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The Call of Call Center Agents

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Got this one from my wife’s email inbox. At first, I thought it was just one of those chain letters you won’t hesitate to delete.

The following “speech” has been going the rounds in emails and various blogs in the local internet scene. It was said to be a speech from a young politician who once tried applying in a call center just for fun. But the joke was on him when he wasn’t accepted due to his hilarious accent and politically incorrect English. Since then, he’s been waging a one-man war against BPOs.

Chillax. It’s a joke.

I still do not know the veracity of this speech’s content. It was said to have been delivered last August 17, just a few months ago. I didn’t hear it from the news, though. But it must’ve been disturbing to many call center agents and other BPO workers who have read it because the figures mentioned sounded as if it were taken from one of Arroyo’s SONA speeches.

Here is the controversial speech from Sectoral Representative Raymond “Mong” Palatino. You be the judge whether his arguments do hold water or not:

CALL CENTER AGENTS

THE CALL OF CALL CENTER AGENTS

Mr. Speaker, distinguished colleagues, I rise on behalf of fellow young Filipinos denied of their dreams and were forced to enter the illusory world of call centers.

The tale of Filipino youths setting aside their childhood dreams to enter the call center industry is fast becoming a common story. More and more young Filipinos are being lured into working in a call center regardless of their educational background. A starting salary of P15,000 on average is indeed attractive, not to mention the signing bonus and incentives for good work performance.
As the global financial crisis sweeps ominously into Asian shores, the Philippine government has continuously promoted and relied on the Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) industry to provide opportunities to millions of jobless Filipinos. The number of jobs generated grew robustly from 99,000 workers in 2004 to 372,000 workers in 2008, most of them in their 20s.

For the government, the BPO sector is a major contributor in terms of revenues and employment generation. From $350 million in 2001, revenues generated from the BPO sector surged to $6 billion in 2008. The government was quick to conclude that the BPO sector is poised to benefit from the global recession.

This has prompted both the administration and the vanguards of globalization to brand the BPO sector as the “sunshine industry.”
But there is a need, Mr. Speaker, to bust the myth surrounding the so-called sunshine industry. For behind the seemingly innocuous statistics and improving figures lie tales of exploitation, false hopes, and dim working conditions inside the call center.

Totoong mas mataas ang tinatanggap na suweldo ng isang call center agent kumpara sa isang regular na manggagawa. In reality, foreign companies are exploiting our cheap labor. The average annual salary of a call center agent in the Philippines is $3,964. This is lower than Thailand’s $4,874, Malaysia’s $5,199, and Singapore’s $16,884. Kung totoong tayo ang binansagang “Offshoring Destination of the Year” noong 2007, bakit kakarampot lamang ang sahod ng call center agents natin kumpara sa ating mga kapitbahay?

Companies in developed countries benefit immensely from this set-up. By taking advantage of highly-skilled and low-value labor in poorer economies such as ours, foreign firms gain an estimated net savings of 20-40 percent on labor costs.

Despite the relatively decent pay and seemingly rich rewards, job tenure in the call center industry, as labor economist Clarence Pascual puts it, is “as transient as the phone calls that agents make or take.”

This is evident in the industry’s high attrition rates or the proportion of the workforce that leaves a company or industry. The Call Center Association of the Philippines pegs the turnover rate in the country at 60-80 percent, the highest in the world.

According to a multi-country survey conducted by Callcentres.net, full-time call center agents stay in a contact center for a brief 22 months, while part-time agents stay for an even shorter 10 months.

This is an international figure, Mr. Speaker. In the Philippines, where most of the call centers are outsourced, offshore and non-unionized, the situation is even worse: 60 percent of call center workers stay in a company for only a year or less.

As more employees leave the industry, the demand for replacements becomes constant. According to an article in Newsbreak magazine, for every employee hired to fill in a new seat, another two employees must be hired to replace the seats vacated by those who left. How apt, Mr. Speaker, that this industry is marked by “hellos” and “goodbyes.”

The culprit: poor quality of jobs at the call center. A survey by the Call Center Project based at Cornell University in New York shows that the high attrition rate is caused by a low job quality in call centers. The study revealed that 67 percent of agents found in 39 percent of call centers work in low to very low quality jobs.

The Call Center Project survey points out that worker turnover and quit rates are higher as job discretion or the agent’s “sense of control” becomes lower and monitoring on the job becomes more intense. Low job discretion and high performance monitoring contribute to employee stress and rapid job burnout.

Mr. Speaker, distinguished colleagues, the job of a call center agent is not that all fancy nor ideal. For it is in the very nature of the call center job to be exploitative.

Call centers-vendors in indsutry parlance-provide services, such as customer service, sales, technical support, on behalf of client companies. They compete for accounts from companies that ousource some of their functions. In this competitive arena, the agent is stuck between two contrasting interests-he or she must keep costs low for the client while ensuring profits for the call center.
In this set-up, quantitative targets are laid down by clients to reduce costs and increase productivity, giving them the upper hand. In the call center industry, everything is measured.

Thus, call center agents work the phones for the entire duration of their work shift. Unlike our jobs, where we have time to read newspapers or chat with our officemates, the job of a call center agent is one of isolation. The calls just keep coming in, and one has no choice but to pick up to phone.

Moreover, one faces punitive measures, such as forced leave, suspension or even termination, for failing to meet productivity targets, which serve as basis for staff assessment and promotions.

To ensure the targets are met, clients even enforce remote monitoring of actual calls. Supervisors track an agent’s use of time, from call handling time to time spent on “after call work” and break time. Recorded calls are scored for quality on a monthly or weekly basis. A low score translates to a corrective action memo, which can cost one’s job. Consequently, monitoring becomes a constant source of anxiety for workers.

Since monitoring and evaluation are done remotely, penalized workers do not have enough opportunity to appeal disciplinary actions. A 22-year old agent says in their company, even tenured workers issued with corrective action memos get terminated.

According to a survey by the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research, only a 10-minute per day period is allowed for personal use, such as going to the restroom. This becomes difficult for the workers since a cold workplace temperature encourages frequent urination. Female agents, thus, usually suffer from urinary tract infection.

Since the United States is the biggest market of BPO industry, this requires call center operations during the evening. The call center sub-sector is changing the nightlife of Manila. Bars, restaurants and convenience stores are open every morning to accommodate the night workers.

But the graveyard shift has become a major source of difficulty and dissatisfaction for a lot of agents as their day-to-day routines are turned upside down. Medical specialists point out that disrupting the body clock can cause manic depression and heart problems.
Weekends and holidays are also rarely off, since the calendar being followed is that of the clients, resulting in very rare family time for married agents. Meanwhile, compulsory overtime or extended time is also prevalent.

The Department of Health has warned against this work schedule, aggravated by an intense and exhaustive workload. DOH warned that persons working in the graveyard shift are vulnerable to various diseases, including hypertension, cardiovascular illnesses, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. Foreign studies have even shown that graveyard shifts can increase the risk of cancer among women workers.

Noong isang taon, Mr. Speaker, ibinalita sa TV Patrol World ang pagkamatay ng isang call center agent. Siya ay si Dingdong Flores, inatake ng hypertension habang nasa trabaho. Siya ay na-coma bago pa mahatid sa ospital.

The DOLE has made separate studies on health risks associated with call center work. Both studies show high incidence of eyestrains symptoms, muskuloskeletal symptoms, voice disorders, hearing problems.

Since most call centers employ first-time and young workers who are hesitant to complain, these health problems may even be an underestimation of the true state of health among workers.

Such health hazards explain high rates of absenteeism in the industry. Consequently, call centers have adopted punitive attendance policies. In some call centers, eight absences over a six-month period constitute grounds for termination.

While they are entitled to sick leave, workers find difficulty in securing the supervisor’s approval.

BPO employees are also deprived of socialization opportunities with family and friends. Dr. Prandya Kulkarni, who writes for United Press International Asia, adds that young BPO workers, who receive high salaries, do not have the maturity and emotional capability to handle their wealth. This “sudden wealth syndrome” has led to such high-risk behaviors as loose sexual practices, drug addictions and alcohol abuse.

Another alarming reality in the call center industry is the absence of unions. Unionism is covertly and overtly discouraged, if not forbidden. Foreign employees warn that if unions in call centers will be allowed, they will leave the Philippines. Workers’ contracts clearly stipulate that forming or joining a union is prohibited.

Such a repressive practice, Mr. Speaker, is a clear violation of the Philippine Labor Law, where it is stated that every worker has the right to form and join a union. Isn’t it ironic, Mr. Speaker, how our call center workers are rendered voiceless in a voice industry?

Habang inilalahad natin ang mga suliraning ito, habang inihahanda natin ang ating mga sarili sa pagtatapos ng araw na ito, magsisimula pa lamang ang araw ng libu-libo nating manggagawa sa call center. Nawa’y huwag dumating ang panahon na ang isasagot ng ating mga kabataan sa tanong na “What do you want to be when you grow up?” ay maging isang call center agent.

Anong klaseng mga mamamayan ang mahuhubog ng sistemang ito? Anong klase ng kaalaman ang ating ikikintal sa ating mga kabataan, na siyang mamumuno sa ating bayan? Paano nila paglilingkuran ang bayan kung ang tangi nilang alam ay tumugon sa daing ng mga dayuhan?

Nakakabahala, Mr. Speaker, ang kuwento ng isang manggagawa na tatlong taon nang nagtratrabaho sa call center. Ayon sa kaniya, “a plague is raging among the youth working in the call center industry” and that is apathy. Dagdag niya, nabubuhay ang mga call center agent sa isang mundong batbat ng kawalang-pakialam. Ang tangi nilang sinusunod ay ang dikta ng orasan, ang dikta ng makina. Tila hindi na sila kabahagi sa mga isyung panlipunan.

Sa kasalukyan, kinakaharap ng BPO industry ang kakulangan ng skilled workers, ng mga kabataang mahusay mag-Ingles. The government is now tinkering with the educational system to address the needs of the BPO industry. President Arroyo has mandated the use of English language as the medium of instruction in schools.

But such measures can only do so much to address employment problems in the country.

At the minimum, the government should ensure the implementation of our labor code, which aims to protect our workers and guarantee their right to organization and humane working conditions.

Call centers should respect our labor code. Bukod sa pagtuturo ng American accent, dapat ding ipaalam ng mga kumpanyang ito sa ating mga aplikante ang kanilang mga karapatan bilang empleyado.

Ngayong nauuso ang call centers, napapanahong bumuo tayo ng batas na magtitiyak sa kanilang mga karapatan. Sa kagyat, ito ang ating maiiambag sa libu-libong kabataang pinasok at balak pasukin ang BPO industry.

The government should not use the seemingly rosy statistics of the BPO sector to conclude that we have a strong economy. Ultimately, it is dangerous to exaggerate the importance of the BPO industry. The government should put more emphasis on propelling the domestic economy as a whole rather than making public institutions and laws serve the needs of BPO companies.
Thank you Mr. Speaker, distinguished colleagues.

Related link:
The chain letter containing the above speech acknowledges the below link as its source:
THE CALL OF CALL CENTER AGENTS
Privilege Speech of Rep. Raymond “Mong” Palatino
Delivered on August 17, 2009

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