Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A longer hiatus than expected...back to blogging!

As one of the largest of the world’s multinationals, Vodafone gets plenty of attention from cheerleaders and critics alike – but not in the way that it should.

If we are reading the Financial Times, we will perhaps get a sense of how big and powerful Vodafone is in the business world. Vodafone has been forming partner network agreements with and buying majority holdings in national-based telecommunications operators throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Vodafone is spreading its wings with the breathtaking span of the globe, becoming the world’s largest mobile phone group with sales of more than US $ 58 billion and a market value of more than US $ 112 billion.

And with the news comes plenty of criticism. Customers in the UK, for example, expressed their grievances over Vodafone’s mobile call cost increase without any prior notification. We know about shareholders’ disgust at a few dozen people becoming extraordinarily wealthy from Vodafone’s acquisition of Mannesmann. We even hear criticism from bankers and investors, who, in 2005, accused Vodafone of being overly aggressive in the bond markets by issuing a US $ 880 million bond.

The veneer of its imperturbability begins to peel away, revealing cracks at the seams.

However, little is made public of the internal workings of Vodafone, except perhaps for board-CEO clashes, and yet, much is revealed from the inside, not only of Vodafone but of our times.

In Egypt the word on the street – among mini-bus drivers, recent college graduates and middle class professionals alike – is that Vodafone is one of the best companies to work for. The salaries are among the highest, the benefits among the most comprehensive, promotions and perks common.

Beyond this exclusive club of formal employment, however, lies a pool of subcontracted workers. Subcontractors with Vodafone hire workers with no contracts or benefits. In fact, being a non-Vodafone employee of Vodafone may be described as driving through a hurricane with a quick entrance and an exit that does not come quickly enough.

To illustrate, this year half of one cohort of Vodafone call center agents, hired by subcontracted employment agencies, left the job within the first three months – and about half of these employees left during or at the completion of the first month of training.

Non-married students and foreigners with varying levels of competent English language skills are attracted to Vodafone’s call center agent positions because the wage is nearly two times the competitive wage of entry-level professional positions in private firms in Cairo. It is slightly above the competitive rate of call center wages (excluding commissions).

Why then such high turnover? There are three ways to frame the answer: First, these unofficial employees are without a contract and ‘sign up’ for the job by signing away their rights and non-work life. Vodafone has expectations and requirements of its call center agents, and yet, does not make most of these known or clear. At the same time, Vodafone holds its agents responsible for what remains unspoken. For example, if an agent is absent from work two days in a row (without prior authorization), three days of pay is taken from the agent’s pay check. Without a contract, agents often only ‘discover’ this when they are confronted with the fact that they did not get paid for a day that they worked.

It is an infuriating double standard: The employer is not held accountable for anything, and at the same time, holds the employees responsible.

Second, the ‘your time is our time’ principle holds: The employee’s own time is at the whim of the employer. Call center agents are expected to stay until their supervisors tell them that they are finished for the day, even if that requires them to stay past their shift. The schedule regularly changes and the next week’s schedule remains unknown until the day/night of the next shift, making advanced non-work scheduling impossible. Agents are expected to arrive to the Vodafone premises 30 minutes before the ‘official’(i.e. paid) start of their shift, and they are expected to upload all applications within 15 minutes of the start. All of this is the employees’ time, taken for free by Vodafone.

Employees who rely on Vodafone transportation often arrive an hour before the start of the shift, spending three and a half to four hours total en route to and from Vodafone premises. Streamlining transportation costs, Vodafone pick-ups and drop-offs are at unreasonable times, such as a pick-up two hours before a shift at 4 in the morning! In the end employees spend nearly all of their waking hours during the work week either at work or going to and from work.

Third, the great contradiction of the post-Fordist era – the contradictory pull between ‘efficiency’ and ‘quality’ – is also borne squarely on the shoulders of the call center agents and their supervisors applying the pressure. This pressure to meet efficiency targets comes at the expense of quality customer service.

The streamlining of personnel costs, plus the general push to the bottom in terms of quality in the design to production to distribution stages, translates into a near constant furry of customer calls coupled with the constant pressure to get rid of the customers as quickly as possible.

In a degraded work environment, such as that in Egypt, this type of humiliating work becomes not only permissible but desirable. As Egypt’s General Authority for Investment proudly claims, Egypt’s wages are “among the most competitive in the region.” Or in other words, labour conditions are among the worst in the region.

But it is not as if workers in Egypt are just swallowing it. For the last five years there has been unprecedented protest among Egyptian workers – from factory workers to professionals – for public sector layoffs and low wages. And of course less dramatic than collective protest is saying high and dry ‘good bye’. The call center agent job may be attractive but for many its attraction wears quickly. The agents leave and Vodafone loses. There is no stability for workers but there is also no loyalty for employers, who then face hiring and training an incoming cohort.

Struggles are and should be waged for agreed-upon work conditions, with full employment rights and dignity of the person. However, we must not stop at the door of multinationals.

After all, Vodafone reflects and informs trends in the corporate world – of a two-tiered labor force (those with contracts and those without), of a revolving door (promises turned into grievances), of low costs and low quality. Low in-country investment and contributions to anything that may be called “development.”

This trend is not exclusive to the corporate world. Vodafone Egypt is part and parcel of the larger world of work, in Egypt and beyond. The work at Vodafone’s call centres is characteristic of work in the private and public sectors, in a neo-liberal era of stripped labour rights, steep hierarchy and weak stability.

Vodafone Egypt provides its call centre agents not a training befit of the latest approaches to work-based learning, but rather a run of the mill training en par with a 9th grade classroom in any private school in Egypt – a learning environment of control, that strips students of their sense of self and capabilities – an environment entirely befitting of work in Egypt.

It is exactly the privatization and liberalization policies that have propped up such an environment to which our attention and struggles must extend. More than two decades of such policies have created a regulatory framework that has only reinforced a culture of hierarchy and control, leaving workers of all stripes with few protections and rights. Deregulation of the private sector has ended up attracting multinationals like Vodafone to Egypt and at the same time propping up entirely undemocratic systems of governance and operation.

Plus, if we are only to point our fingers at Vodafone, the multinational may skip bail with the next forecast, just like Vodafone is currently considering. Good bye to Egypt, hello to India.

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