Sweatshops in America? Yes, at T-Mobile call centers

CHARLESTON, S.C. – The word “sweatshop” conjures up images of garment factories in third world countries, such as those in Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Bangladesh. But workers at T-Mobile’s call centers in the U.S. encounter the same kinds of sweatshop-like conditions. That includes a call center right here in Charleston, S.C.

A sweatshop is any working environment where employees are forced to work in unacceptable conditions for low pay, long hours and with no means to protect their rights.

Sweatshop employees generally work very long hours for incredibly low wages in an environment which demands unrealistic results, cares little for the health and safety of workers and exposes these workers, mostly women, to verbal, physical and sexual abuses.

A recent widely publicized example of the neglect of workers is the deadly disaster at Rana Plaza, the garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed after warnings to evacuate because cracks found in the walls of the building had been ignored. The result of the blatant neglect and disregard for the welfare of these workers is a death toll exceeding 1,000. It is a devastating and painful reminder of the careless indifference for the safety and well being of working people all over the world. But the U.S. is not exempt from this. Whether Americans choose to acknowledge it or not, workers in the U.S. suffer the same unbelievable treatment and are forced to work in similar high-stress environments.

One company operating in the U.S. that subjects its workers to sweatshop-like working conditions is T-Mobile, a division of the German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom, and a well-known cellphone provider with millions of wireless subscribers. T-Mobile call center employees are forced to work in a highly stressful setting that demands they follow strict guidelines to meet unrealistic quotas with only a short amount of time to handle customer requests. Within a given time call center employees are responsible for addressing customer inquiries while somehow managing to successfully achieve sales quotas. In fact, target sales generally take precedence over customer issues. Failure to meet goals results in severe punishment and even loss of employment. T-Mobile management rigorously monitors employees and even the slightest mistake can result in discipline.

T-Mobile call center workers in America face extreme harassment and humiliation, often pushing them beyond their limits. Workers at a T-Mobile call center on Daniel Island in Charleston, S.C., encounter this exact treatment. Employees here bear the constant scrutiny of management, fearing that even a small mistake could result in public humiliation or abrupt termination. Many find the high-stress conditions to be too much to endure and a large percentage of them are taking prescribed medications for anxiety and depression.

At a call center in Chattanooga, Tenn., employees failing to meet T-Mobile’s strict demands were subjected to extreme degradation by being forced to wear a dunce cap during work hours. Similarly in Albuquerque, N.M., employees who failed to meet quotas were forced to wear monkey-shaped backpacks. At a call center in Nashville, Tenn., a T-Mobile employee in a high-risk pregnancy was forced to clock out just to take a restroom break. She was also required to record each time she left to take a restroom break, as well as report to her supervisor upon return. (Article continues below video.)

T-Mobile’s call center employees are required to be on the phone for 96 percent of the time in order to meet required standards. If a call happens to extend into an official break or meal time, employees are in jeopardy of being penalized for taking the full allotted break or meal time, as it will interfere with the 96 percent commitment standard. They are forced into the predicament of either denying themselves a full break or facing punishment for not fulfilling the commitment standard.

Employees must also deal with job insecurity, fearing job offshoring to countries like Mexico and the Philippines, or even their termination for any number of reasons. Call center workers live and work in constant terror. One former employee described her experience at T-Mobile as like “working in a mill, in a slave mill.”

A large percentage of workers employed at T-Mobile call centers are African American. A majority of these workers are women; some are single mothers with children to support. The idea that these employees are forced to experience such atrocious working conditions is disturbing. In many cases, they are in no position to quit these jobs. With bills to pay and families to feed and support, they are left with few to no options. Many have additional jobs outside of the call center just to be able to make ends meet. Sometimes it is not as simple as quitting and seeking employment elsewhere.

Workers can demand better treatment through labor unions, which protect workers’ rights and aim to achieve better working conditions. Unfortunately, T-Mobile is openly and fiercely anti-union and uses fear and intimidation tactics to discourage employees from unionizing. T-Mobile has published a number of anti-union materials, including a 2003 anti-union manual and a 2008 anti-union memo. Additionally, the company distributes fliers and advertisements aimed at frightening employees. New employees are shown a “New Employee Orientation” PowerPoint presentation that discourages union involvement. Consequently, T-Mobile’s conduct has drawn the attention of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency responsible for ensuring compliance with labor law and monitoring unfair labor practices.

Due to T-Mobile’s hostility toward labor unions, many workers find themselves trapped. They have no job security and are forced to accept unfair treatment, harassment and a highly stressful working environment – treatment that unionized workers at Deutsche Telekom in Germany do not have to endure. The Communications Workers of America, the largest telecommunications union in the world, has partnered with ver.di, Germany’s largest union representing telecommunication workers, in forming TU, a global union for Deutsche Telekom/T-Mobile USA employees. TU’s ultimate goal is to put an end to the double standard that allows T-Mobile USA to treat its employees so poorly, and to give exploited call center workers all over the world the representation they deserve in order to achieve their demands for better treatment.

Revised 7/20/13 to clarify the situation when a call extends into an employee’s break or meal time.

Photo: T-Mobile workers in Oakland, Maine. CWA/Flickr