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Life in a Philippine call centre

While Manila's typical workforce settles down for the night, an army of operators starts taking your calls.

Last updated: 06 Feb 2014 10:40
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Manila, Philippines - As another business day begins in New York City, Wall Street is flooded with expensive cars and designer suits. Meanwhile, the sun sets in Manila and Filipinos are ready to start their workday at the call centres.

While the typical workforce in Manila begins to settle down for the night, the faceless army of call centre operators are preparing to take your call. The lives of operators, armed with dual monitors and headsets are drastically altered in order to synchronise with Western culture.

This synchronisation ensures that Filipinos are better suited to assist the American customer.

The weight imposed on operators may be virtually absent in Westerners' minds, but call-centre employment is far from your typical nightshift. Some workers describe adjusting their body clocks to parallel sleep habits of vampires, but this just scratches the surface of their social and cultural sacrifice.

You can see call centre people setting themselves apart because they dress better, they have more money, and they go to very expensive places. You can see the latest gadgets on them.

- Izza Trovela , Acquire Asia Pacific

Noriel Atos is a call centre salesperson working for a company that sells American beauty products to wealthy consumers around the world.

At 6 am she nurses a Red Horse beer and a cigarette with some of her colleagues who have headed to relax at a busy bar in Ortigas, a central business district in the capital.

"Well, we're used to it, we've been doing this for a long time," Atos said of the night work. "It's very stressful and it's hard to catch up with our health. Sometimes you feel like you're so sick and not in the mood because of the schedules, and it's so hard to get sleep in the mornings."

It may surprise some that 6 am is a busy time at a local pub. Similar to call-centre operators, local businesses may as well reset their time to parallel the iconic clock in New York's Grand Central Station.

The pub owners are certainly not complaining, in fact, they are happy to adjust. Retail and service industries are doing business with these emerging Filipino socialites, who are dressed in designer clothing, wielding the latest technology in their palms.

Set apart 

Izza Trovela is an operations manager at Acquire Asia Pacific, a business process outsourcing company that manages hundreds of accounts from Australia, the US, Canada and Europe.

"You can see call centre people setting themselves apart because they dress better, they have more money, and they go to very expensive places. You can see the latest gadgets on them, and you don't see this elsewhere in the regular Filipino workforce."

A statue pays homage to call-centre workers [Paul Jeffers/Al Jazeera]

The outsourced industry in the Philippines is expected to reach 1.3 million employees by 2016.

According to Cesar Tolentino from the Contact Center Association of the Philippines, entry-level call operators can earn between 10,000-14,500 Philippine pesos per month ($300-$360), excluding bonuses, allowances and incentives.

That's a fairly robust salary in the Philippines where the cost of living is low and taxes are a fraction of what's paid in the West.

For the call-centre operators, it's a position they take pride in, bringing in plenty of disposable income for luxury items, ironically comparable to the American population they service.

Employees are well-educated and vigorously schooled to adapt to US culture.

They can just complain and complain. They talk so much, they say bad words, but we can't get angry. We must empathise. We must make them calm, we are going to do what we can.

- Ron, call-centre operator

Filipinos are trained to acquire American accents and humour, to better adapt to customers' needs an ocean away.

They receive holidays based on the US calendar, rather than local Filipino leave. They must report to work while their families proceed with native celebrations, although they are given the day off during 4th of July for US Independence Day celebrations.

American tradition

India has traditionally been the leading country for call-centre outsourcing, but more recently the Philippines has become a more suitable location for many outsourced business. This comes as no surprise, given half a century of American colonisation in the Philippines.

This is coupled with the fact that Filipinos have grown up watching American television, learning American English, and eating American fast food. Busy streets in Manila are littered with Starbucks, Krispy Kreme stores, and Papa John's pizza, further imposing the American way of life upon Filipinos.

Ron, Athena and Mina are call-centre operators in Eastwood City eating McDonald's after work at 10 am. They said they're not allowed by their employer to talk to the media, and asked that their last names not be published.

"They're so far away from us, they [US customers] can't touch us," Ron told Al Jazeera. They can just complain and complain. They talk so much, they say bad words, but we can't get angry. We must empathise. We must make them calm, we are going to do what we can."

Athena is a nursing graduate who said there's little work available in the profession she studied for.

"We have a lot of [nursing] graduates, like 50,000, and almost half of them are unemployed. I don't want to be like that, that's why I took this job. For now, I like my work. I have plans in the future to continue my nursing career."

In Eastwood City Mall, statues pay homage to the call-centre workers of the Philippines. The statues wear bronze headsets and carry briefcases. The statues have no faces.  

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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