At Teleperformance in Greece, Tunisians' conditions are hanging by a thread

 Yahya, Sofiane, Rafik, Chayma, and many others have left Tunisia to take up jobs with the multinational Teleperformance in Greece, with the hopes of improving their living conditions and broadening their horizons. However, the strenuous nature of their tasks, their precarious contracts, and the restrictions relating to their status as non-European foreigners have proved highly disappointing. Investigation.
Written by | 27 February 2024 | reading-duration 15 minutes

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"It's simple: Teleperformance owns us," says Yahya*. The young man has been living in Athens for two years now. Like hundreds of other Tunisians, he has joined the Greek offices of the French multinational, the world's largest call center group. Present in over 60 countries, the company has outsourced its services to Greece, where labor costs are considerably lower than elsewhere in Europe.

Initially, Yahya wasn't destined to become a call center operator in Greece. He had a scientific educational background back in Tunisia, but for various reasons, the young man had a hard time finding opportunities in his field. He then started working in Teleperformance call centers in Tunisia out of sheer necessity. "Once you're in the call center game, you find yourself unwillingly building a career in it", he commented.

One day, he was contacted by a cousin working for Teleperformance in Athens. "He asked me if I'd be interested in coming to Greece for work (...) He could refer me and get me there within two weeks. I thought it could be a whole new experience...".

Just like Yahya, many Tunisians have joined Teleperformance's call centers in Athens over the last few years. Their reasons for doing so include the desire to leave Tunisia, the hope of improving their income, and the prospect of better living conditions... But for many, this project proved deeply disappointing. Criticisms range from low wages, a challenging daily routine, and the constraints of the residence permit.

As part of this investigation, inkyfada surveyed some 100 Tunisians working at Teleperformance Hellas through a call for testimonials. One expression, in particular, was repeatedly used by the respondents: "Modern slavery".

Employees at Teleperformance and other call centers in Greece decided to launch an initiative in January 2024 to denounce these working conditions. "We started with an online petition", said Zied*, one of the organizers of the movement, "in less than 24 hours, we collected more than 400 signatures!". The letter mainly called for a salary readjustment, as well as a food allowance.

The movement soon gained momentum, as it was quickly supported by SETIP, a Greek trade union, and announced a strike for Thursday, February 8, which Zied hopes will attract "several hundred people". The initiative has also been backed by the Tunisian Labor Union (UGTT) and the French union Sud-Solidaires

Tailored recruitment and arrival

"If someone had told me that in a month or two I'd be working in a call center in Greece, I wouldn't have believed it!" said Sofiane*. He vividly remembers his arrival in Athens 15 months earlier. Everything happened so fast. While still living in Tunisia, a friend contacted him and asked if he'd be interested in working in a call center in Greece. "I had already worked in call centers, so I thought 'Why not?'".

Like Yahya, Sofiane joined Teleperformance through a "referral" system. His friend recommended him to the company and earned a bonus in the process. This system is widely used within the company: out of the 120 people surveyed by inkyfada, more than half reported having been hired in this way.

Others apply for jobs, are approached by headhunters who find them on Linkedin, or are already working in Teleperformance call centers in Tunisia. "I used to work at Teleperformance in Sousse", said Rafik*, "if your English is good, they encourage you to go to Greece. Your résumé is already in the database of all Teleperformance call centers".

A recruiter then contacts them. Sofiane was in a café with friends in Tunis when he got a call from an unknown number. On the other end of the line, a man speaking English told him that he worked for Teleperformance and invited him to a video interview the following day. "The same day, I was congratulated and told I'd been hired. They then explained that I was going to be 'relocated'. I didn't realize what that meant at the time".

Once recruitment is validated, the administrative paperwork begins. Visa, plane tickets... In just a few weeks, everything is ready for their departure.

"We were all Tunisians on the plane," said Aymen*, who arrived in Athens in 2021. "All aboard for Teleperformance!"

Although the number of Tunisian nationals in Greece remains relatively modest - 2164 according to Embassy figures - it has more than doubled over the past five years. Many believe this trend is the result of the multinational's recruitment drive. "90% of the Tunisians living in Athens are here for Teleperformance", said Aymen, "The other 10% are either here for family reunification or work for Webhelp [editor's note: another call center]".

"As soon as I tell a Greek person that I'm Tunisian, they say 'Oh, Teleperformance?'" says the young man with a smile.

As soon as these future recruits arrive, they are taken to a hotel for a two-week training course designed to help familiarize them with the job. "When you walk into the hotel room, there's already a computer waiting for you," said Sofiane.

They also have to get their new lives in order, in a country they're generally discovering for the first time. "Teleperformance arranges for everything, it's a whole process," he added. Administrative formalities, setting up a bank account, insurance... Everything is taken care of to make sure that the new agents are ready to start working as soon as possible.

"It's modern slavery"

Once the training is completed, agents can immediately start working in their assigned mission. Facebook, Netflix, Google... the biggest international brands rely on Teleperformance's services. Word spreads quickly among employees: "Apple is awful, don't work there", "I've heard Facebook is pretty good", and so on.

Each operator has their own particular tasks. Some answer the phone or chat with customers who are experiencing technical problems, while others manage social media posts, or make sales calls to market mobile subscriptions…

Although Teleperformance has been awarded the "Great Place to Work" certification for 2023, employees often describe their jobs as strenuous. "Best Place to work, but you lose your sanity in the process", said Sofiane with a sneer. The constant stream of calls each day, the pressure from customers, and the importance of satisfaction surveys have left him suffering from vertigo and tinnitus. "We work 40 hours a week and only get a 45-minute break a day," he added. Calls keep coming in, and must not exceed "six minutes, otherwise, we might be singled out".

Managers are a constant source of pressure for him, always pointing out the slightest mistake. "You should have smiled", or "you didn't say the name of the company"... Whatever the situation, "the only objective is customer satisfaction", said Rafik.

Employee performance is actually based on customer satisfaction surveys, which many of those interviewed believe to be unfair. "Some requests are impossible to handle! For instance, you can't answer a request like 'give me my password'," Rafik added.

"Or suppose someone buys a phone and the battery doesn't work. They contact the remote technical support service, which explains that the battery is faulty and needs to be replaced. The customer will get annoyed with the product and blame it more than the consultant". This may result in the employee being penalized, receiving sanctions, a lower bonus or not having their contract renewed. 

Work conditions also depend on the fluctuating demand. "If the call flow drops, we’re forced to take leave, sometimes unpaid, between two missions," Yahya added.

"It's modern slavery," denounced another worker interviewed by inkyfada. "We need permission from our supervisors to use the restroom. There's no sense of humanity, no notion of teamwork. We don't have a union to defend employees' rights, and there have been cases of sexual harassment by supervisors as well as preferential treatment.

Other employees expressed more nuanced views, or felt that the only downside was the salary, which they considered inadequate. "It all depends on the operation," said Chayma*, a former employee. She was particularly critical of the managerial conditions and the impossibility of finding solutions in the event of a dispute with her superiors.

The 120 people surveyed gave an average score of 2.2/5 to describe their work conditions.

Teleperformance did not respond to inkyfada's requests for interviews, nor did it answer questions sent by e-mail regarding the work conditions of its employees.

"A salary that doesn't match the cost of living in Greece"

Regardless of their different roles and tasks, Sofiane, Chayma, Aymen, etc. are all in the same boat: as French-speaking agents, they're paid a gross salary of 1045 euros, which amounts to 850 euros net*. By all accounts, French-speaking workers are the lowest paid, while speakers of less common languages such as Hebrew or Finnish, are entitled to more generous "language bonuses".

These incomes may be raised with bonuses and performance incentives. "I know I'm pretty lucky because I'm considered a 'Best Performer Employee'," said Aymen. "So, with the bonuses, I make between 900 and 1000 euros net, which allows me to live more comfortably".

But some employees claim that Teleperformance is using these bonuses to manipulate salary increases: "Our salaries are divided into two parts: base salary and variable compensation", one employee explained, "whenever the Greek government imposes a wage increase, Teleperformance raises the base part of the salary while decreasing the variable part, effectively maintaining our overall pay unchanged while appearing to comply with government regulations". When asked about this, Teleperformance did not provide inkyfada with an answer.

Among the 120 people surveyed, a median wage of 840 euros was obtained. Most consider this salary not high enough to keep up with the cost of living in Greece and inflation, which has reached unprecedented levels since the Covid-19 crisis. Inflation in Greece exceeded 10% in 2022, its highest rate in 25 years.

  The work permit trap  

Upon their arrival in Greece, Tunisians* are issued a three-month work visa. They are later granted a residence permit, allowing them to live legally in Greece and giving them access to the entire Schengen area. The downside is that this permit specifically indicates that they can only work in their current sector of activity, namely call centers.


"Basically, we can only work at Teleperformance," says Yahya.

Holders of this "Specific Purpose"* permit can work in less than ten companies in Greece, in a market dominated by Teleperformance and its rival multinational Webhelp. Given the limited job prospects in Greece, most respondents would rather keep working at Teleperformance, for fear of losing their residence permit. At each renewal, they must prove that they are still working in the sector. 

"On top of that, we sometimes have to wait more than six months between renewals", explained Yahya, "in the meantime, we're given a "Blue Paper" or a "White Paper", which only allows us to travel to Tunisia or Turkey [editor's note: visa-free countries for Tunisians]". These provisional documents don't give them any access to the Schengen area, except for Greece. Three-quarters of the 120 people surveyed by inkyfada are waiting for their permits to be renewed, and almost half of those have been waiting for over 6 months.

Permanent residence - which gives access to the entire job market - can only be applied for after five years. The application process also requires a cultural and language test. "Language is a real obstacle", said an employee who has been working at Teleperformance for six years, "I don't have time to learn it given the working conditions...".

Uncertainty is a daily reality

Some of the people interviewed by inkyfada had hoped that their situations would be more stable over time. But the reality is that uncertainty has become a permanent feature of their lives, mainly due to their precarious contracts.

"As soon as a mission is completed, we don't know when we'll be able to go back to work", people interviewed by inkyfada reported. Most employees sign short-term contracts, generally lasting between three and six months. Once their assignment is over, many spend several weeks - even months - on standby, sometimes without even knowing whether they will be rehired for a new mission.

Not only that, but their residence permit terms prevent them from seeking temporary work elsewhere. "I was once out of a job for two months", Rafik shared, "so I ended up working under the table".

"Fixed-term contracts are definitely the worst thing about Teleperformance. You're told to 'go and rest for 2 or 3 months and we'll call you back'. So you wind up unemployed for three months... Can you imagine telling your landlord: 'I'm leaving and I'll see you in three months'?".

Most employees have been working under fixed-term contracts (CDD) for years. "As long as we're on CDD, they can do whatever they want," said one employee cynically. Interestingly, the contracts examined by inkyfada were not signed with Teleperformance, but with other companies acting as intermediaries, namely LMW, ManPower, Randstadt KSM, and For People.

For instance, Zied's first three fixed-term contracts were signed with Teleperformance. The fourth, however, was renewed with one of these intermediary companies. But, under Greek labor law, after three fixed-term contracts or three years with the same employer, an employee is entitled to a permanent contract. Many of those interviewed suspect that Teleperformance may be using intermediary companies to switch contracts in order to bypass this law and avoid granting permanent contracts to its employees.

Contacted by inkyfada, the Greek law firm Iason Skouzos - TaxLaw pointed out that successive fixed-term contracts are possible in very specific cases, "if justified by the form, nature or activity of the employer or company or by particular reasons or needs. These reasons must be stated in the renewal contract or be derived from the circumstances". Furthermore, in order not to be considered as successive, the contracts must be at least 45 days apart. Otherwise, the contracts must be reclassified as open-ended (CDI).

Similarly, the use of temporary employment agencies, such as Randstadt or LMW, is subject to precise, regulated legislation designed to protect employees' rights, the firm stated. 

"The use of different direct employers such as temporary agencies in each renewal, so that the above restrictions are circumvented, may prove a cheap trick". 

After several requests for interviews, Teleperformance Hellas did not respond, nor did it reply to inkyfada's questions on this matter.

Some employees have managed to land the precious open-ended contract, like Aymen. "But I'm an exception," the young man said. Most of his colleagues are still in a precarious situation. Eya* is also one of the lucky few to have been granted permanent status so quickly. An engineer by training, she holds a Master's degree and is fluent in several languages. Her over-qualification for the position and her good performance may explain her appointment as a permanent employee.

She also said that she initially joined Teleperformance in the hopes of moving to Europe, after several failed attempts to find work in her field. "I applied for several jobs in the United States, France, Switzerland... Each time, I’d make it to the final interview stage, but as soon as they realize that I'm based in Tunisia and will need to relocate, they’d turn me down," said the young woman. For her, the Teleperformance system, which handles all the procedures involved in bringing Tunisians to Greece, seemed like a good opportunity to work in Europe, despite the limitations of the residence permit.

What are the alternatives? 

In light of this situation, the rival multinational Webhelp seems like a good alternative to some. "Webhelp offers permanent contracts, unlike Teleperformance", Rafik commented. However, it is reported that working conditions are quite similar, and salaries are roughly the same.

"I left Teleperformance because I was sick of our management," said Chayma*. "Then, I started working for Webhelp. Guess who I found there? My old manager!" she laughed.

Less than a quarter of the 120 people surveyed plan to look for another job in Greece. Most of them would rather find work elsewhere in Europe if they could. But, by all accounts, moving to another European country is extremely difficult. "If I want to go back to school in France, I'd have to go back to Tunisia and go through the whole Campus France process from Tunis," Yahya explained.

Aymen even tried to transfer to other Teleperformance branches in Germany, where "employees earn at least three times as much for the same task". The young man looked into the possibility of being hired and transferred. But he soon realized that relocation was not possible for non-European workers, due to the infamous "Specific Purpose".

On the other hand, only a few of them would consider returning to Tunisia. "Greece represents an escape", said Rafik, "the life I lead here wouldn't be possible in Tunisia. Some want freedom, others want to escape the police, or dress as they please. There's no law 52 or sugar shortages..."

So, most of them are still working at Teleperformance, hoping things would get better, especially with the strike on February 8. "I encourage people to protest because we're only asking for our rights," said Zied. The young man is actively involved in organizing the strike, as he’s directly affected by the precarious working conditions that gave rise to this movement. His latest fixed-term contract with Teleperformance has just ended, and he is due to go back to work in a few months. Yet he is determined to fight. "We have to overcome our fears," he concluded.