Call centers: co-opting the Filipino identity

What changes when a country devotes itself to servicing the businesses of other countries?

Call centers are big business in the Philippines. As a doctoral student, I researched the industry there between 2008 and 2013, when the Southeast Asian nation became a top destination for outsourced jobs from industrialized countries, the U.S. chief among them. In 2011, the Philippines surpassed India to become the world’s capital of call centers.

In an interview, Melvin Legarda and Joseph Santiago, executives at the organization then known as the Business Process Outsourcing Association of the Philippines, argued that Filipinos possess an innate capacity for empathy, compassion and general “service-orientation” and thus are ideal for call center work.

The roots of Filipino identity, they explained, were grounded in the country’s experience of colonialism, occupation and debt. After over 300 years of colonization by the Spanish, Japanese occupation in World War II, U.S. colonization in the first half of the 20th century, and the severe debt crisis of the late-20th century, Filipinos had become a benevolent and compassionate people, which made them perfect for serving customers over the phone.

I heard these same beliefs about Filipino identity from dozens of workers I interviewed and throughout the hiring and training I myself underwent in a call center later. The grip these ideas had on people prompted me to think that Filipino identity was not simply affected by the spectacular growth of the call center industry, but actively constructed within it.

In the late 20th century, the Philippines’ top export became its people. Beginning in the 1970s, the Philippine government — with its economy devastated by punitive “structural adjustments” imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) — encouraged its citizens to pursue work in the U.S. and Middle East.

In recent years, the number of migrants leaving the country to work abroad as domestic helpers, seamen, nurses or service industry workers has reached 1 million annually. Meanwhile, migrant remittances make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s GDP.

When labor becomes a country’s number one commodity, the identity of the people providing that labor becomes an object of marketing rhetoric: Hire us, because you won’t get this kind of labor from anyone else.

Take nursing and domestic work. According to Philippine-based agencies that place workers in jobs abroad, Filipinos — especially women — are naturally caring and tender, not to mention loyal, cooperative and compliant.

Offshore call center work follows this labor structure with a crucial difference: Filipino workers are not required to leave the country. Instead, they are employed by third-party foreign companies — Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies that contract with corporate clients, like Citibank or AT&T. When it comes to paying workers, the call centers have a double advantage: Wages are much lower than what American or British workers would earn doing the same work, but higher than or comparable to what college-educated Filipinos would earn in the Philippines’ own professional sectors. High wages and corporate culture make the jobs attractive to young Filipinos, while government leaders take credit for bringing jobs to the country.

The industry, in promoting itself, says call center work reveals three special characteristics of Filipino people in the 21st century. First, since call center work involves engagement with information technology, it ostensibly shows that Filipinos are prepared for knowledge work — and the future. Second, call centers mark the evolution of the Philippines beyond bodily labor, such as the work done by nurses, nannies or sex workers. Third, many of my research participants saw the country’s burgeoning call center industry as a clear sign of the country’s rehabilitated status. In the global economy, the Philippines could no longer be dismissed as the “sick man” of Asia. Indeed, it was a business partner to the United States, rather than a supplicant to other countries.

What could be the danger in this definition of identity? Its back-to-the-future quality.

The Philippines, in the 20th century, was seen as an easily exploitable source of cheap labor and resources for foreign powers. The heralding of the call center industry is too close an echo of that old reputation.

Deeper change in Filipino identity will require changes in the very structure of global institutions and power. Perhaps then, the construction of Filipino identity will no longer be constrained by the marketplace, and more Filipinos can define themselves by their own dreams.

Jan M. Padios is associate professor of American Studies and affiliate faculty in Women’s Studies and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. Her first book is “A Nation on the Line: Call Centers as Postcolonial Predicaments in the Philippines” (Duke University Press: 2018). This essay was first published on Zocalo Public Square.

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