Where have all the workers gone?
Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica President Gloria Henry in conversation with Greg Cappo, C4 Global Solutions CEO, lastweek in Montego Bay. (Photo: Anthony Lewis

FREEPORT, St James — On the heels of concerns that the tourism industry is having a hard time finding workers, the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector is sounding a similar alarm.

“We are seeing some challenges in terms of the responses to advertisements. The numbers are dropping,” said Business Process Industry Association of Jamaica (BPIAJ) President Gloria Henry told the Jamaica Observer after an event to mark the fifth anniversary of C4 Global Solutions in Freeport, St James last Wednesday.

C4, which currently has a workforce of more than 300 workers, started with 28 employees in 2016.

Last July, in pointing to the need to quickly identify skilled workers as the tourism sector was rebounding faster than expected from the pummelling delivered by COVID-19, Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett had pointed to the BPO sector and lucrative overseas jobs as some of the options being chosen by former tourism workers.

Two weeks ago, during the official opening of the 444-suite Ocean Eden Bay in Trelawny, he again raised concerns about insufficient staff within the industry.

“There is a pressing need to address the challenging staff situation that has emerged as a result of the disruption of the supply chain occasioned by COVID,” Bartlett said.

President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association Clifton Reader and president of the Negril Chamber of Commerce Richard Wallace have also expressed concern.

In a recent interview, Wallace, who is also a hotelier, spoke of challenges to identify specific categories of employees.

“I find [it] personally difficult to find workers like groundsmen, scullion, plumbers, electricians, and stuff like that. Sometimes it is hard to come by,” he said.

Henry theorised that overseas opportunities and work-from-home jobs with global companies are among the factors behind the shrinking employee pool. She also noted that there is a challenge finding qualified workers.

“There are a lot of people out there who are not employable right now. They don't have any subjects. They probably didn't finish high school and so those persons need to be trained and brought up to standard so that they can be employable,” she said.

COVID-19's disruption of the educational system, Henry told the Observer, will only exacerbate this problem. She foresees a greater need for training and development to prepare prospective employees for BPO jobs that are coming on stream. She told the Observer that there are about 10 BPO sites that will be opening between July 2021 and March 2022.

Asked for his views on the issue following a tour of Westmoreland on Thursday, Opposition Leader Mark Golding said that there needs to be a joint industrial council in some of these industries that ensures the overall package of benefits for the employees.

Such a move, he said, would ensure that these industries can attract quality workers.

“Sometimes it means that we will have to change the status quo, but at the end of the day the country will be better off because you will have people feeling justified and feeling that they are indeed not being taken for granted and that the employment arrangements treat them with respect and dignity, and that is important for any industry to move forward,” stated Golding.

“I do not believe that we should be a place where labour is effectively being exploited. I am not saying that this is the case, but I am saying that unless you have arrangements to ensure that that isn't going to happen, you may have problems attracting workers in an industry where we have a competitive advantage and we have been growing fast. So, we wouldn't want that to stop,” added Golding.

Currently the BPO industry employs more than 46,000 people, 3,000 more than the numbers just three months before the pandemic hit Jamaica in 2019.

“We declined last year because of the pandemic, but then we accelerated again to the extent that we have now surpassed pre-COVID figures in 2019,” disclosed Henry.

“We are tracking towards 50,000 in March next year as our goal. There is robust organic growth going on now with the different sites. Every parish that we operate in now, we are seeing growth,” she added.

— Anthony Lewis

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