The Philippines is the call centre capital of the world. It’s a US$22-billion industry that employs 1.2 million Filipinos.
But as Jofelle Tesorio reports, the call centre industry might have reached a saturation point.
This is a typical night in a call centre in Manila.
A Filipino service representative is patiently giving advice to an American customer regarding car insurance.
She is one of the 1.2 million Filipinos employed in the Information Technology-Business Process Outsourcing, or IT-BPO sector.
For the last seven years, Maria Aguilar, has been working for an American-owned firm.
“We have rotation schedules. Sometimes I work in the night shift and sometimes I work in the mid-shift. That would be from 1pm to 10pm,” Aguilar says.
Since most clients are from the West, a regular shift is from 9pm to 6am.
Jobs in the industry vary—from making and receiving calls, to making animation and accounting services.
Jaren Atrero works for a Canadian company, and tells me,
“Basically our clients are some who are dealing with engineering, electric, mechanical kind of thing like automation equipment.”
The IT-BPO industry generated US$22 billion in 2015, second to remittances of Filipinos abroad, which was at US$25.8 billion.
Leian Marasigan is a research specialist at the University of the Philippines. She is finishing her PhD at the University of Amsterdam by looking into the career path of employees in the industry.
She explains the division of services.
“It is still mainly voice-based work that we’re providing. Sixty percent of the businesses that are coming in are voice-based; meaning, call centre, contact centre jobs.”
Marasigan continues, “And then you have health management transcription services that are also becoming quite big in terms of the numbers of firms doing that particular kind of function.”
The Philippines is called the ‘call centre capital of the world’, after overtaking India four years ago.
The Filipinos’ English language skills and affinity to Western culture make it an attractive destination.
But working in a call centre can be pretty stressful, admits Joel Contrivida.
“Especially in our kind of account, we have a lot of irate customers, angry customers. We are in order releasing. When they receive the item, it’s defective; there is something wrong, lost or missing. So usually the customer would call us and they’re so angry about it. So mostly we try to listen to them at first,” Contrivida explains.
Despite working night shifts and encountering abusive callers, Joel says the salary and benefits are worth it.
And call centre work can also be home-based.
Chini Decujos works from home doing phone surveys for a Canadian company.
“I think it’s an answer to unemployment especially to people, especially for mothers. I’m not a mother but if I am to put it in a context where a mother had to work, and had to look after her children, then this can be an answer to add up to their income,” Decujos commented.
Decujos is paid US$5 per hour, comparable to the daily minimum wage locally. The average starting salary for IT-BPO work is US$450 a month.
The outsourcing industry has been criticised for moving jobs to low-wage countries like the Philippines and India to save costs.
But former employee and now insurance agent Ely Valendez sees the bright side.
“It’s true that multinational companies for example in the US, Canada or Switzerland go the Philippines to employ the local workforce because it is cheaper than the Americans,” reflects Valendez.
“But it you compare it to the local setting wherein they give higher salary than local counterparts then it’s not exploitation at all. In fact it is beneficial to the workforce because they’re paid higher, they get more benefits.”
With more than a million Filipinos graduating every year and with an unemployment rate hovering at 6.6 percent, the IT-BPO industry provides much-needed jobs.
Academic Leian Marasigan explained,
“There are many opportunities in the BPO sector that are opening up for many workers in the Philippines, both from those who are unemployed, or long unemployed and also from recent graduates who are transitioning from school to work.”
Dr. Jana Kleibert, who also did her PhD research on the sector at the University of Amsterdam, says clearly there some benefits, from salaries and income taxes, but that’s not the full story.
“But if you look beyond that, there’s not much value capturing happening because most firms in the offshore service sector in the Philippines are foreign-owned firms so a lot of the profits were not necessarily reinvested in the Philippines but will be transferred abroad.”
Jana says that more support is needed for small and medium businesses at home that export services to global markets.
And in the long term, more benefits will come from higher levels of education so Filipinos can take on management roles.
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