“For them you’re not a human being”: Meet the migrants answering phones for Big Tech

After moving to Greece to work for call center giant Teleperformance, workers say they were exploited

By Moira Lavelle
Photography by Demetrios Ioannou for Rest of World

When she first came to Athens from Turkey, Aylin felt free. She originally visited on a volunteer trip and quickly fell in love with the city, charmed by the pockets of it that felt like a quiet village, the cheap vegetables at the weekly bazaar, and most of all, the way she felt free to wander, even in the middle of the night. There were few job opportunities for her at home, so four years ago, she took a gig at a call center in Athens run by a company named Teleperformance. She and her now husband rented an apartment, made a group of friends who would pass hours in the tiny local bars, and began learning Greek.

But it’s difficult to settle down when you feel like everything could be gone in a month or two. Aylin says she has never been offered a work contract by Teleperformance that lasted more than three months. Because her job is tied to her residency permit, she constantly worries about the possibility of suddenly being forced to leave the country. “I was always scared,” says Aylin, who is now 30. “How could you build your life?”

(Like all Teleperformance workers interviewed for this story, she asked to use a pseudonym because she feared that speaking out could endanger her job and residency status.)

Teleperformance isn’t a household name, but if you’ve ever called customer support for companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, or Sony, one of its agents may have answered the phone. Headquartered in France, the corporation has offices in 80 countries and is one of the largest call center operators in the world. It has maintained a presence in Greece for over 30 years and is currently the biggest customer service outsourcer in the country. About 10,000 employees work at 9 campuses dotted across Greece’s mainland and islands, over 50% of whom are foreigners like Aylin.

Teleperformance lures workers to Greece from nearby countries, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, with generous welcome packages, which include plane tickets, two weeks in a hotel, and assistance finding permanent housing. But workers said they are often asked to sign contracts as short as one or two months in length. Five current and former Teleperformance employees told Rest of World the arrangement left them no choice but to accept ruthless productivity quotas and frequent harassment from managers — or risk being terminated and, eventually, deported. “I couldn’t say anything because I was afraid to get fired,” Aylin says. “I came here; I moved my life here; I won’t go back to Turkey; we don’t have any chance.”

Teleperformance did not respond to multiple detailed requests for comment from Rest of World about the allegations made in this story. We also reached out to Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Facebook, and Netflix for comment. All declined to comment on the record or did not respond.

Experts say that poor working conditions are a hallmark of the global call center industry, which employs millions worldwide to help multinational businesses cut costs. Subra Ananthram, an international business professor at Curtin University in Australia, has studied the industry for years. He told Rest of World that in India, the U.K., and the Philippines, jobs in call centers are characterized by repetitive tasks, limited breaks, high-pressure situations, high turnover, and substandard conditions.

Some workers say they viewed working for Teleperformance as the only way out of a dangerous or precarious situation at home. Greece awards asylum to less than 50% of applicants from many of the countries where the company recruits, and the government has been vocal about rejecting people it considers to be economic migrants. “I came here for Teleperformance, actually,” says Yasmine, who says she accepted a welcome package to move to Athens from Tunisia. In her home country, Yasmine says, her political activism was causing problems for her family, and she was already looking for a way out when Teleperformance hired her. “So it was better for me to leave,” she says.

Another worker, Mehmet, also talked about applying for one of Teleperformance’s welcome packages. (It didn’t work out, but he was later able to come to Greece via other methods and eventually applied for asylum). He says that, in Turkey, the company was fairly well-known for providing a way out of the country. His friends warned him that the job would entail unfair working conditions, but he still decided to apply: “I thought, okay it’s better than Turkey,” he says. “If you are living in Turkey in these political conditions, honestly, you just care about the country.”

But once workers made it to Greece, they said they found that working for Teleperformance meant enduring a barrage of stress and impossible demands. The employees who spoke to Rest of World reported being constantly pushed to multitask and satisfy customers at ever-increasing speeds. “I decided to move to Europe to have a better opportunity, to have a better job, to have a better life,” says Kerim, a Turkish national who has been working for Teleperformance in Greece for nearly a year. “It was a failure for me.”

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