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Philippines sends all workers home, outsourced call centres for Acer and telcos suffer degraded service

We get the lowdown on the lockdown from a BPO operator in the heart of Manila

Updated The government of the Philippines has introduced “enhanced community quarantine” rules that restrict movement and have therefore depleted the ranks of workers in the nation’s flotilla of contact centres. One result is customer service degradation in other countries.

As explained on the nation’s Presidential newswire, “The general rule is there is a suspension of work.” This is rather more serious than similar efforts around the world because Filipinos have been told the quarantine “heightens uniformed personnel’s presence to enforce quarantine procedures.”

As a result, some contact centres are under-staffed.

Acer has told customers the situation has “regrettably resulted in unplanned disruptions to Acer's contact centre operations located across The Philippines.”

“Acer is working very closely with our global contact centre partners and Philippines government authorities to restore our call centre operations as soon as possible. We understand and realise that whilst the global Coronavirus Pandemic and mandatory lockdown is outside of our control, this has regrettably affected our ability to service our customers.”

Australia’s dominant telco, Telstra, has also warned of the impact.

“Due to increased containment measures announced by the Philippines Government overnight, Telstra’s contact centre workforce has been reduced,” the company posted. “This means there will be longer wait times for customers contacting us via phone or online messaging.”

New Zealand telco Spark is in strife, too, telling customers they “may experience longer wait times than usual”.

The carrier also noted “The geographical spread of Spark’s customer care teams, with agents situated in multiple locations off-shore and multiple locations in New Zealand, as well as agents working from home, ensures diversity in Spark’s call centre network and business continuity in unexpected situations such as the unprecedented disruption caused by COVID-19.”

Life in the Manila lockdown

The Philippines government has carved out a small exemption for business process outsourcers, telling them to “provide transportation or temporary accommodation for their workers starting March 18, otherwise they will not be allowed to continue operating.”

Chris Moriarty, founder of Manila-based outsourcer Flat Planet , told The Register he’s complied with the requirement to find housing for some staff.

That housing, and Moriarty’s own home, is close enough to Flat Planet's offices that he and his workers workers don’t encounter checkpoints and can therefore travel to and from work. But he’s heard stories of some Barangays [Local government areas - Ed] in which over-zealous authorities are making it hard to set foot on the street.

Flat Planet has introduced social distancing by using only every second or third desk. Moriarty took The Register on a video tour of the office and the handful of staff looked to be separated by many meters.

“We have halved the capacity of the office,” Moriarty said.

But he’s not been able to supply housing for all of his 100+ staff. For the remainder, he’s bought laptops so they can work from home.

He’s also planning for some clients to hit trouble, especially those in entertainment and the printing industry. The founder is more optimistic about the prospects of his customers in the retail and home delivery industries.

And he thinks that once COVID passes, it may be good for business.

“It could lead to a broader acceptance of remote workers,” he opined. “A lot of business people think that if they are not in the office, they can’t boss people around. Now I think companies will realise that having the skills to manage remote teams is valuable.”

Send coffee

For now, Moriarty feels the Philippines government is doing the right thing, because the nation’s health system can’t cope with a mass outbreak and social distancing is not a workable response in a city where residents typically live in small dwellings alongside several generations of one family.

He’s also optimistic the virus is yet to reach typical Filipinos.

“People who are sick here are the elite,” he said, as less well-off Filipinos don’t come into contact with those who travel.

COVID-19 is therefore seen as a disease of privilege.

And Moriarty hopes his office could be seen as a refuge, given the opportunity it offers for distancing. And good broadband – his family has come in to work and attend school.

In conversation with The Register he seemed to be planning to ride it out, rather than head home to Australia. It helps that his family’s preferred foods don’t overlap with local tastes, so shopping hasn’t been an issue. Filipinos aren’t toilet paper users either, preferring bidet showers (aka “bum guns”), so the Moriarty family has been spared the need to hoard that commodity.

But he is craving a coffee: Moriarty told us his favorite café can be seen from Flat Planet’s windows. Moriarty knows there’s an espresso machine and people inside, because he can see fresh cat food each day.

“I haven’t had an espresso for three days and I am really starting to suffer,” he joked, before switching into more serious mode. “I’m just trying to stay alive in the business until this passes.” ®

Updated at 11:20 on March 19 2020 to add

Acer has been in touch to say that the service degradation "only applies to Australia/New Zealand, all other markets are operational, as we have call centers in many locations."

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