Manila Calling

by Barbara Brustlein

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

She is actually a trained teacher but these days Venus Pagusan helps those willing to learn and willing to pay, as she works at a local company, Piton Global. The 32-year-old is employed in Pasig City, a neighbourhood of Manila in the Philippines, characterised by its large apartment buildings, fast-food joints and clean streets. Pagusan sits in an open plan office, equipped with a flat screen, headphones and a futuristic telephone system and continuously dials Australian phone numbers. On the other end of the line, students in Melbourne or Sydney answer her calls.

“I am helping them get through their exams,” Pagusan explains. “Some of them, I really have to push. Others I just remind about appointments.” The whole thing is known as “knowledge process outsourcing” and what Pagusan is doing today is paid for by the Australian government. The authorities want educational standards in Australia to improve so they’re investing in helping young Filipinos pass local exams, using things like Pagusan’s screen, headphones and her microphone but perhaps most of all, with encouraging words. Praise, praise, praise and then praise some more – that’s the tactic.

Pagusan’s compatriots come across as patient and friendly. And it is perhaps this national character that saw the call centre industry reach a record here in the Philippines in 2016; that, and their command of American English. In 2016, call centre business was worth US$23 billion here, making the Philippines the nation most popular for this sector, and toppling India from the top spot.

In the meantime, there are now around 1,000 of these kinds of call centre offices in the Philippines, most of them in Manila but also around a third in other cities like Davao and Cebu. And the call centre boom has changed a lot in this Southeast Asian island nation. The approximately 1.3 million call centre employees here now earn almost the same money as the 11 million or so Filipinos who work outside of the country and send their wages home.

Just a decade ago, many locals had no option but to send a member of their family overseas to work because there were no opportunities at home. Now there is an alternative, perched on an office chair in a call centre. But of course, this lovely new world of opportunities also has its price.

“We need to ensure that there are also more high-value jobs,” says Jorge Sibal, an economist and specialist in labour economics at the University of the Philippines in Manila. “Very soon computers and machines will be doing the work that the cheaper Filipino labour force is currently undertaking.”

The professor has been watching his country people leave to work overseas for decades. “Sectors in which knowledge is passed on are a good way to go, in my opinion. Other lines of business, such as night shifts that wear down the staff, are more difficult.”

Daniel Pilario, a professor of theology and Vincentian cleric, sees it similarly. “My brothers and I asked ourselves how we could better support call centre employees,” he says. “So we offer child care. But we really have to do better for these young people who wander around like the walking dead.”

The local media is constantly publishing stories about the psychological and physical toll that call centre workers have to deal with. “Just looking at their appearance, everything seems perfect. They arrive in nice clothes, and are always clean and neat. But what do the interiors of these people - who can’t sleep at night anymore, who never see their children and who live in these artificial worlds – look like?”, Pilario complains.

Working night shifts is tough psychologically. “We always have to be friendly and stay on topic, no matter if the person on the other end of the line is screaming or crying,” says Ellen, 40, who’s been doing this work for eight years and who has been promoted to team leader. But she won’t give her full name or the name of her employer because, as in so many cases, her wages feed her whole family. She was studying dentistry but gave up to work, in order to pay her very ill mother’s medical bills with a series of side jobs. She has a nine-year-old daughter but is divorced.

“We hardly saw one another. I only get home when my daughter wakes up,” Ellen notes. “I get her ready for school then I really have to sleep for a couple of hours. My husband and I were simply never awake, or at home, at the same time.”

Charles is 27, a father of three, and he has the same pallid skin colour that Ellen does. “There really isn’t any stimulant we haven’t tried to stay awake all night,” he says. He’s been doing a call centre job for six years now. “Maybe I can do this for another year or two but after that I am going to find another job,” he declares. As yet he has no idea what that might be.

“The social and physical price that our young people pay is enormous,” Pilario notes. When the call centre business was still in its early stages here, the managers would often train the staff to speak so that customers would not know where they were calling. “We had to choose new names and try and avoid answering if somebody asked us where we were from,” Ellen recalls.

The noise level in the call centres is high. In this, Piton Global is no exception. It is one of the smaller companies in this sector and as such, you can easily see most of the office the employees work in. Call centres measure themselves in “seats”, from which the calls are made and emails sent. 

Piton Global has a few hundred, others have thousands. “We have the personal touch,” says Ralf Ellspermann, Piton Global’s boss, who originally comes from the town of Bad Dürkheim in south-west Germany and who came to the Philippines more than 10 years ago after his brother told him about the interesting business opportunities here.

When clients visit, Ellspermann prefers to take them on a tour in his roomy car through the hyper-modern middle of Manila. “I don’t want them to go home thinking that there are only slums here,” he explains. In fact, there are both: The glittering contemporary capital and right next door, striking poverty. In Ellspermann’s opinion, the call centre sector is helping to pave the way from the ghetto to the skyscraper.

“Shortly before the turn of the century, there might have been 10 call centres here and around a thousand people working in them,” he says. “At that time nobody knew how quickly that would change.”

The buying power of the middle class has grown, the real estate market has exploded, everyone wants a car of their own, everyone wants to consume. Of course, you can see this in a positive light, like Ellspermann does. Or in a less positive one, like Daniel Pilario does. “Our environment is going to the dogs, everything is being built on top of everything and the emissions are appalling,” as he puts it.

The Philippines is not the only country interested in making the call centre business their own. “China is trying to get into the market too,” economist Sibal points out. “Their main disadvantage is their lack of English. But in the long term we will need more than just the service industry. We will also need to produce something again, something that people can make a living out of. Otherwise we’re just a plaything for the rest of the world.” 

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