Wednesday 15 July, 2020

All call centres in St Catherine ordered closed

All call centres operating in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in St Catherine have been ordered closed by the Government.

This follows an outbreak which has seen 52 employees of the Alorica facility in Portmore in the parish testing positive for the dreaded coronavirus (COVID-19). This has resulted in a sharp rise in confirmed coronavirus cases on the island, from 73 to 125 in just two days.

Following the development, all employees of Alorica were ordered to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.

However, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who announced the closure of the call centres during Wednesday’s sitting of the House of Representatives, said some Alorica employees were already reportedly seeking employment elsewhere.

“We’ve received reports that some employees are trying to seek employment elsewhere. We’ve gotten one report of an employee coming from the affected BPO, trying to get employment in Hanover,” Holness stated.

He warned the Alorica employees who number more than 700, that they could be prosecuted under the Quarantine Act for breaching the quarantine order.

Holness also had a warning for any prospective employer of the Alorica employees.

“I wish to use this platform to say to other BPOs, you would be assisting the violation of the quarantine if you employ someone who is an employee of the BPO in question.

“I would advise the other BPOs (that) it would be in your (best) interest not to accept anyone until the quarantine period has ended,” Holness stated.

“Right now we need to have everyone just stand still. That is related to that particular BPO,” the prime minister added.

Apart from Alorica, other call centres that will be affected by the St Catherine closure are IBEX and Conduent, which are also located in Portmore.

The prime minister said the BPO sector employs some 40,000 people, and is the fastest growing sector in terms of employment.

That factor has been viewed in some circles as an indication of why the Government has seemingly hesitated to order a wholesale closing down of the call centres across the island even in the midst of the global pandemic.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament (file photo).

On that score, Holness said it is not only in Jamaica that BPOs pose a potential COVID-19 problem.

“Governments have handled it in different ways. Some governments have gone for partial lockdown, some governments have locked them down totally, while some governments have put in stringent requirements,” he remarked.

“What is clear is that the nature of BPO operations requires special attention… The Government has invested heavily in the sector and will be careful about how it treats its investment,” the prime minister added.

But he stressed that members of the sector and its stakeholders should never form the view that the Government will not take the most extreme action “If we have evidence that stakeholders in the industry, including the employees, are negligent, casual or belligerent in following the guidelines and orders of the Government.”

In signalling the Government’s zero-tolerance approach going forward, Holness said “As difficult as it may be, we can resurrect business, but we’ve not yet figured out how to bring back the dead to life.”

He argued that “The closure is necessary for us to assess and determine whether or not there is a systemic breakdown in the management, supervision and practices in BPO operations in the parish, and to contain the spread of the virus within the sector.”

The prime minister insisted that the closer was necessary, since employees are often circulated between branches.

“So you could have an outbreak in a branch in St Catherine and some members leave, go to Mandeville, go to Kingston, they train together, they might exchange them on accounts. So it is quite possible that if there’s poor management in one branch, it could affect a branch that has good management or a branch outside of the parish," said Holness.

Meanwhile, all call centres island-wide are now required to observe some new protocols going forward. These include:

1). Temperature checks for everyone entering a BPO facility.

2). Strict spacing requirement and social distancing within the workplace. Employees must be at least six feet apart.

3). Hand sanitisers must be placed strategically throughout the facility, including in the lunch room and recreation areas. A wash station or hand sanitisers must be placed at the entrance to the facility.

4). All equipment used must be sanitised between shifts.

5). Employers must ensure that there is no co-mingling of employees between shifts.

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