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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  • This article disgusts me. How dare anyone compare the horrific conditions that the women and children are forced to work in in actual sweatshops to the large, clean, safe and heated/air conditioned buildings in which T-Mobile employees perform their duties. Twisting the truth all because T-Mobile chooses not to unionize is, honestly, despicable. T-Mobile employees do have a fast-paced, challenging and stressful job to do, but it is also rewarding and employees are well compensated.

    First, the pay. Base pay rates are contingent upon experience, but are higher than what other area employers offer. Yearly pay raises are commensurate on performance, as are bonuses. (Just meeting business need standards yields a monthly bonus of at least several hundred dollars, but most folks earn between $500 and $1,000, on average.)

    Second, the benefits. There are honestly far too many to list. The most important to most folks I have spoken with are the VERY inexpensive health insurance options, child care reimbursement, retirement plans with match and inexpensive cell service.

    Third, the family. Many close friendships are formed within the walls of these buildings. During the "dark years" when AT&T was trying to acquire TMo and all business practices and expectations changed dramatically (and, not for the better), workers lost their sense of family in a lot of ways, due to the incredible stress of the impending merger. All that has melted away and left workers feeling relieved and more relaxed. Management even gets involved to encourage the sense of family.

    T-Mobile is not perfect, true, but it is a company that has made great strides toward positive and effective change.

    Posted by KJC Davis, 01/16/2015 6:23pm (14 days ago)

  • My wife works at a tmobile and they are nothing like what you say. They are a great company to work for. My wife just won a 32" LED HDTV. And bonuses about $1000 extra on top of her pay each month. So stop the lies unless you know what you are talking about.

    Posted by Trevor smith, 11/18/2014 9:34pm (2 months ago)

  • The best part of the article is the 96% of your attendance. Taking into account your 30 minutes lunch and two paid 15 minutes breaks, meeting that 96% goal means you can still be LATE by 15 minutes in total that shift. That's for an 6-8 hour shift. And your get paid for being late. A longer shift means even MORE time to be late.

    Posted by Brock, 10/29/2014 12:00am (3 months ago)

  • I think that the T-Mobile call center is the only thing in Albuquerque that's always hiring - now these may be the reasons WHY but at $13.00 an hour it pays more than the other things in that same state which take people fresh out of college or grad school which is, what, ALMOST NOTHING again. I've met people who swear up and down they will never work in a call center but unless you "know someone" or are related to the governor in some manner you will never get any other job better than technical support representative at a call center, not in New Mexico, anyway. Hence the state's "brain drain." What few people are even IN New Mexico who can qualify, get into other state's colleges and get the heck out of that state as fast as I-25 can take them....only to find out that the rest of this country then treats us like "foreigners" just for having New Mexico, USA on our license plate on our car, and telling everyone that we are "from" MEXICO and all that that entails. (Yes, over a car license plate). Hell, the way I'm getting treated elsewhere in this country just driving a car I bought IN New Mexico, I'm ready to say that TMobile Tech Support Rep job might be the only or best thing I can GET and head on back down there where at least I won't be called a "foreigner" just because of the license plate on my car!! The $13/hour call center jobs elsewhere in this country all have wicked ridiculous requirements. Verizon may have better working conditions but they're harder to get hired ON so the net result is that TMobile may be the only thing that will hire some of us. MIT, Yale and Johns Hopkins graduates nonwithstanding; every other job we apply for with all those degrees and credentials, takes one look at the color of our skin, ignores where or even the fact that we went to college, and sends us on our way and that, my friends, is why minorities with college degrees wind up with "sweatshops" like TMobile call center being the ONLY thing that will hire us. Hell, Verizon's call center in Albuquerque even took a while (6 months) to get back to me when I applied. Or, no, wait, was that the one in Rochester, NY, while the one in Albuquerque got back to me NEVER......

    Posted by Penny, 09/30/2014 9:52am (4 months ago)

  • First of all call center work sucks... Anyone will agree with that. Tmobile makes it enjoyable by its upbeat atmosphere. Iv had jobs that paid less and i had to break my back for min. wage. Iv been there for 2 years and i dont see myself working anywhere else. Great pay with a monthly bonus. You do your job and do it well expect a bonus based off of the productive hours you put in on the phone. This doesnt include other great incentives they have. Drawings from a variety of things from phones tablets and tvs. Not only that but a yearly trip for the top 25 representatives in the nation to somewhere new every year.(miami las vegas hollywood) fully paid room board spending cash. Tmobile takes care of there employees.

    Posted by currenttmoempoyee , 09/13/2014 8:31pm (5 months ago)

  • 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 (6 months 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 (6 months 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 (7 months 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 (7 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 (9 months ago)

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