IF it were up to Ann (not her real name), she would not give up her good-paying job at a multinational business process outsourcing (BPO). But the odds were not in her favor.
The BPO industry was nearing its deadline of a mandatory return-to-office (RTO) arrangement amid the Covid-19 pandemic. If the industry does not comply, then they would lose all the tax holidays and benefits that they are enjoying.
For a first-time mom, Ann knew that the pre-pandemic set-up of BPO would not work for the best of her son’s interests. Leaving a BPO company that prioritizes its employees was not easy at all. Upon knowing of Ann’s departure, the BPO firm made counteroffers – thrice – to keep her in the company. The offers? Ann would be the last to go back on-site or transfer to a new account that allows WFH arrangement, and lastly, a higher position with a close to six-digit monthly salary.
But the last two offers were too late as she already signed with a new company wherein she would still work at home.
“Since my son is still one-and-a-half years old, I opted to resign and find a job that allows work-from-home (WFH) arrangement. But if I did not have a son, I would stay and try my best to adapt to the new normal and hope for a hybrid set-up,” Ann, not her real name, told the BusinessMirror.
FIRB invokes law
The government’s Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) has been firm that starting April 1, BPO companies must employ a 100-percent on-site work for their employees or else they will lose their fiscal perks, as mandated by the Tax Code.
“No one is prohibiting them or impinging on their management prerogative to continue implementing their WFH setups. However, they must give up the tax incentives they currently enjoy because the law is clear on this,” Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III reminded BPO companies recently.
However, the Alliance of Call Center Workers (ACW) has warned that the BPO industry could see massive resignations from employees opposed to onsite work. ACW co-convenor Emman David pointed out that a “significant number” of their 1,500-member group are willing to resign as a “sign of protest” against the government’s stringent on-site work rule for locators.
David said an initial survey conducted by ACW showed that at least 10 percent or about 157 of their members will resign if they are required to return to office, while 117 remain undecided and 37 answered that they would not resign.
Some sectors in the industry have pleaded with government to reconsider, offering hybrid arrangements. But so far, authorities have not budged.
“For our members, the transition to work on site is not that easy. Most of the BPO workers went back home to their province during the pandemic and gave up their living arrangements in Metro Manila,” he said.
“Some of our members would rather take chances working elsewhere that allows work from home arrangement than return to physical offices,” he added.
Health and safety remain a concern, moreover, with worker leaders noting how other countries, even progressive ones, are still reeling from fresh Covid-19 surges, and experts have flagged the risks of such happening locally, once new variants come in.
ACW co-convenor Lara Melencio said they are still concerned about their health and safety since the country is still under a pandemic.
Melencio also pointed out that working onsite is challenging to BPO employees amid high diesel prices, rising food costs and persisting traffic congestion in the metros.
Much of their income, she argued, would just be swallowed up by transportation costs and housing arrangements, wiping out extra savings they derive from the WFH set-up. Savings that they can spend on local businesses in their localities—yes, the same small businesses that government also invokes as reason for compelling workers to go onsite, so they can spend and boost these.
“We urged the Department of Finance to reassess their goals and how it will affect the estimated 1.3 million BPO workers when it comes to this decision. Forcing us to rush back to the Metro will not lead to much economic activity,” she said.
“It is inhumane how we are being treated as mere numbers that provide results. We have worked day in and day out, paying our taxes non-stop. It is time that our welfare is looked after,” she added.
Encroachment on DOLE
Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino President Luke Espiritu said they support the position of ACW and called on the FIRB to rescind its Resolution 19-21, arguing that it undermined the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor and Employment on employee-employer relationship.
“If ain’t broke, why fix it? There’s no problem with the work-from-home arrangement between the employer and the employee. That realm is exclusive to them,” Espiritu said.
A Change.org petition against the return-to-office order in the BPO industry as of March 24 has already reached 4,083 signatures out of its 5,000 target signatures. The petition described the return-to-office requirement as “inconsiderate, insensitive and inhumane.”
“Our ability to work from home or work from anywhere [WFH / WFX] helps keep us and our families safe. Sending us to work on-site without safety nets or a strategic plan is irresponsible and dangerous,” the petition read.
“In the past two years, we’ve kept our chin up, worn our smiles, and continued showing the world that the Filipino is the best. Now, it’s time our voices are heard,” it added.
Mitch Locsin, PLDT First Vice President and Enterprise Revenue Group Head, said the Philippines will not only see higher attrition rates in the BPO industry but it may also lose its competitiveness because of other countries that have adopted the WFH arrangement as part of the new normal for their BPO industries.
“We’re gonna see major attrition rates go flying high,” Locsin said in a webinar on Thursday.
“It’s gonna cause a lot of issues for our BPOS in the country. And it’s quite scary, really. So we’re hoping that the Request for Reconsideration gets approved and we come to an amicable agreement with the government,” Locsin added.
IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP) President Jack Madrid said the government and the BPO industry must find the “optimal balance” on the number of workers that will work onsite or what the industry is proposing as a hybrid work arrangement.
“It is clear to me that we are not going back 100 percent on site. I think we have to find that balance and we need enlightened legislation from the government to help shape that future because the future work is already here. It’s happening,” Madrid said.
Madrid disclosed that IBPAP has an ongoing dialogue with the government to provide the industry with a “longer runway for a smooth transition” toward what they proposed as a hybrid work environment.
IBPAP have earlier pitched a three hybrid work arrangements for the BPO industry which is 60 percent (onsite)-40 percent (WFH), 40 percent (onsite)-60 percent (WFH) or an equal 50-50 percent share for onsite and WFH arrangement, which was supported by the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza).
“The new normal is already happening: an overwhelming preference from our employees for a more location-independent work setup, hybrid work environment,” Madrid said.