By January 23, 2018

Let’s Talk about Bell

BellAnd let’s talk about how it’s making mental health worse.

For several years now, Canada’s biggest telecom company has pushed January 31st as a national day of discussion about a topic that very much requires it. On bus shelters, TV commercials, and sponsored social media posts, you’ll see how a major corporate citizen is shining its considerable light on a beshadowed and often shame-laced subject. There’s no question that the subject of mental health is one that is getting much-needed oxygen in the public sphere to a degree that wasn’t true before. This is due in large part to the determined struggle of mental-health advocates working on the front lines of the crisis – and capitalism loves a crisis.
Capitalism is an inherently dehumanizing system, as we well know. If thousands or millions of people can be thrown out of work in order to benefit a handful of balance sheets, we know which choice the capitalists will make if they can.
But there is something particularly galling about those capitalists and firms that try to “care.” There are some who do concrete good to cancel out a bit of the massive harm that they do – on the face of it, there’s nothing really wrong with digging wells in poor countries, for instance. What we’re never meant to question, however, is just why those countries are poor and why these massively wealthy groups and individuals have so much good-hearted largesse to dole out. (Don’t dare suggest that the two might be connected!)
And Bell also doesn’t want you to think that the subject of mental health is connected. It is.
Bell Canada CEO George A. Cope, the man who launched #LetsTalk in 2011 (for which he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal!) received an estimated total compensation in 2016 of $10.7 million. This is actually a fair bit below most top CEOs in Canada, so we probably ought to laud him for his financial humility.
His front-line workers, however, are not quite so well-off. An average Bell sales consultant, per the salary-tracking website Glassdoor, makes poverty wages: $12.38 per hour. Do you suppose that, perhaps, having to constantly worry about whether you’ll have enough for rent at the end of the month might be deleterious to your mental health? Or that having to work a second job in addition to the one you’ve got at a company that hauled in around $3 billion in profits in 2016 might exacerbate a condition that you’d struggle to deal with anyhow?
One thing about working for Bell that we don’t have to wonder about is how they treat their workers while paying them a pittance. In the run-up to last year’s Let’s Talk extravaganza, a Bell radio station employee named Maria McLean was suffering from a flare-up of her depression and anxiety, for which she was taking medication. Her doctor prescribed two new medications and told her to take two weeks off from work in order to recover mentally and adjust to these new drugs. Upon reporting to work that day and breaking the news to her employer, she was fired without explanation. Bell never made a meaningful public comment or offered McLean her job back.
Even more recently, a CBC investigation of Bell prompted over 600 current and former employees to contact the public broadcaster about “panic attacks in the workplace, stress-induced vomiting and diarrhea. Some [workers] reported crying before starting call-centre shifts and said taking stress leave is ‘common.'”
Also “common,” ubiquitous even, is the pressure put on Bell’s call-centre workers to sell, sell, sell – and face repercussions if they, for instance, feel an aversion to tricking a 90-year-old blind woman into signing up for an internet connection (not hyperbole – a Bell whistleblower came forward to confess to doing this).
The position at a Telus store I interviewed for years ago is now further solidified as the job I’m most grateful to not have gotten. But tens of thousands of others are enduring institutionalized abuse and making Bell’s bosses mountains of money in the process.
As Canadian telecoms like Bell continue to fight against the organizing drives of unions who might be able to improve these dreadful workplace conditions, and as George Cope and company look lustily upon the recent decision to end net neutrality in the United States and plan to effect similar deregulation here, #LetsTalk about whether these private oligopolies, which care not a whit for the mental health of their workers, need even to exist – or whether those workers might know what’s best for them and should run these firms with respect for customers and themselves.

Posted in: Canada, Health, Work