The Person at the Other End of the Line

A call center agent is someone who earns as much as P20, 000 ($446) a month by simply parroting spiels and buffering irate calls. S/he assumes a certain lifestyle to conform with the social strata call center agents occupy. But there is a downside to this seemingly high paying job. A call center agent is also a victim of the economic crisis that s/he is hardly aware of because s/he neither has the time nor the need to learn more about it – or maybe s/he is just asleep.

Contributed to Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No.24, July 22-28, 2007

The so-called “sunshine industry” of the country offers a luring pay of P11, 000 to 15,000 ($245 – $334 at an exchange rate of $1=P44.80) as starting salary. On top of that, it promises pro-rated bonuses, the shortest probationary period, and regular incentives, perks, and team-building activities as subtle schemes to keep its employees and attract potential applicants. In a month, a call center agent may earn as much as P20, 000 ($446) for simply parroting spiels and buffering irate calls.

Who would not be enticed with such a bountiful offer given the economic situation of Filipinos today? In 2005 alone, the industry employed 96,000 people and generated revenues of around one billion dollars.

In the stream of faces walking along the dark alleys of the metro, chances are you will be overhearing the person near you talking about his last night’s sales. The proliferation of business processes outsourcing (BPO) in the Philippines, especially call centers, has truly drawn everybody’s attention to it. The government religiously promotes the industry as it allocates P500 million ($11,160,714) for the “re-education” of unsuccessful call-center applicants, while the academe pitches in by intensifying speech trainings in its curriculum. But behind all the statistics and economic reports written about call centers, what is it that agents don’t talk about over the phone?


Most call center agents belong to an average age group of 20s to early 30s. Although some call centers deny having an age requirement, there are still some that prefer younger employees who are more compliant even if assigned in evening shifts and with varying work schedules.

With this, call centers have become a hub of typical yuppies (young professionals) carrying the latest model of cell phones, walking with earphones, or are seen driving fancy cars. They are the regular customers of 7/11 stores or 24-hour McDonalds, and swarming open bars and convenient stores for an early morning round of beer.

“Pagkatapos ng shift, gusto ko mag-isang beer at least,” (I drink at least one bottle of beer after my shift.) Nicole, a customer service representative in Makati, shared. She said the habit has become an outlet to relieve the stress of the job. Aside from that, she noticed that her addiction to coffee and smoking have become worse now that she works on a graveyard shift.

Other call center agents interviewed shared the same experience as with Nicole’s. They said a dose of caffeine and nicotine keeps them awake at work. However, it seems that cheap coffee cannot satisfy such addiction, “Bumibili ako sa Starbucks, tall (size), with extra shots of espresso.” (I buy from Starbucks, tall size with extra shots of espresso.) Nicole added.

Nicole said she does not find the call center job fulfilling but still opts to work in the industry primarily because of the high pay. “May financial stability kasi dito. Nakakapag-invest ka like for a cell phone or laptop.” (There is financial stability here. You can invest in a cell phone or laptop.) Also now that she is earning her own money, Nicole shared that her preference for clothes also changed. “Hindi na pwede ‘yung hippie style, although ‘di naman talaga bawal (in call centers), mas gusto ko na ‘yung corporate attire para naman presentable.” (I don’t wear hippy-style clothes anymore although it is not forbidden at work. I prefer corporate attire because it is more presentable.)

Since call center agents deal with their customers over the phone, some companies are rather lenient with dress code policies as in Nicole’s case. But it seems to be an unwritten rule to dress up especially if one works in a business niche such as Makati.

Social Psychologist Charles Horton Cooley explains this tendency as the “looking glass self” or the social self. This is how one imagines himself in the eyes of other people and compares these ideas with the norms imposed by his social group. In this process of socialization, the workplace is an essential agency where employees are socialized based on role expectations. For instance, call centers allot a specific period for trainings before the newly-hired employee is sent to work. As he interacts with his co-agents and supervisors he eventually learns, not only the company’s rules and regulations, but the very norms, values, and perspective of the social crowd.

Call centers, therefore, do not only give its employees the economic power, but along with it is the idea that since you now have the capacity to buy and pay (in case of services), you should do so as everyone does! Either consciously or unconsciously, and although not arbitrarily imposed, you conform by wearing a particular style or brand, eating specific types of food, and developing certain habits, or be condemned as a social pariah.

The power of language

As the country aggressively attracts and promotes the establishment of call centers, it likewise gives a higher premium to and pushes for the English language. The ability to speak the language and to learn its foreign accent happens to be the primary (or the sole) qualification for employees. And to sustain the industry, the government has never been this mindful in training would-be call center professionals in mastering the English language.

Borrowing the words of Dr. Aurelio Agcaoili from the University of Hawaii, English is the language of capital, commerce, and colonialism. It has become not only as Filipinos’ second language but the primary medium in businesses, politics, academe and other institutions. It is the spoken language of the middle to upper classes and of the intellectual elites in society.

“Parang kahit sino naman (referring to other industries) marunong mag-English pero siguro ‘yung edge natin sa kanila ay ‘yung fluency,” (Everybody, everywhere can speak English but perhaps our edge is that we are fluent in it.) Vic, a former customer service representative, commented. He has just recently resigned from Convergys after a year and a half. Stef who has worked in the same company while reviewing for the nursing board exam shared, “It is a good way to become proficient in English, because I’ll be taking an English test to be able to work abroad.”

Society perceives call centers as an opportunity to better learn the English language. At the same time, its employees are expected to be competent in the use of the language since they are regularly exposed to its native speakers. In this case, a call center agent who is supposed to be an expert speaker of the elite language develops self-esteem in his/her job. Whether the call center agent graduated with a degree or dropped out of college, s/he is regarded in the same level because of his/her ability to speak the language of intellectuals. Whatever work experience or credentials s/he has becomes irrelevant to his call center career. And whether one is a kolehiyala or coño kid (graduate of exclusive schools) whose only reason for working is to be independent, or someone who was only able to attend school because of scholarships, the call center image promotes them to the same social and economic strata.

The underground economy

According to the book Sociology: Focus on the Philippines, there is a hidden side of the economy, which economists and accountants do not see, that is continuously developing and spreading: the underground economy.

This is nothing new in the Philippine setting as most of us grew up with our teachers selling tocino (processed meat) or yema (pastry) in class. Chic office managers selling RTW (ready-to-wear clothes), sidewalk vendors of chicken innards, the flea markets, and the so-called takatak boys (ambulant vendors of cigarettes, candies, cell phone chargers, and just about anything) are common in the country as people try desperately to keep their heads from sinking deeper in the quagmire of poverty. And in spite of the relatively high pay in call centers, the underground economy surprisingly permeates in call centers.

“Although the pay in call centers is good, I would still recommend having a sideline for extra income,” Stephanie de Guzman said. She is a regular employee in a call center in Alabang but aside from being a customer service representative, she also has her own customers in the “floor” (production area). She sells different cellular phone models to fellow agents on an installment basis.

“Both my husband and I are working and our son is already studying. Since we have a business aside from our monthly salary we are able to save for the future while at the same time buy what we want with the extra money we earn.” When asked why she prefers selling cell phones, she said call centers is a good market since its employees can afford the price and seem to be very much into this fad.

Although companies prohibit such activities, Stephanie is just one of the many ingenious employees engaging in an underground market. Some discreetly sell cigarettes per stick, packed lunches, prepaid load for mobile phones, or imported goods to maximize the opportunity to earn more.

Banes of the boon

Andrei is a graduate of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines- Diliman. His initial plan was to work in a call center while he was finishing his undergraduate thesis. “Nag-resign ako sa call center para ma-practice ‘yung course ko,” (I resigned from my job in a call center to be able to practice my course.) he shared. He now works as a creative designer receiving almost half of what he used to earn in the call center. “It’s not just about the pay, but the fulfillment you are getting from the job,” he said.

Despite the perks call centers give, there is a downside to the highest paying and most available job so far. As most call center agents say, it is mentally stressful to work on an eight-hour shift doing a monotonous job of taking in calls. This is aside from the hazards of working at night and the health risks of the shifting break schedules.

“Wala akong social life,” (I have no social life.) Nicole complained. By this, she refers to the “real life” happening around her. “Pag-uwi mo kasi sa umaga, matutulog ka na lang. Wala nang time manood ng TV or magbasa ng dyaryo.” (When I arrive home in the morning, all I can do is sleep. I have not time to watch TV or read the newspapers.)

Unfortunately, call centers do not hone talents and knowledge. The very nature of the job inhibits the intellectual growth gained from work experience. Moreover, it alienates its employees from the immediate community they are living in. “Kahit iba-iba ‘yung nakakausap mo, paulit-ulit naman ‘yung sinasabi mo sa kanila,” Andrei said. “Mas aware ka pa nga sa mga nagyayari sa ibang bansa kaysa sa Pilipinas kasi walang chance or walang need sa trabaho na alamin mo ‘yung nangyayari dito.” (You talk about the same things with different people. You are even more aware of what is happening in other countries than in the Philippines because you have no chance or need, in your job, to be aware of what is happening here.)

I, myself, am guilty of its pleasures. I was also once enjoying the luxury of going to work, delivering the spiels, and by the end of the day, have nothing to spend my money on. But after a year of working in one of the big names in the industry, I have finally resigned due to the stressful job. Stressful indeed as other call center agents I know are also whining about. But comparing it with a peasant working under the sun or a contractual teacher receiving a measly P7, 069 ($157) a month makes my complaints seem frivolous.

Often we say we make our choices. But do we have a choice when in the middle of the crisis the quickest and easiest way out stands right before us? Sadly, we can compare ourselves to pimps and whores because we sell our intellectuals, our manpower, and our pride to the global market for a very cheap price—because in essence we don’t have a choice.(

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