practice common to the business world, known as the relocation package. “This package was the only way I could get to Greece as I was unemployed and therefore didn’t have the money to start from scratch in a new country. The package included my flight to Athens, a two-week stay in a hotel, Athens transportation coverage and assistance in finding permanent housing through affiliated real estate agencies,” says Andre, adding that “the only condition was that I did not have the right to resign within the first six months as I would have to return everything. The same thing would happen if I was fired.”
According to Jerome’s personal experience, who went through training with 15 other employees, “only four of us had utilised the relocation package. The rest of them either were already in Greece, or they had come to the country on their own initiative, and finding a job was the second stage,” he explains.
The experience was a bit more demanding for Ahmed, 25, who is from the Maghreb region. In this case, the issuance of a Visa was included in the relocation package. “Getting a residence permit for work through the Greek Consulate proved to be quite easy as the process is facilitated for TP’s prospective employees. Besides, I am not the first worker from a Northwest African country to file my papers, and they were already aware of the steps I had to follow.”
Despite the condition concerning the return of the relocation money, the three employees pointed out that they were grateful for the existence of this package. Jerome, Andre and Ahmed had originally signed contracts of three and four months respectively. However, none of them responded when we asked how could a company, that has multiple and varied accusations against them regarding short-term employee contracts, require its workers to commit to a time period almost twice as long as their contracts. How can this be tolerated? Creating a sense of uncertainty about a promise that they themselves don’t bother to secure from the outset.
Ahmed also had previous experience as a TP call center agent in the Tunisian subsidiary where he worked for a month and a half last summer. His working language in Athens is French, and he decided to move to Greece somewhat unexpectedly when a friend suggested that he come to work in the Greek subsidiary where he was already a supervisor At first glance, this seems like a simple conversation between old friends, but in the corporate environment it’s actually not such an innocent chat. The “Refer a Friend” program, as TP calls it, entices its call center agents to recruit new employees by offering cash incentives.
… or in other words, tell me what language your friends speak, and I’ll tell you how much your bonus will be.
The most lucrative languages appear to be German, Finnish, Hebrew, Norwegian, Dutch and Danish, which earn a €2,000 bonus which is awarded to the “recruiter” in installments over a three-month period from the start of the new colleague’s contract. Other languages which offer a high bonus are Czech and Slovakian (€1,500), with Swedish and Japanese following (€1,000). For the employees with only Greek-speaking friends looking for a job, the bonus doesn’t even compete with the first installment (€500 within the first month) of the aforementioned languages, as Greek fetches you a mere €150.
Local Greek TP workers, on the other hand, may not have been relocated, but even for them the environment that hosts them seems to be in transition. “The new complex in Piraeus is located between warehouses and small local industries. The area once played a completely different role. Now the neighborhood’s character will change so much that we probably have to start talking about gentrification,” says Cristian.
Not far, is the reality one encounters in the “older” TP neighbourhoods. There, the cafes seem to be the first casualties. We sat in a local café in Tavros, waiting to meet Jerome. The décor of the café was filled with contradictions. Inside, there was a green felt-topped round table for the old men to play cards. You were soon overwhelmed by Greek “turbo-folk” pop music blaring. An HD television was anchored in the corner on the wall, broadcasting MAD TV music videos. Out front, there were long wooden, well-built tables – of the standard kind you see all over Europe’s newly-sprung coworking spaces and other urban and hipster cafes.
It was just about 6pm and the first employees started to arrive. The now “gloriously” crowded cafe suddenly fell silent. The “turbo-folk” playlist had been paused and the owner was now behind the bar on his laptop, searching for Billboard’s TOP 100.
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