Call centers expose fault line in Japan's pandemic fight

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TOKYO (Reuters) — 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 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. Companies also fear a decline in worker productivity and customer service.

“Dozens of us are still working in a crowded office,” a worker at KDDI Evolva, KDDI’s call center business, told Reuters. “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. She said it was considering requests from KDDI Evolva.

Reuters spoke to a total of eight call center operators at multiple companies. All of them described fears about working conditions.

Japan has some 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, representative Kotaro Aoki said. Some who opted to take leave were told it would hurt their careers, he said.

“Most of us have no choice but continue to work to keep the jobs,” one contractor at a call center for photocopier maker Fuji Xerox Co. said.

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 didn’t want her company identified, said staff were told they couldn’t reduce operations because customers would complain.

Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other areas on April 7 that has since been extended nationwide until the end of May.

Under Japan’s post World War Two constitution, the government can’t order companies to close, but it has tried to limit infections while keeping the economy ticking over.

It has targeted a 70%-80% reduction in person-to-person contact, but as of April 26, Google mobility data showed traffic to workplaces was just 27% lower than before the pandemic.

Japan has reported nearly 16,000 infections and some 569 deaths.

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