The untold story of Italian Call Centers in Albania
Companies that employ tens of thousands of Albanian youths show a dark side of neglect about their employees’ physical and psychological health.
Nkiruka Omeronye, Klevis Paloka, Anxhela Ruci
Migena L. is 22, and one of the toughest moments of her day is when she receives a phone call from her mother, after she finishes work. She is hesitant to answer.
Migena has recently graduated from journalism school, and she has been working for three-and-a-half years for a call center in Tirana, where for eight straight hours she calls people who live more than 400 miles away, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Her job is to “convince” them to register to receive services and accept deals offered by several Italian companies.
Besides a reluctance to talk on the phone, as a result of long hours wearing headphones, Migena tells PSE that she has lost her tranquility, and often finds herself feeling tense and uneasy even in common everyday social situations.
“At the end of the day I feel really tired and anxious,” she says. “When someone repeats something twice I get upset and feel uncomfortable. I used to be really calm and relaxed, but now I have lost my tranquility.”
Like Migena, some 25,000 Albanian youths presently work in companies that offer telemarketing services to Italian consumers.
Employees and managers of these telemarketing companies tell PSE that the average age of people that work in these companies is roughly 23, and almost 90 percent of them are university students or graduates.
For a country such as Albania, where the unemployment rate of young people aged 15-29 stood at 33.2 percent in 2015, Italian call centers are considered an important industry which helps to improve chances of employment for young people.
For this reason Albanian state institutions have been concerned and have followed with close attention all the recent changes in the Italian legislation that make it more difficult for these types of companies to transfer jobs outside of Italy and the European Union.
However, there appears to be very little concern about the working conditions of the Albanian youngsters employed by these companies. Not nearly enough attention is paid to the fact that working such long hours talking, listening and staring to a computer screen may cause physical and psychological health issues.
Interviews with young people working in call centers reveal that these companies do not offer to their employees any psychological assistance or counseling, or any periodic medical checks to monitor their hearing, sight, vocal cords or any problems that they may have with their spinal cords from long hours of sitting down.
The failure to offer such services is also admitted by managers and representatives of these companies.
The Institute of Statistics, INSTAT, reported that as many as 804 call centers operated in Albania in 2015, a ten-fold increase when compared to 2000, when only 76 such companies offered their services in this country.
The need for survival is stronger than health concerns
Denada M. is 21 years old, and she sums up in two words her several years experience of working in call centers: “Stress and cash.”
The psychology major student, who has worked for three different telemarketing companies in Tirana and Durrës, points out that there is a lot of pressure in the workplace, and that working conditions there are tough.
She tells PSE that during an eight-hour shift in call centers there is only a 15-minute break after the first four hours of work, while sitting down for long periods of time could be painful and stressful, and may cause spinal cord problems.
“The best time of my work day is that wonderful 15-minute break,” she says, while all the call centers in the country operate on a six-day week.
Xhuliana Jakimi, another young woman who used to work at a call center, tells PSE that she suffered from serious vision problems while performing her job.
Klaudia, 23, has been working for three years at a call center, and for two years she has had problems with her ears, because of large headphones and the high volume levels during conversations with Italian consumers.
Fjoralb Hodaj, a student who worked for four months at a call center, tells PSE that he suffered serious problems with his sleep due to high levels of stress accumulated during his job there.
“I couldn’t get a good sleep at night at all. “It was simply impossible to keep on working there,” he says.
However, youngsters keep working at these call centers despite all these issues and hardships, because many of them cannot continue their higher education studies without working.
On the other hand, recent university graduates have a hard time integrating into the labor market, and as a result working in these call centers is the easiest way to generate some income, in order to ensure normal living conditions.
One hour of work in these companies pays Lek 180 to 250 ($1.4 to $2), but in some particular cases or specific services this hourly rate may be higher. A regular workday may be a four-hour or an eight-hour shift, but in some cases young people who need some extra income may take even longer shifts.
Wages paid by these call center companies are easily over the minimum salary limit in Albania, which is set at Lek 22,000 ($175) per month.
Denada says that the salary from the call center is enough to secure normal living conditions, while if she were to work in her profession as a psychologist in education institutions, wages would not even be enough to pay for food and groceries.
On the other hand, oversimplified recruiting procedures on starting a job at a call center cause many youngsters to flock to these companies to make a living by offering deals on the phone.
Emona Alla, head of human resources department at Tregi Marketing Group, which employs some 1,000 young people, tells PSE that all it is needed to start working for this company is an average knowledge of the Italian language and the willingness to work four to six hours a day.
Physicians and psychologists worry
A doctor of otorhinolaryngology at the university hospital Mother Teresa, Jetmira Fejzaj, tells PSE that problems with the vocal cords and hearing impairment are some of the most problematic issues related to long periods of work at call centers, and frequent medical checks are necessary to prevent such health hazards.
“Non-stop talking may create problems with vocal cords, while a prolonged use of headphones may damage the hearing nerve,” she says. “It is advisable for call center workers to undergo medical checks every six months, so that we can monitor the state of their hearing.”
However, according to call center workers, none of these companies pay for periodic medical checks for their employees.
One of the most serious problems of working for these companies is the high level of stress young workers are subjected to after spending long periods of time in front of computers without moving, while talking and listening continuously.
Psychologist Fleura Shkëmbi, a professor at the European University of Tirana, tells PSE that working for a long period of time at call centers may cause insomnia, stress and laziness.
When these symptoms materialize “that would be the right moment to give up such a job, and for youngsters to start paying more attention to themselves and their well being,” she suggests.
Shkëmbi says that the biggest problem is the fact that companies do not offer counseling, or psychological therapy, thus letting a difficult situation get even worse. Therapy sessions usually cost Lek 1,500 ($12) per hour and call center employees cannot afford to pay for them from their own pockets.
“Companies do not pay for therapy,” she says. “As a result, they, (youngsters), are stuck in a circle. They work to make money, only to spend that money later in paying a psychologist for therapy. What’s left in the end?”
Emona Alla admits to PSE that the company she works for has thought about providing psychological counseling to its employees, but this issue is still under consideration and they haven’t decided yet whether the company will pay for these therapy sessions.
According to Shkëmbi, stress is also induced by the lack of career move opportunities within these companies.
“There comes a time when the young understand that they have become stuck in this particular moment in their life,” she points out. “They understand that all they have done to this point is to push different offers or deals to other people through telephones.”
Lack of attention to potential physical and psychological problems of call center employees is a very negative aspect, which may force young people to think twice before deciding to start working for these companies.