For the past few months, Mylene Cabalona has been afraid to stay in one place for more than a few days. In April, even as Manila locked down during a deadly second wave of the coronavirus, Cabalona, a call center worker and the president of the Business Process Outsourcing Industry Employees’ Network (BIEN), a workers’ association, moved around the city in a rented van, along with other members of the organization’s leadership team. Sometimes, they split the cost of an Airbnb and work together from there; other times, they take customer calls using a mobile hotspot.

“My address is not listed on any platform,” Cabalona told Rest of World. “I don’t post [pictures] anymore of my daughter, because it could be used against me.” 

Cabalona was forced into hiding by an onslaught of online threats and abuse, after she and her fellow BIEN executives were accused by pro-government trolls of being terrorists or recruiters for the country’s armed communist insurgency. This practice, known as “red-tagging,” is a common tactic that is used by supporters of Rodrigo Duterte’s government to discredit civil society leaders. It has played a part in the killings of some 78 activists in the past year alone, according to a local human rights organization.

“It’s like a death sentence,” Cabalona said.

The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector is one of the Philippines’ largest employers, accounting at least  1.3 million jobs. Its biggest companies, such as Teleperformance and Alorica, serve major U.S. clients, including Amazon, Facebook, AT&T, and Verizon. BIEN is not a formal union, but it’s arguably the closest thing to a union the BPO industry has. Composed of a network of employees spread out across companies and subsectors, its more than 5,000 members run the gamut from traditional call center workers to content moderators for social media companies, and employees at outsourcing companies that work with U.S. banks, airlines, telcos, and consumer technology companies. The organization has been vocal in advocating for secure contracts, fair pay, and safe working conditions during the pandemic.

It is this advocacy — and its often adversarial stance against the Duterte government — that has made BIEN a target for pro-government disinformation. The organization has publicly criticized the Department of Labor and Employment for failing to protect BPO workers during the pandemic, and has spoken out against the government’s controversial anti-terrorism law, which activists say threatens human rights in the country. The anti-terrorism law allows for broader criminalization of speech and opposition activity that the government considers “anti-state.” In this new legal climate, branding someone as aligned with the armed communist movement can create grounds for them to be targeted.

Cabalona said that because BIEN isn’t a formal union, they can’t negotiate with the companies. “So instead we focus on the government, and I think that’s also the reason why they’re red-tagging us.”

Activists said they want big technology companies and others who benefit from the Philippines’ BPO sector to take an interest in the abuses that are going on in their supply chain, and to put pressure on the government to end the attacks on labor organizers.

“[Tech companies], in particular, are now the big drivers globally within the call center vendors in terms of the ability to set standards,” said Shane Larson, senior director for government affairs and policy at the Communications Workers of America, which has called on U.S. companies to “speak up” against the threats to BIEN and its members. “Facebook, in particular, and Amazon, could … call out the red-tagging in particular,” he told Rest of World

Screenshot from Facebook, showing red-tagging.

The BPO industry is so critical to the Philippine economy that workers in the sector were declared “essential,” alongside first responders and the military, and exempted from the requirement to stay home.

Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, assistant professor of English at Rice University who studies the BPO industry, told Rest of World that the Covid-19 crisis may have solidified the sector’s importance. Remittances from Filipinos working overseas have been increasing for years, and were worth $33.5 billion in 2019, but that growth has stagnated as workers returned home during the pandemic. That makes the BPO sector an increasingly important driver of the economy.

This growing significance has not translated into concern for working conditions. Even before the pandemic, many workers faced job insecurity — what workers call “floating” status — where companies would designate them as “no work, no pay” staff. As the global economy slowed during the pandemic, many BPO workers found themselves with reduced and irregular earnings.  Many who were required to work from the office, like Cabalona, risked their health and went weeks without seeing their families to work from BPO offices while abiding by the country’s strict lockdown protocols. Reports at the beginning of the pandemic found that call center workers with Teleperformance, a French outsourcing company, on contract with Amazon Ring were sleeping in their offices. A follow-up NBC News investigation last fall discovered that little had changed: unable to work remotely, the employees said they had to arrange for their own sleeping accommodations, while also working in cramped spaces that were rarely — if ever — adequately cleaned.

In April 2020, BIEN circulated a petition calling for the government and BPO companies to allow employees to work from home. At the time, many workers were sleeping at or near their offices, unable to return home for fear of infecting their families. Three months later, BIEN released a list of eighteen demands, calling for hazard pay for BPO workers, paid leave, internet and electricity subsidies for those working from home, and government inspections to ensure that health protocols were being strictly implemented by any company that required workers to come into the office. 

In the summer of 2020, they began to see banners on the street accusing them of being communist recruiters. Shortly after, the red-tagging moved to Facebook. Cabalona said that the abuse really intensified after BIEN held a protest on November 30, 2020, a national holiday that celebrates Filipino freedom fighter Andrés Bonifacio. A deluge of posts began to appear on Facebook saying Cabalona was a recruiter for the NewPeople’s Army (NPA), an armed wing of the Communist Party, which remains active in certain areas of the country. Since then, they are met with a torrent of abuse whenever they release a statement.

Cabalona said that BIEN has been able to get most of the posts removed from Facebook by mobilizing its more than 5,000 members to report pages and profiles that post or share the abuse. (Rest of World was still able to find posts on Facebook that allege that Cabalona is a recruiter for the NPA). After Rest of World reached out to Facebook, the company removed the posts targeting Cabalona for “violating our violence and incitement policy as we do not allow people to post content that could contribute to offline harm,” according to a spokesperson. Posts red-tagging other people, however, remained up at the time of publication.

BIEN has had to take the red-tagging seriously. After the first wave of comments, Cabalona said that BIEN installed four CCTV cameras in its office, worried that they might be raided by the police. In December 2020, nine indigenous environmental activists were killed in a police raid after they were red-tagged.

“It’s very scary because most of those people that get red-tagged, they’re either dead or they’re incarcerated,” said Cabalona. “Any time, say, a friend would tell us ‘There’s a police [vehicle] in front of your office,’ we have to scatter, we have to move.”

Cabalona can’t say for sure that the red-tagging she’s experienced has been the work of the government, but she suspects that is likely the case — in 2018, pages that had red-tagged BIEN’s former leadership were linked to the Philippine National Police and taken down by Facebook.

“If they move the work, that’s a long-term strategic decision about the viability of the Philippines as a place for foreign investment.”

Researcher Marte-Wood said that the economic importance of the BPO industry could make labor organizers like Cabalona a target of the state. The kind of protections that BIEN is calling for could undermine the factors that have made the Philippines attractive for companies looking to offshore work: weak labor protections and low wages. 

“I think, in some sense, the state realizes the potential source of mobilization and power that a true kind of trade union in the BPO could have,” said Marte-Wood. 

The Philippine government is unlikely to take meaningful action to protect labor organizers like Cabalona. But activists told Rest of World that the real leverage lies with the BPO companies and their clients. 

“If tech companies told Duterte that ‘If you don’t clean things up, we’ll move this work,’ I think that would be an incredibly important threat to make,” said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, an international service sector union. “If they move the work, that’s a long-term strategic decision about the viability of the Philippines as a place for foreign investment.”

Rest of World reached out to Amazon, Facebook, AT&T, and Verizon, as well as outsourcing companies Teleperformance and Alorica. None agreed to be interviewed. A representative for the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines referred Rest of World to a joint statement it released last year voicing its opposition to the anti-terror law, and said its stance remains the same.

CWA’s Larson said that he has little hope that major tech companies or the BPO vendors that operate in the Philippines will take a stand. “They’re complicit in most of this,” he said. “And there’s a benefit for them because they’ve been fighting the unionization efforts in the Philippines and other parts of the world. It is to their benefit to have this climate of fear and oppression in the country.”