With work scarce, overqualified youth have resorted to working in call centres at great risk to their health.
After working 10 years in a call centre, Walid Saidi has grown hard of hearing. What was supposed to be a temporary job to get documents proving employment so he could migrate to Canada, turned into a long-term job, with gruelling 10-hour days on the telephone.
After undergoing medical tests five years ago, Saidi discovered that he had lost 45 per cent of his hearing. “I could no longer work,” he said. “All what I cared about was buying a hearing aid so I could hear well like other people, especially since my doctor warned me that if I did not do something it would get worse.”
Since Saidi could not afford a hearing aid that cost nearly US$ 1,000, he applied to his employer to help him but his application was denied. Saidi’s hearing loss has led to a great deal of stress and depression, which has also affected his relationships to his, family, parents and friends.
Saidi’s case is not unique. Yussra Barhoumi who holds a BSc in media suffers from psychological disorders due to working in a call centre. Having worked there for 14 years, Barhoumi took a sick leave for six months based on her doctor’s advice.
Barhoumi also has severe and chronic back pains as a result of sitting at a computer for 10 hours a day. Therefore, the management allowed her to only work only six hours a day for three days a week. When an official however forced her to work full-time like her colleagues, she filed a lawsuit and she won, but the compensation was meagre. “I got less than US$ 5,000,” she said.
Barhoumi could not find a job relevant to her specialty, so she went back to work in a call centre despite her injury. Three months later however she decided to quit, having only earned US$ 75 a month.
Tunisia has over 100 call centres, including unlicensed ones, that employ 16,000-20,000 young Tunisians who earn a monthly wage of no more than US$ 250 a month. Tunisia has some 700,000 unemployed citizens, including nearly 250,000 university graduates.
Call centre jobs are insecure where many workers complain of arbitrary dismissal. Hajar, a lawyer, says lawsuits filed against call centres are mostly about arbitrary dismissal where those in charge usually cite different pretexts to lay off workers, such as the end of a probation period.
In one case, according to Hajar, the court subpoenaed those in charge of a call centre that fired some young women, but the centre was closed and those in charge disappeared.
“Global companies of call centres prefer to be based in Tunisia due to low wages and loopholes in the labour law,” said Abdulmajeed bin Jamaa, head of Labour Medicine Department at Tunis Association Hospital. “The noise in call centres is usually over 70 decibels which could cause occupational deafness, not to mention continuous tinnitus due to the use of headsets.”