Almost a month after Tokyo declared a state of emergency, dozens of call center employees for telecom KDDI Corp still commute into their crowded office, where the fear of coronavirus infection has taken a back seat to data security.
Call centers have exposed one of the fault lines in Japan’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as it takes a less forceful approach than many countries.
In the past few weeks, 17 infections were confirmed at a post office call center in the northern island of Hokkaido and 11 at a Kyoto mail-order business.
Japan Inc has been reluctant to embrace telecommuting, with firms citing concerns about data security. Firms also fear a decline in worker productivity and customer service.
“Dozens of us are still working in a crowded office,” said a worker at KDDI Evolva, KDDI’s call center business. “We could be hit with mass infection any time.”
Until recently, the KDDI Evolva office in Tokyo was packed at peak hours with nearly 80 operators sitting less than a meter apart without partitions, said the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Staff numbers have now been thinned, but not enough to dispel infection concerns, the worker said.
Another Evolva worker said operators were flooded with non-urgent enquiries because more people were now at home, adding: “Are these inquiries worth the infection risk for us?”
KDDI Evolva said it was taking measures to protect workers, including reducing the number of operators and installing partitions.
A KDDI spokeswoman said call centers were part of social infrastructure and need to remain open.
Reuters spoke to a total of eight call center operators at multiple companies. All of them described fears about working conditions.
Japan has about 250,000 call center operators, many of them contractors with less job security than permanent employees.
General Support Union, a labor union, has received more than 100 calls from operators worried about safety in the last month, and some who opted to take leave were told it would hurt their careers, representative Kotaro Aoki said.
“Most of us have no choice but continue to work to keep the jobs,” said one contractor at a center for photocopier maker Fuji Xerox Co.
A Fuji Xerox spokesman said it made no distinction between contractors and regular employees in allowing telecommuting.
He said it was expanding telecommuting, but some workers need to be in the office and in front of physical photocopiers and printers to troubleshoot for customers.
One Tokyo contract worker, who did not want her company identified, said staff were told they could not reduce operations, because customers would complain.
Under Japan’s post-World War II constitution, the government cannot order companies to close, but it has tried to limit infections while keeping the economy ticking over.
It has targeted a 70 to 80 percent reduction in person-to-person contact, but as of Sunday last week, Google mobility data showed traffic to workplaces was just 27 percent lower than before the pandemic.
Call centers have been resistant to telecommuting. A survey last year found only 6.3 percent of centers allowed staff to work from home, and nearly 80 percent said they had no plans to introduce telecommuting, with most citing fears of data leaks.
Top wireless carrier NTT Docomo saw 10 confirmed infections at one center in March.
By contrast, the Japanese unit of Switzerland’s Zurich Insurance Group switched 95 percent of its 500 operators to telecommuting by using virtual desktops that prevent information from being stored locally.
Telecoms such as KDDI and NTT Docomo have felt pressure to keep centers open after the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications requested they scale back in-person operations, an industry source said.
A ministry official said the request was meant to reduce human contact, not as an order to keep call centers open.
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