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

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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

 

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  • It's true, call centers are horrible places to work. You are just a number and numbers are thrown at you constantly. You are verbally abused, you are chained to your desk, you are expected to handle a call in a short amount of time-but yet fully resolve the issue without escalation, but you can't because you lack the authority to do so, you are darned if you do and darned if you don't. You are expected to be fast yet get he company verbiage/spiel out, take a certain number of calls, work crazy shifts, have no life, not able to make plans, I think we are going backwards in time in how we treat employees, and the employers now they can get away with it because people are SO desperate for a job anymore, to me it abuse and a form of slavery

    Posted by vtaz317, 08/08/2014 8:17am (15 days ago)

  • I wonder who is actually writing all those good comments and what they will say when things go south. First they keep adjusting the goals so they no on makes their bonuses for the quarter. Then you hear all these rumors about call centers being closed and the CEO of TMobile comes to tell you, you are the #1 call center in the nation and you will NOT lose your job! Then, they start sending you home early because of not having enough calls coming in. Then they deplete your PTO to cover those missed hours. Finally you are terminated with 100+ other people. They are all sweet on the way out, tell you, you are rehire-able. Finally you go to apply for unemployment and they then say you quit or you were fired for insubordination. T-Mobile is a company who lies to both their customer and their employees. I know people who have lost their homes because of TMobile.

    Posted by Destiny, 08/06/2014 11:28am (17 days ago)

  • Call centers have sprung up in my town that make use of the survey and the charity loophole around the do not call list; they have been a headache for law enforcement, emergency services, neighboring businesses and residential areas. When I ask any patrolling officer in town about these call centers, they are quick to state their frustrations about the criminal activity that some of these call centers have brought into the area. Several law enforcement agencies regularly visit some of these call centers looking for warrant arrests etc. I have heard from sources including from frustrated employees that work for these call centers complaining about the drug activity, vandalism of cars and neighboring businesses, break-ins and theft, drinking while on the job, smoke breaks are actually marijuana breaks, drunk driving, very dangerous driving, tons of tossed out litter of empty liquor containers, trash, food etc. I’ve even heard that the mangers are also involved in criminal activities and have even preyed on their legitimate employees who are simply trying to eek out a living on horrible wages. Also the operators are untrained in a very high turn around, poorly managed and dysfunctional work environment.

    Posted by Bob, 07/11/2014 6:59am (1 month ago)

  • I'm 19 and work at a t mobile call center. Reading this article seriously amused me. Half of this is lies! We get paid good money to put up with the bs thrown at us. Some people should suck it up

    Posted by Savannah, 06/27/2014 5:48am (2 months ago)

  • I worked at call centers for various telecom companies and it's all the same metrics (performance guidelines): schedule adherence, "up-selling" or "maximizing", downtime, quality assurance (QA), Average hold time (AHD), and Aux time (bad, un-billable time). Its your job to meet these requirements. These are your responsibilities.

    A teacher has to give lessons, a doctor tires to save lives, a secretary answers calls and blows the boss (J/K) bit like any of these other professions you have to DO YOUR JOB. Unfortunately, these duties are a lot more stressful, and take practice to obtain.

    I would suggest to learn and master your knowledge base from work and use every tool they give you to help shorten your calls and make the calls easier and less stressful. That's how I survived and became one of the alphas.

    Each one of these will have an effect on the other - ALWAYS! So in order to succeed at a callcenter you gotta find a good flow to satisfy each metric - very stressful. BTW it's different for each center so the 96% thing isn't far off.

    The reason being is that call centers flourish with billable hours. So they get paid based on the amount of calls you get per hour and how productive you are each of those hours. So if you go to the bathroom for 15 min. That's potentially 4 - 5 calls that they either missed out on making additional revenue for the company (i.e tmoble) and/or the callcenter (Usually the contracted call center will be on your ass since they get paid for the amount of hours or calls they tend to). That 15 minutes can also cause calls to back up since the work load is passed to another rep, which will more than likelu already be on a call, so the calls will continue to pile up and increase call disconnects, call wait times, etc.

    If you get an opportunity to get comisión on calls, it could work in your favor since it's a numbers game ALWAyS in sales. This will suck however if it's a high pressure, mandatory sales aka maximize / upsells/ add ons/.

    You will usually get anywhere from 50 to 200 calls depending where you work. Play the numbers and take as many calls as you can to increase your chances of obtaining your quota if any.

    This works the same if it's not mandatory, but as an incentive then you have a chance to double your paycheck with so many calls coming in.

    I always hated when the supervisors would have you de-escalate a call - talk about setting yourself up for reprimand. They use this tactic to dodge a bullet and not risk getting involved in a complain that can spiral out of control and get everyone involved in trouble.

    Favoritism and cliques are inevitable. Its like high school all over again at the callcenter Adding to the stress. Brown-nosing will get you up the ranks quick with the right people. And if your attractive (in one way or another) lonely and single (or married) it's the easiest place to hook up with women since their home life starts to diminish from the first day of training. Callcenter will test marriages due to the craxzy schedules and shifts that they give you (which are determined by your attendance and test scores in training and on the "floor"- you will definitely spend more time at work than at home, especially if your callcenter has mandatory overtime based on "call volume forecasts" - so no family and friends - only work "friends"

    If your lucky, your call center will try to be as professional as possible by allowing "business casual" dress code. That's when MIGHT have a half decent place. If you end up with a fully casual place, your gonna be treated like crap, because they obviously don't care. As usual, the more relaxed the environment, the more you have to deal with dirty, stupid, unprofessional people - MORE STRESS COMPOUNdED . All they need you there for is to fill seats and burn hours they get paid for 2x your wage.

    The wages - tmobile, verizon, sprint all pay good wages..if you work for the actual telecom company and not a contracted site. The contracted sites will pay you $1-2 dollars more than min. Wage just to get your attention, but soon you see the polished turd that it is.

    I have been a sales/ customer service rep, supervisor, quality assurance, coach, retention rep, collections, blah blah blah...and the higher up you go the stress doubles as with any job. I was always one of the top earners / popular guy/ basically the top dog anywhere I would go as top performers so it never fazed me, but I was usually the guy that would pick up the low performers and get them to a decent point to reduce turn over and team switches.

    I've seen the young break, the old almost die, and the best fall from their stupid pedestals. The call center life gets old QUICK

    This all comes to you from a person that sees the goods and bads from the callcenter life. I did it for 10+ years. Its not all bad, but if you are a paycheck to paycheck person, you will hate these kinds of places. If your young, need extra money, or doing part time for school, it may be the best place you can work.

    If you decide to take the plunge, make sure to find a good stress reliever whether it's working out, sex (this was mine, since call center chicks are so easy I Gould have it before, during, and after work LOL - not too much stress), or meditation - cuz your gonna need it.

    Posted by antwahn, 05/02/2014 9:45pm (4 months ago)

  • I have worked at T - mobile for almost 4 years and love it. Yes there are stats that must be made, yes it can be stressful, but all jobs can be. My son also works here, if it was an awful place to work I would never have told my son to come here to work.
    Yes T - mobile has made mistakes, and there was a rough period when AT&T was trying to buy us, will the higher ups acknowledged that and made the changes that needed to be made.
    I have what are called HR breaks to go to the restroom when needed, I punch out and back in and send those to my coach so that they may then be put into my schedule as to be accounted for so as not to hurt my stats, they are not held against me, I have a medical condition, t - mobile cares about my health, gives me great benefits. There is no sweatshop being run here. The other day it was very, very cold out, our leadership team was waiting at the front door with hot chocolate for us, if that's a sweatshop, you guys are crazy!

    Posted by rhonda , 01/09/2014 1:41pm (8 months ago)

  • Xerox (Verizon call center sweatshop) has an unpaid 30 minute lunch break (according to "my friend") and two unpaid TEN MINUTE breaks. Mandatory overtime hour extends work (you must be on the phones constantly), and you do not get more breaks. Most days that will be 9.5 hours at work. Pay is $9.50 in training and $10.00 hr on the floor. The perks and benefits promised in training never materialize. Employees pay for forced potlucks they can't afford, with co-workers they sit next to week after week that they will never get to know (no time, no time). Meetings offer a respite from the constant phones but its a one-way meeting supervisor talking fast fast fast. No one wants the employee's input EVER. The clock is supreme and never lets up.

    My friend is bored senseless and exhausted with this job. Promotions are dangled as an attractive way out of nonstop calls, but my friend has overheard young supervisors say they have to apply for foodstamps.
    A union would be a very good thing.
    If the company would allow 15 minute breaks and allow part-time work they would not have such an extremely high turnover. My friend would work there for years if there were a 4-day work week with set hours. Currently, shifts are uncertain...as a way to keep employees off-balance. Hard to have any outside life or commitments.

    Posted by wish a union would come to xerox!!!, 01/01/2014 4:24pm (8 months ago)

  • This article is laughable. I will say this attendance is a deal breaker at T-mobile, if you want to work here you have to come to work and be on time. However this is no sweatshop. I truly feel that the people who feel this way are the people who are wanting something for nothing. What job doesn't expect performance? All the goals are attainable. In fact as a company T-mobile aligns the goals every month according to the trends on the floor. We have amazing work conditions, the best benefits package I have ever seen. The sense of entitlement this world has amazes me. We all have jobs where we make far more than minimum wage with plenty of opportunities to make more money. I have never seen unfair treatment here, however I have seen a lot of employees who take advantage of the perks and have a blatant disrespect for the expectations set before them. Anyone who believes this article needs to come visit and see with there own eyes what the real environment is. T-mobile wins awards year over year for being one of the best employers. This is a classic example of disgruntled people slamming a company for letting them go when they were not doing their job! If you want to do well in this world you have to be willing to put in the work!

    Posted by T.D., 12/09/2013 4:46pm (9 months ago)

  • I currently work for TMobile and love it. Yeah it's stressful, but so is every job. Yeah we are expected to be on the phones a certain amount of time a day, it's why they hired us. We make almost double minimum wage and if people don't like that, they aren't forced to work there. They are more than welcome to work someplace else for half the pay. If you do your job correctly, you get a bonus, thats right, a bonus for doing the job they hired you to do. I cant help but think alot of people are playing the victim, just do your job and you wont be fired. We have paid time off, insurance, gym memberships, child care assistance, flex spending account.. the list goes on. They dont tell us not to talk to the union, they make it very clear it is our choice and they leave it at that. TMobile is a great place to work and I encourage people to work there. Keep in mind, it is not a job for everyone, just like being a teacher is not for everyone.

    Posted by Nichole, 10/05/2013 6:57pm (11 months ago)

  • I worked for TMobile in Birmingham AL. and am now disabled with PTSD due to what is called Work Place
    Bullying. Everything I've read in this article is is undeniably the truth but barely skims the surface. There is reverse discrimination that runs rampant in this call center and the management is incompetent and incapable of running a telecommunications call center as they are only focused on meeting their stats for their unit which consist of teams which are managed by coaches. The real abuse comes from them as the coaches as well are threatened , intimidated, belittled, and made examples of if they fail to meet their goals. And what 'motivates team managers to drive their coaches in the ground - MONEY, BONUS, TRIPS (including power trips.) I have seen excellent hardworking employees and coaches either quit or get fired because they had morals and business ethics. During my employment I witnessed sexual harassment, racial issues, nepotism, favoritism, pack mentality of going along with unethical actions. Many lawsuits have been filed but have quietly disappeared throughout the years and employees up thru the ranks of Sr. Reps to Coaches had conversations with me about wanting to file a fomal complaint against Tmobile to the labor board but would do nothing about it for fear of retalliation. Oh and one more note about the union issue , when the union attempted to come into the Birmingham Call Center we were advised not to talk to them. The Union reps never even got access into the call center .

    Posted by cat, 09/13/2013 9:41am (11 months ago)

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