Why the outrage over the call center agent ‘slur’ in ‘The Borrowed Wife’ fails to move me

20THE-BORROWED-WIFEThe outrage being expressed by certain members of the call center agent population, or business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, over a perceived affront in the script of media giant GMA 7’s latest series “The Borrowed Wife”, frankly just fails to impress me:

Indignant call center agents vowed to boycott the newest GMA television series, “The Borrowed Wife,” starring Pauleen Luna and Camille Prats, after the lead actors spewed “insulting remarks” against call center agents and the business process outsourcing industry.

In the pilot episode of the “teleserye” (television series), the stars exchanged lines, saying “Hindi ako nag-aaral para sumagot lang ng telepono! (I did not go to school just to answer phone calls!)” and “pang walang pinag-aralan lang ‘yan (that job’s only for uneducated people).”

On the site FashionPulis.com, they featured a letter from a certain JM Cruz, who identifies himself as “the host and creator of The Call Center Show”:

We strongly condemn this kind of mockery. The nerve of these supposed writers to discriminate against an industry they know nothing about!

The gall to belittle an industry with billions in revenues making it one of the chief economic drivers of this country. An industry that employs hundreds of thousands of hardworking people who pay billions in taxes to the government. What about them? How much do they know? How much research have they done to make such sweeping, degrading statements?

Really? Of all the possible issues that these people could find with the TV show and the society it depicts, they chose to focus on a perceived slight to call center agents?

Why don’t people discuss why the Philippines is so dependent on call centers to prop up its hollow economy in the first place? Why don’t people discuss the skullduggery and hanky panky that goes on in Filipino companies which, for example, led the male character to lose his original job? Why don’t people discuss the pervading machismo culture in Filipino society, which keeps the men from sharing the duty as breadwinners? Why don’t people discuss the idea of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is”, something that many Filipinos continue to ignore in their daily lives and transactions?

Even in that portion of JM Cruz’s letter which was quoted above, he fails to see the irony in his statement of “an industry with billions in revenues making it one of the chief economic drivers of this country. An industry that employs hundreds of thousands of hardworking people who pay billions in taxes to the government.”

Let’s spell out certain realities about the call center industry that many Filipinos seem to overlook.

The Philippines is home to many call centers and BPO companies mainly because labor is cheap and abundant here. Granted, the English-speaking ability of Filipinos is still considerably better compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors, and even compared to BPO giant India and outsourced production giant China. Filipinos easily can adopt a working American accent, something absolutely necessary because occasionally you get customers who absolutely refuse to speak to anyone else but an American. Plus, Filipinos are generally more familiar with American culture compared to the rest of their counterparts in the region.


The phrase “walang pinag-aralan” (uneducated) when referring to call-center agents is not necessarily true. And that’s the sad part; I can say rather accurately that many who become agents are actually overqualified for the job when it comes to academic credentials. Or rather, their degrees are totally unrelated to what is needed for a call center agent (then again, what is). Because of the sorry state of the Philippine job market, however – too much supply of people looking for jobs, not enough demand, and not all that supply is qualified – they are forced to take jobs like call center agents when they can’t get ones related to their courses.

Unfortunately, a call center agent job is a dead-end one. This is better expressed with a phrase in the vernacular: walang patutunguan. While they are not always necessarily glorified telephone-operators, there is a reason that perception persists: because it’s what makes up the bulk of the call center agent job description. No matter how hard call center agents claim their job is, that basic fact will not change. Telephone operators generally don’t command high salaries. Deal with it.

As there are few team lead (TL) positions, and even fewer top management ones, I can make an educated guess that a lot of employees who start out as agents stay an agent for a very long time, perhaps even the entirety of their career. If you think about it, it’s the perfect job for a people with a pwede-na-yan, bahala-na slave mentality. There are those who will defend it to the death as honest work to be proud of. To me, that is such an abominably low standard for something to take pride in.

What makes things worse is the preference of certain companies to hire officer positions from the outside, instead of getting people who went through the ranks. Why is this a problem? Because it doesn’t really do wonders for retaining your best people with potential.

As early as now, the lack of qualified applicants – only 9 in 100 applicants get hired for entry-level positions – is a cause for concern for the expansion of the BPO industry. According to that report, many applicants get rejected because of any or all of three main reasons:

1) They have insufficient communication skills (primarily spoken English);
2) They lack the needed computer literacy, and;
3) They lack problem solving skills and critical thinking faculties;

Thus my earlier statement is further verified: the Philippines not only has a shortage of jobs for its ballooning population, it has a population that is generally unqualified to fill in the available ones.

If you caught what I said earlier, the BPO industry is planning to expand even further in the Philippines. Even if the BPO industry brings in a lot of cash to the Philippine economy – comparable to overseas Filipino worker (OFW) remittances – it is not a sustainable way to prop it up. Quite simply, it is low to no value-added work. It does not contribute to the manufacturing base which Filipinos need. So even if someone tells you that the burgeoning of the BPO industry will lead to the boost of other business sectors – like food and retail, transportation, education, or even real estate – the bottom line is it merely feeds the excessive consumerism that Filipinos are known for. Call center agents will simply take their hard-earned salary and piss it on cellphone load, on the uptown restaurant that everyone’s been talking about, on that fancy condo unit which they will rent but not own, or on the next trendy gadget.

There is no capital base being built up, financial, much less intellectual capital. What good is a supposed boost to education if we’re teaching people how to be perpetual slaves? What is needed in the country is an education program that promotes entrepreneurship.

The other thing that Filipinos should be showing concern about is that BPO industries comprise an outsourcing trend that can simply come and go. As more lower-cost and better English-speaking destinations inevitably start sprouting in other parts of the world, the industry will simply go where they are. The other side of that coin is that sooner or later developing countries – whose companies are largely responsible for the outsourcing trend anyway – will want those jobs back because they are starting to feel the crunch of the current global economic downturn.

For those Filipinos who think being a call center agent is cool, I will tell you it’s not easy. Neither is it glamorous. Most importantly, it’s not for everybody. A lot of people I know who went into BPO’s or call centers picked up a few undesirable conditions, and even habits that they didn’t have before. The tendency of call centers to aggravate conditions like high blood pressure, and the persisting link between call centers and sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s), for example, should really make one wary of entering them.

It should be viewed as a profession of last resort, only when all other options have failed.

Quite simply, Filipinos should quit propagating the delusion that call center agents/BPO employees are a prestigious or “special” community.

For those of you who are thinking that I don’t know what it’s like to be in a call center or BPO, I’ve got news for you: I do. I did the graveyard shift. I went through accent neutralization/accent reduction training. I took the calls. I dealt with the angry customers. I followed and memorized the script. I endured the high-pressure environment and the illnesses associated with call centers/BPO’s for years.

All for what was, at that time, seemingly high pay, you know, the one with the Night Standard Differential (NSD) and other allowances. God knows I paid an intangible price with my health, and with my way of life, for that salary.

In the end, I asked myself: Is it all worth it? Do I want to spend the rest of my life doing this?

I found the answer to those questions in the most unexpected of circumstances. Yet I was also able to do something in a call center/BPO many Filipinos have so far failed to:

I got out.

[Photo courtesy: Manila Bulletin and Pampanga Call Center]


About FallenAngel

А вы, друзья, как ни садитесь, все в музыканты не годитесь. - But you, my friends, however you sit, not all as musicians fit.