In the Shadow of Profits: Work and Unions at Visa Financial

Times are good for Canada’s banks. At the end of 2013, the country’s Big Five – Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, CIBC, TD, and Bank of Montreal – delivered a record $29 billion in profits and stock value is up 20 percent from the year before. The CEOs of these financial institutions list as some of the top earners in Canada, together bringing in over $46 million in executive compensation. But what of the workers employed by these banking giants?

chartered_banks_450RBC CEO, Gordon Nixon, was on the defensive for much of 2013 when the bank outsourced some of its domestic information technology work to an India-based company, iGate. Of course, RBC had been farming out work to iGate for years, but scandal erupted when the multinational IT firm looked to Indian temporary foreign workers to staff its operations in Canada. Dozens of highly skilled workers were laid off and made to help train their own replacements before being ignominiously dismissed.

RBC isn’t alone when it comes to missing out on Employer of the Year awards. In March of 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada gave the green light to class-action lawsuits against CIBC and Scotiabank for hundreds of millions of dollars of unpaid overtime. The banks appealed earlier decisions by lower courts, of course, only to be thwarted by the country’s top court. Thousands of workers, the lawsuits allege, were denied overtime when they were assigned work beyond what they could complete within their standard hours. CIBC’s pre-approval requirements for overtime effectively prohibited employees from being paid what they were owned under basic employment standards in the Canada Labour Code.

Our contributor, working under the pseudonym “Mickey” for the bank we call “Visa Financial”, talks about the conditions of work in one of Canada’s leading financial institutions. Mickey reflects on what it’s like to be employed in Visa Financial’s lucrative credit card division as a customer service agent in one of the company’s call centres. Most importantly, Mickey talks about the significance of being a unionized banking employee as a member of the United Steelworkers (USW).

A wider discussion about work at Visa Financial and call centre unionism in Canada and India can be found in the book, Call Centers and the Global Division of Labor: A Political Economy of Post-Industrial Employment and Union Organizing, by yours truly.

Andrew Stevens, co-editor, Rankandfile.ca

In the Shadow of Profits: Work and Unions at Visa Financial

I’ll start off by saying my name is Mickey. I was hired as a bank teller and went to work for one of Visa Financial’s call centres over a decade ago. I was excited to start working at the bank and eventually I decided to build a career in the financial industry. Quickly I found out that the bank is a hard place to work. Bullying is an unfortunate, yet common, workplace occurrence. Sometimes this harassment comes in the form of verbal threats, mostly by supervisors and managers. One example is a teller not being allowed to take their scheduled break because they failed to balance their cash to the penny. Other times it comes in the form of verbal abuse by customers. In these cases, management does not find it necessary to step in and defend the worker but instead tell us to “get a thicker skin”. Once, after a female employee was called the “c” word by a customer, the female supervisor shrugged it off and told the teller to get over it. Supervisors let these things happen even though the bank likes to promote its supposedly strong “no harassment” policy.

Bullying is an unfortunate, yet common, workplace occurrence.

When I started working at the call centre it felt like a breath of fresh air.  Here, workers would laugh and talk and I felt respected for what I could contribute to the company. After about six months I started to realize that things were not what they seemed. I had heard that our unionized counterparts in Toronto were paid higher wages for the exact same job. I have always believed in fairness. Why should call centre workers in Toronto automatically get paid more? I couldn’t understand. The Toronto centre also had other things we did not. As an example, they could bank overtime hours and receive double time for overtime hours worked on a Sunday. They were also receiving premium pay incentives for certain shifts. Eventually my colleagues and I found out that Toronto had these “luxuries” because the workers in that facility were unionized and members of the United Steelworkers (USW).uswlogo

After an HR person was flown out to meet with the call centre workers in Vancouver, he made a remarkable statement telling us that if we wanted anything close to what Toronto had we had to get a union. Without knowing it, he got us on the road to having a better workplace. Once the rumblings started and management became concerned, people were flown out from Toronto to convince us that having a union would be a very bad thing. Plain-and-simple union busting was then in full swing. The signing of union cards had started and management began to put us in meetings to deter us from joining. This is just another form of bullying, but it didn’t frighten most of us and we finally certified in 1999. Not all problems were not solved right away, of course. It has taken years of tearing away at the vice-like grip that the employer had on our throats. We were able to reclaim some of our dignity and that in itself is worth a lot. In the end, we were able to finally negotiate the same wages and benefits as our counterparts in Toronto. Our colleagues in Montreal eventually unionized as well, but that centre decertified a few years ago. Those workers were stripped of their right to bargain, and therefore not entitled to the same benefits as the customer service employees in Vancouver or Toronto.

Employee monitoring

In Vancouver, one of our main complaints was a “monitoring” system that was put into place to police our calls. Incidentally, the monitors are based in the Montreal centre and most of them have either little to no experience in customer service. They simply listen to a call and have a checklist to review. A big problem was that the monitors were given a certain amount of subjectivity when evaluating our performance. They can mark you down and really have no justification for it. If you, as a rep, want to challenge a monitor’s decision, the supervisor in Vancouver would most likely discourage you from doing so. The manager would also tell you that if you decide to appeal the assessment they might come back and find more things wrong with your call. Take the deduction and shut up, was their usual response. Again, another form of bullying and intimidation.

The calls we take are part of a program called QIP, or quarterly incentive program. This program, if performed to optimum level, can garner the employee up to $8000 extra in wages over the course of a year. Plus, employees have the ability to be nominated and perhaps “win” a year-end prize as the best “achiever”. The prize for this is a trip to either Hawaii or Mexico, along with 200 other employees and upper management. Don’t think for a moment that the trip is not fully planned out and every minute of the “prize” not accounted for! The trip is also a taxable benefit. Problem is, many workers fall for this “how fast can the hamster run on the wheel” trick. In the long run the problem makes many people who don’t “achieve” the prize feel worthless. This was just one of the ways the employer would foster a very competitive worksite. Somehow the workers always fell for the spin and believed they were of some value to the company. They weren’t.

Every month we are pulled into a manager’s office for a “coaching” session. I like to refer to them as the “whipping hour”. We sat and listened to how many calls were recorded and what we did wrong. To make us feel worse, managers forced us to listen to the call. We have been lucky though, our union was able to change a few things with the monitoring system. Monitors could no longer listen to a call a second time to find something else wrong and mark lower. The manager must send a call back to be re-examined if the rep wants it to be reviewed. The rep then has a right to escalate the review to a higher power. We finally had a right to file a grievance if the manager refused to follow the new protocol.

Every month we are pulled into a manager’s office for a “coaching” session. I like to refer to them as the “whipping hour”.

From customer service to pressure sales

Working conditions got worse a few years ago when the bank introduced the idea of sales. Keep in mind that we were originally trained to deal with problems and complaints as customer service reps. We weren’t telemarketers. When the program first came in were we were told it would be “soft selling”, which is something we already do. “Soft selling” is simply making suggestions about products, like credit insurance and such. Very quickly, selling turned into a “must”. Even if a customer called in for assistance, you were required to make an offer. The computer system we used was even changed so that it would prompt us as reps to offer certain products to customers. We were even instructed on how to make the lead in to the sale. This is called the “link-benefit” statement, and if the sales technique was not used then we would suffer with our score on that call. Even if we made a sale using our own method and language, which benefited the bank and the customer service rep, we would still get docked. Why? Because the bank wants it a specific way.

Bank managers believe they know what the customer wants. Of course, they rely on surveys and stats to develop selling techniques, and never ask their own employees, who are also bank customers, what actually works. In the end, the bank wanted to us to sell things in ways that most of the time made no sense. This is where the bank started focusing on sales over quality customer service. Visa Financial will never admit this is the case, but it’s hard to deny. When a call is reviewed and a sale attempt is not made the CSR is docked marks on the call. This all affects the year-end bonus system we work towards. It doesn’t matter how great the interaction was with the customer, the bank just wants to see sales. Many of my co-workers have resorted to desperate measures to boost their numbers as a result. For instance, some of them accept a sale that was not authorized or hang up on a customer when it might affect the quota of calls they are expected to take during a shift. Money, not people, comes first at Visa Financial.

It doesn’t matter how great the interaction was with the customer, the bank just wants to see sales.

All of this pressure naturally comes with an increase of sick days at the call centre. Many people could not face coming in and dealing with the strain. Managers would constantly call you at home to find out why you are not in. After a few days, supervisors would recommend that you visit a company doctor. If you said that you had your own doctor, Visa Financial would still preferred that you visited their physician. Management would also troll social media websites to make sure employees were actually sick at home, and not posting from some other location. They also kept tabs on what employees were saying about Visa Financial on-line. The bank has a belief that even though they rent your time for 7.5 hours a day, they OWN you 24/7. This being said, if you wanted to get a part-time job somewhere else you needed their permission first. I could understand this if you applied for a job with a competitor, but what other reason do they have to care? Visa Financial will also terminate you if they found out you have a realty license, claiming that you could access the bank database to obtain potential client information. From how you spoke with customers to your off-duty life, the bank wanted full control.

Outsourcing & Unemployment

In June of 2012 the bank contracted with a payroll company called AON Hewitt. There have been problems ever since. On a regular basis employees were either being underpaid or overpaid. Sometimes the payroll company would cause an error that ended with the cancellation of benefits. In all cases it was up to you to solve the problem, which usually took weeks to clear up. This added to the already stressful occupation of customer service worker. Visa Financial’s deal with Hewitt is part of the bank’s longstanding practice of outsourcing and subcontracting. When you call the payroll firm to deal with errors, you are forced to deal with a rep in the U.S. The bank started to outsource smaller services, like the procurement of bank and credit cards from a company called G and D. Over the years there have major delays due to problems with either G and D or the courier company. We, as customer service reps, are told to tell customers about “regular” delivery times when we know full well that the information we are providing is false.

For all the strains and stress of work at Visa Financial, the bank dropped the biggest bomb on us earlier this year. In February we were told that the Vancouver centre would be closing down November 30, 2013. Employees were gradually phased out starting in August and every 30 days after that until the final people are gone. The news was delivered to us by one of the bank’s many senior Vice Presidents. He made the announcement and quickly beelined to the exit door. The mood in the centre changed that minute. One of my co-workers a few days later likened it to going to prison every morning and hearing the clang of the jail cell behind you and being cuffed to your desk everyday. At the end of your daily sentence you were then allowed to go home only to return and serve out your sentence the next day. The employer tried to come across as caring. It failed. To help us cope with job loss, they even brought in counselors. The only issue I had was that the counselors were then debriefed by the employer afterwards!

To help us cope with job loss, they even brought in counselors. The only issue I had was that the counselors were then debriefed by the employer afterwards!

People took to Facebook and Twitter to express their disgust. We were shaming the employer after they pulled a real foul move. There was a dinner party planned for employees (spouses not invited, of course). If a person quit before the dinner date – maybe they found new employment and saved the employer thousands in wages and closure bonuses – they were disinvited to the event. Oh they could come to the dance though, because that would be free. After a lot of backlash from employees, the bank “reconsidered” their ridiculous disinvite and made calls to all the people they shafted.

Now that the final countdown has begun, the days of our employer pretending to care are over. We can’t understand what the executives were thinking, dragging this out as long as they did. What a horrible taste this has left in our mouths. The employer actually had the nerve to release new targets to us 30 days before the centre would officially close. What were they thinking? Most of us just started laughing after we closed our jaws. The words “productivity” and “customer service” are no longer part of our vocabulary. Management stood by the phrase “business as usual” throughout the whole ordeal. I don’t understand this mentality. It’s not that way at all.  The lives of 137 people have changed, and most of us need to look for employment somewhere else. Retiring on a bank pension is not an option, except for senior executives.

Working for the bank has had many ups and downs. The benefits were pretty decent and it helped pay my bills. The downside is what you read here. There are many more stories to tell, of course, but not enough time in the day. We were lucky to have the United Steelworkers behind us. Once they were in our corner we had strength in unity and dignity. For that, I am grateful. They taught me a lot and I learned that just because it’s a big company doesn’t mean they won’t take advantage of you and you need to someone in your corner. It sure won’t be your manager.

In solidarity,

Mickey

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