By Invisíveis Goiânia
For those who only pay attention to high politics and the news, what is happening in reaction to the global pandemic in Brazil appears like insanity driven by crazy politicians and businessmen. A huge majority has been in favor of the quarantine since the beginning, about 73% of the population. The percentage gets even higher in the poorest parts the population: 96% of the population in favelas defend quarantine and 76% of unemployed people and workers under precarious conditions defend quarantine, even without guaranteed income. Workers and poor people in Brazil are quite aware of the value of their own lives and of the fact that no one but themselves will be able to guarantee their livelihood. Yet, we are experiencing a huge surge in infections, the death rates are doubling every five days, and streets are starting to become crowded. Why? Is it because poor people are ignorant and do not believe in the pandemic, as some people would urge to think? That is not the case. The Brazilian working class is struggling with a desperate day-to-day fight, trying to protect themselves and their loved ones from economic and psychological coercion without any support from the unions and the political left. For instance, a project offering an emergency relief fund for poor people of R$600,00 was celebrated by the left as a major victory at the beginning of April, but by the end of April there are at least 45 million workers who did not receive it yet. 5 million workers cannot even register to try and get it because they do not have smartphones to make the application. The other forty million are having to expose themselves to infection in long lines at the banks. They have to wait to see if they will be able to register to get a chance to get the benefit, but this is often held up due to bureaucratic problems, such as not having an “active” social security registry.
The minimum wage in Brazil is R$1036,00. There are no debates of any further relief funds. If there were any health, safety, and security measures in the hospitals, workplaces, commerce and anywhere, it was because of these desperate yet very conscious struggles of people trying their very best to live and preserve lives. Our small collective of workers chose to translate and reproduce this saga of struggles in a call centre in Goiânia, because we believe it to be representative of a reality lived by many workers in our country – they are being deprived of information, given contradictory instructions, and poor equipment. At the end of the day, if anything survives, it will be due to their struggle, not because of any enlightenment of their managers. We hope that by sharing their voices and thoughts, workers and people of other countries will be able to hear another call from them – not just those ones when they offera service or chargethe payment of a bill, but their call tobe able to breathe freely, like all workers and human beings should be able to do. This text also represents a form of political and theoretical practice that we believe is important to be shared and discussed. These texts were produced over a month of repeated collective discussion of day-to-day battles and shared pain, angst, and joy over the small victories obtained every day. It took these workers immense courage and resilience inside the call center to keep contacting us and exposing what was happening, even under threat. The courage of these workers was an inspiration to us and – we hope – may be an inspiration to others as well.
The Call of Death Saga: The Unwavering Struggle of Atento’s Call Centre’s Workers For Their Lives in Goiânia
Part 1: Panic in the service bay
As of the 20th March we are receiving desperate workers complaints about the situation at Atento’s call centre, which provides services to companies such as “Vivo”, “BMG”, “Oi” and “Enel.” The situation is dramatic. Ever since COVID-19 cases increased, call centre operators are being fired and disappearing from their workstations: “I realised that this week the number of employees has been decreasing every day, without warning or explanation”, a worker denounces. “Since the coronavirus issue started I realised that people were disappearing, I was talking to my colleagues “guys, it’s disappearing’”, said another worker. The method for dismissing workers without having to pay for rights is cruel: “They are giving a four-day suspension for breaking two minutes, because with three suspensions it is just cause”. In this inhumane condition, mass layoffs are happening: “I heard the testimony of an employee today, saying that 150 people will be fired immediately, among them newbies who had started at the job three days ago, people in training and hired workers”. In addition, those who stay are obliged to accept a work schedule on alternate days, without the right to a food allowance on break days.
For workers in risk groups at the company, there is no urgency in discussing home working. It does not apply to workers with relatives at risk: “If you have a family, they don’t consider it. It only applies also for those who have a personal computer and internet”. These workers are left to fend for themselves because even after a court order for the workplace to be sanitized and ventilated, the cleaning conditions at the stations remained terrible: “They say that they are cleaning several times, but even hair came out of the key boards, which, by the way, were not cleaned”. There is also no hand sanitizer available and workers cannot wear masks: “They say they have [70% alcohol gel] hand sanitizer, however it’s also a lie. They’re putting cleaning alcohol on them. Today the union gave a bottle of about 20 or 30ml in half for each one. But it was alcohol mixed with water… Ah! They banned the use of masks for saying that it covers the face and the company does not accept it”.
Workers also report that it was only after an inspection that banned workstations due to poor hygiene conditions that the proper hand sanitizer began to appear. But they still continue to demand that the workers have the necessary equipment to work at home: “Because they are asking again who has a PC or notebook, but they say that it must be an 20MB internet or over… Then the people stayed silent and I asked: ‘and who does not have?’”. The company is silent, but workers know that those without the equipment will continue to work, taking all the risks working in terrible working conditions. Instead of hiring more cleaners, the company just overloaded the existing cleaners, who are not in the least able to do all the work. With a lying attitude, the company is concerned with taking photos that do not represent reality at all: “Today I also saw people taking pictures of the cleaning ladies (who are visibly overloaded by the way). Pictures of them cleaning tables and smiling. They made us tap the keyboard and wiped the tables only”.
The guidance for sick workers is just to be silent: “There have been cases of employees being sick with the symptoms of coronavirus and all they said was to ‘be quiet’ and hope to get better.” This is pushing workers to the limit of mental exhaustion. They live with the fear of contracting the disease, infecting family members at risk, and/or losing their job. The result is desperate workers: “Dude, people are freaking out. There are people feeling sick and the staff [managers] inducing them to focus. I’m rubbish, I can’t think now, I’m freaking out. I’ve been crying all day and colleagues are already quitting”.
Faced with this absurd situation of inhumanity, workers demand a total and immediate interruption of activities: “Our claim is to stop! Because the recommendation was to avoid any kind of crowding and we spent 6 to more than 8 hours a day in a closed environment, with air conditioning and countless people. Not to mention that the vast majority depends on public transport, which is still crowded today and requires us to have direct physical contact with several people.” The company replies to the workers that their lives are worthless: “Their argument at first was that we didn’t have to stop, because the service was over the phone and meant no risk to customers”. And the risk to workers?
Enough is enough
Initially what seemed like a distant threat, on the other side of the planet, ended up knocking on our doors. As a student of higher education, I was caught by the rumors of teachers who came back from a trip from Europe with the suspicion of contamination. The terror began to spread quickly and wefeared for our safety and the safety of our family and friends.
The first cases of contagion and/or suspicions were reported, college activities soon stopped, but in the company everything remained as before … Until we started to organize by ourselves to demand action.
A whatsapp group was created on 17th of March “Atento pro Corona #2.” It is the first one that I have participated in so far. This was decisive for our organization. One, maybe two days later, I learned that my supervisor was in the group, denouncing and passing information through screenshots to the manager, coordinator of our group (someone above in the company’s hierarchical scale). We could hear, even from our service environment, parts of the conversations, whispers, and in the meantime laughs without any censorship that occurred at the supervisory meetings right next to our service, distant at times by just a few meters. The loud laughs of scorn provoked curiosity in me and soon I asked another close colleague about what was happening. That’s when he answered me that “they heard about our ‘whatsapp’ group, they think we are making a splash, they are underestimating the risks that we represent to the company.” That angered me but it did not surprise me, it made me want to participate in the demonstration, to me it was a clear sign that we needed to be heard.
The demonstration was scheduled for the 19th of March. It was due to start at 2:30pm, but I arrived early (1pm) to join the others. When I arrived the large number of people surprised me, I did not imagine that people with limited moments of pauses, which normally prevented them from even going to the bathroom, would take their 5 minute break to fight for rights. Not counting those who left their homes, even outside their office hours and took the bus, they stopped doing anything else to be participating. I realized that there were others in the same situation as mine, I could feel that the concern about the country’s situation and our working conditions was widespread. The cries of the demonstration stretched across the block, people left the balconies of the buildings. It was then that we decided to block part of the traffic on the street. What we wanted was visibility! Not that it was an obstacle for those who circulated around the place. At no time was anyone “stuck” in traffic for even 10 minutes. Even so they called the police, and guess what? They were the same ones that the other day got together to make fun of people. I looked in the corner and recognized people from the top of the company, managers, directors, in short: people who had the power to fire or admit, punish, or persecute anyone they wanted in that domain. They, together, pointed the cell phone cameras towards us and filmed us. For me the attempt of coercion, of intimidation, was explicit. I thought for a moment if I should end up there and disperse … That’s when I remembered my reasons, in any case it was my integrity that was at stake. The question was, “to be fired or infected, what could be worse?” I stayed! The vehicles arrived, a countless number of them, should have more than 15 vehicles, even from the elite PM group, so the number of police officers was equal to that of the protesters. I was very tense with the situation, but I was convinced that I did nothing more than fight for my rights.
The second half of the act started from there, the police tried to disperse the protesters, as they were unable (or simply could not) they went to the negotiations. It was when we presented our agenda and demands and we were heard. The company representative, named “Alessandro”, promised to meet our requirements as quickly as possible:
- Availability of alcohol and gel in all parts of the companies
- Constant cleaning of service bays and phone sets
- The rotation of the number of employees, with the distance of PAS of 1 meter, at least, of distance (or even isolation as our right to contain the health problem)
- Make the medical team available for preventive exams
- Release employees who are within the risk group
In addition to the elderly, people with the following chronic diseases are also within the risk group and would be allowed home office work:
- People with heart problems
- Kidney patients
- Smokers, whose lungs are most affected by smoking
Coincidentally or not, that day I already had flu symptoms and I went to the demonstration wearing a mask any way, I, until then, couldn’t tell if it was a common flu or Corona virus, the fact is that there was no preventive action, I knew that it was that environment that was always conducive to this that hurt me, that dirty air conditioning and people working exposed close to each other without any protection. I walked away with a 4-day certificate and during those 4 days I was under observation. I sent a message to my closest friends at work asking for care and clarifying my situation. My supervisor called me directly on my cell phone after that, he didn’t even want to leave a message, he was brief, what marked his tone of voice and his words was his intention to hide my case, he said something like “you don’t have to talk to me everyone that you are sick, it doesn’t help at all, it ends up making people afraid (of coming to work)”.
When I came back (23rd of March), the spacing between PA’s had changed and gel alcohols had already been made available, cleaning started to occur more frequently, the dispensations to work in the home office gradually also occurred, but we never knew how it was happening, there was never a minimum of dialogue between management and other employees in this regard, people just disappeared … We never knew the criteria.
Many people at extreme risk are still in person, I even talked to a lady at the 52-year-old company who worked and still took care of her father at home, bedridden, with chronic illnesses, she complained to me that she had already lost hope of being released, this, while people outside the risk group are in the home office. Not to mention the forced layoffs, those who were on experience were fired, others, for fear of continuing to work, asked to leave on their own, the operation was emptying. Insecurity remains. And for some there is no way out, they cannot leave the post and risk the feared unemployment in times of crisis. We are taking risks and this text is a cry for help.
Perhaps it is the content for another text, but the situation for those who work at home is also not favorable. Nobody was released from my area, but I hear from colleagues in other areas who work at home that the conditions are also terrible. The internet network does not work the same way, the system as a whole is not supported by computers that end up damaged, there is no technical assistance for everyone and we have the impression that there is nowhere to run, wherever we are we will be unattended.
Part 2 Atento: Resisng Death’s Call
17th of April, 2020
At first, almost everything seemed like a joking matter. If someone coughed or sneezed, they asked, “No, it’s not corona, right!?” The company used to argue that “a call center can keep going, it does not mean a risk to our customer!” OK! But what about us? 13th of March, when quarantine began in Goiás, was also the day on which our first colleague disappeared. She took two weeks off on a medical certificate. When they saw her returning with a mask, they took her away in a hurry. We never saw her again.
Then the news suddenly started to sound like a warning signal. Not for managers, but for the employees. The managers started to organize when they heard the news of an alleged general strike of call center operators.
They brought, I do not know from where, a woman called “Polly”, a so-called superintendent of Atento – and this, hours before the scheduled time for the beginning of the demonstration. It was on the 20th of March. She was talking nicely, telling us about how she took a plane and left her daughter at home just to come here and reassure us that it was safe to keep working. But was she aware that we need to leave our children at home and take a crowded bus to work every day? Does she realize that sometimes we wait hours to catch these buses? That there are many people coughing inside them and we do not know why? “Leave your house a bit earlier!” and come back if you can!
Whether it is rainy or sunny: how many times have I seen colleagues working six hours a day, drenched in rain, in a room with AC? Polly, said over and over again “We are doing everything we can! We will do everything to ensure your safety, we will ensure that everyone can do home office, we are holding meetings every day, from 8am to 9pm for you! But if you still want to leave your PAs (work stations) and go to the demonstration, feel free to do so.”
All of the managers went to the demonstration, but not really to hold signs. They decided to call the police, they boasted. There were more police officers than demonstrators, and although the voices of those who were there were quiet – at that particular moment they were making some important changes.
The next day, the 21st of March, we saw the following scene: a supervisor running from side to side, asking questions, wanting to know which employees were in the risk group (they still did not consider relatives). They asked and made a list of people who had small children, notebook, internet (but considering only those with a 20MB connection or higher).
They decreed the mandatory use of alcohol gel in companies and the union brought a bottle for each operator, half-filled. Alcohol gel? I heard that it was ethanol! It was a strange liquid, which, if shaken, turned white and had things inside that no one could identify. For the company, alcohol was meant to replace the disinfectant gel. They forbid the use of masks because they cover part of the face. And if someone came in masked, they would kick the person out immediately. And the funny thing is that those colleagues who wore masks disappeared and no one ever brought this fact up. If someone asked for the management, they would talk it out. If someone went to talk to them face to face, they would all give the same answer: “I have a medical certificate” and in a tacit, strange, and only way. Ultimately, they were always gone for good.
They decreed that everyone should be two meters away from each other. In the company they arranged the workstations so that they would be separated by “one meter at most!” The inspectors went there and told the supervisors that everything was wrong, that it was “to get rid of all that mess”, or “it would be on them.”
So the managers made the cleaning ladies take pictures smiling, but you could see the despair and tiredness in their eyes. Pressure and fear too. They blocked some of the benches in the cafeteria, but only until our local TV reporter went there. Then they took it out and started releasing the staff.
Regarding working from home, the majority of those who had a notebook and internet were teenagers, with parents who support them. Mothers and fathers with small children, as well as those who had family members in risk groups remained working at the company. At first, they argued with the lack of the specific equipment for the call center operators. But they were giving away a similar one in other departments. I overheard a supervisor say off the record “just pack it up and take it home!” But Atento was choosing to whom they would give the necessary equipment! And it went on with the argument that the list of priorities was following the type of service being provided. But wait … weren’t they trying to prioritize at first? What about the small children? The families at risk? But these workers did not have a notebook or 20MB internet useful for the company, so they remained at the end of the line.
What about the decree that “if you have someone with a cough or flu symptoms, or someone in the family, you should stay home”? What you do not stop hearing inside is the sound of people coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses. There were some who had shortness of breath and were told to “be quiet” until it went away on its own. I saw people asking to leave and they would not let me because they had a waiting list. And, of course, people kept disappearing.
The argument now for not allowing people to work from home is that they lack technicians; others say that they do not need technicians to install anything, just plug it in and that should do it. Every day there is a new sign with new COVID-19 instructions. The impression is that the sign means that “someone who died here was infected with coronavirus.” But nobody says anything, nobody knows of anything, or of no one.
They make videos with photos of those working from home, making hearts with their hands and saying “we are here for you!” But what about us who are at risk day after day? Who are we here for? And who is here for us?
We have been waiting for a month now, I have lost count of the days – and of their countless excuses. Some of us in the call centre – and all of those who work for BMG – were released to work from home on Thursday 16th of April 16 after a lot of struggle. But what about the rest of us who provide service to other companies? Why haven’t we been released too? There are colleagues who are deemed as members of a risk group or who care for sick family members – who themselves are also at risk group – and have yet to be released. We will need the solidarity of those who went away. And build more strength among those who stayed.
Atento, we do not need the chocolates that you give us day in day out – as if this was some kind of joke – because we are working though we should be at home. We should have the same rights as the “chosen ones”. We are not for sale! We work under these conditions because we have families to support. But every day it becomes clearer that, until it is not one of you, you will not understand that our situation is very serious!
We do not want to stop working, we just want what is our right! Equal treatment for everyone! Released one, release them all!
Part 3: The death call connues in Atento: at home and in the house
25th of April, 2020
The conditions of Atento’s call center workers, whose company provides services to “Vivo”, “BMG”, “Oi” and “Enel”, continue to be terrible. Whether in the company or working from home, workers continue to be threatened with dismissal and the loss benefits. They do not receive protection masks and quality alcohol gel. So, they are still at risk of dying at work.
HOME OFFICE OF FEAR AND REDUCED SALARY
Atento has been slowly releasing workers from some operations to their home office in recent weeks. What seemed like a relief, turned into a nightmare. Because, the system that was bad became even worse and the workers started to lose many calls. However, even with technical problems, the pressure of the bosses for goals is maintained through virtual groups. The workers live a real death odyssey until they are released gradually. In the beginning, only those who had a computer at home were allowed to work from a home office. After that, the company released the company’s computers and headsets, but only for those with access to the internet. To get the equipment, workers were forced to sign a term in which they are responsible for any damage, which will be reduced from their salary. A worker says: “… if something happens, they deduct it from our ‘big’ salary … that would happen in installments. I don’t even like to breathe near them.” An important part of the income of workers was lost once they worked from home, because they no longer receive the transportation voucher, which is worth aroundR$200. For a salary as low as R$830 per month, receiving the voucher is essential. The company promises to provide aid to cover electricity and internet expenses. Nobody knows how much it would be, but according to some people it would be only $R80.
When asked about the value of this, workers respond: “We have no idea. Supervisors said they plan to estimate energy and internet spending. And they already pay more than that.”
STILL “IN THE HOUSE”, WITH FEAR OF DEATH AND “THE FIRING SQUAD”
Other sectors in Atento have not even discussed offering home working possibilities to their workers. A female worker told us that “no one in my sector was allowed to do home office.” The work conditions for those who stayed remained the same as before the pandemic: terrible and dirty. Ever since the demonstration on the 19th of March, the two meter space between the service stations has been maintained, but they do not have masks, alcohol products to clean their hands, or adequate cleaning of their working spaces. A worker says that by the end of March, “ever since the demonstration, a few things have changed, yes, but just a bit… and it stayed that way, there were no more adaptations after those initial ones. In fact, the ones that happened were those that we demanded, they did not offer us any changes. And they stopped at the few things we demanded, we don’t have any masks and aren’t allowed to wear them.”
April is now nearing its end. There was no distribution of masks by the company and there will never be. The company distributed a warning: “Bring your own masks, you need to be mindful of your health and safety”. It was clear then, the company will not give us proper protection gear. As to the alcohol gel, “the workers are given something that is supposed to be the 70% alcohol gel in a pot for each one, but it smells and feels like soap, because it generates foam just like soap and we never saw alcohol generating foam like soap.”
Until when will the workers of Atento be threatened, fired, and forced to work in conditions that can cause death? Our demands remain the same! We want adequate working conditions for those working from home, in the company building, for everyone. We are all equal, we are all running risks, and we all need and want to survive.
- Invisíveis (in Portuguese)
- English translations