After the publication of Xpress’ Aug. 1 cover story on the union-organizing drive at the Asheville Sitel call center, company representatives contacted us and asked to talk in more detail about their stance on the issues of wages, working conditions and unions. Sitel Chief HR Officer Michael Wellman apologized that the company had not spoken to Xpress before the story went to print and commended Xpress on “a well-written article” that “fairly positioned responses” from the company based on publicly available information. He offered the following statements on Sitel’s position.
Wellman: From Sitel’s perspective, the Asheville location has been there for over 15 years. It went through a couple changes; it’s been part of Sitel for the last seven to eight years. It was part of acquisitions through the years and our site director, Jean Harmon, has been there 22 years. So we’ve been a part of the Asheville community for at least 15 years, connecting ClientLogic and Sitel. We’ve been a big part of the community and one of the larger employers in the Western North Carolina area. We try to do what we can to give back. When we think about bringing jobs into the area, we started with an average of 200-250 employees, we’re now up to 534 associates. That’s a huge support to the community and shows our civility in making sure things are right to give back [to the community] as well.
Xpress: You mention Sitel’s long involvement in the community, has it been a surprise as these complaints about working conditions and the union drive have emerged in recent months?
I would say yes. We as a company look at our associate satisfaction surveys that we do, we look at trends from the employee perspective. Every business when you have 200, 500 employees you tend to have challenges that come up, but we feel we manage them proactively. We’re pro-employee, not anti-union. There’s a lot of fundamental programs we have in place. To see the level that’s going on in regards to the media and the press, I would say yes [we’re surprised], especially with the things we feel we’re doing really good at.
As you know with any business — including where you work — there’s always opportunities [for improvement] from our associates, and we ask what we’re doing to rectify those things. There’s always going to be items that are brought back to us that we need to work through, but I would say again that we’re surprised that it’s gotten to this point.
Is the picture they [Sitel employees pushing for a union] paint of wages — of $8 to $9.50 an hour — that has fueled some of these complaints, is that an accurate depiction of wages at that call center?
So we look at our wages for our employees, we look at what the market is paying. That market is a variety of jobs. It’s not just contact centers, it’s any service industry, it’s any sizable industry within the business that we’re going to go into and stay in. So we always look at that data at least on an annual basis. Our starting wages varies. It’s $8 but we also have step programs which allows our employees — the longer they stay with us — to receive higher wages. We feel like it’s competitive with the market and competitive [when combined] with other things that we provide to our employees.
You mentioned earlier that Sitel is “pro-employee, and not anti-union.” In a little more detail, what would you describe as the company’s stance on unions and collective bargaining?
We feel like the management and leadership of our organization are able to work through and manage day-to-day with our associates and don’t feel it necessary that a third party help manage through that.
Are there any union shops in Sitel call centers in the U.S.?
But I understand there are union shops in other countries Sitel has dealt with.
As you noted in your article, we’re in 27 different countries and there are unions that represent our employees in some of those other countries. Some of those are legacy collective bargaining agreements that we had through acquisitions and changes in business, so those are ones we’re managing. Our goal, again, is that we feel we’re pro-employee, so if we do the things we say we’re going to do for our employees and our associates, that we don’t need to grow beyond that. We want to make sure we take care of our employees.
Since this drive has emerged at Asheville, what has been the reaction of Sitel’s management?
Management at all levels is concerned, especially when we go through any items that are raised. Is there truth behind them? If there are issues, what are we doing to rectify them? That’s always a concern, because most importantly we want to make sure our associates are being treated fairly and that we’re managing our location in Asheville no different than we’d manage any other location across the world and that our management staff is providing the utmost support of our associates and managing through any issues that might come up.
Some of the issues that have come up, from the IBEW’s assertions as they’ve filed these complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Sitel has responded that the complaints are not valid. Can you say anything more about those at the moment?
I can’t go into any details about those at this point.
Past those complaints, has management engaged in any activities to discourage any of the workers from joining the union drive?
Absolutely not. In fact, we hold our management staff to a high level of accountability and we have zero tolerance for that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this issue at the moment?
I think it is an issue. As a company, we’re not happy it’s occurring. We do appreciate how you’re positioning it for a broader audience and we want to make sure the communications around the facts. We apologize that we didn’t have an opportunity to talk to you beforehand, but want to make sure going forward that we can help you as you craft your communications.
Again, we’re not anti-union, we’re pro-employee. We’re proud of what we’ve done as a company to support our associates and we want to continue to do that.