Tom (not his real name), 27, has applied in four call center companies since November. The response of call centers, he told Bulatlat in an interview in Filipino, has been the same: “Wait for our call.” But there were no calls.
One of the call centers he applied at, says Tom, required skills not only in English proficiency but also in typing, data encoding, and written composition. But all companies, he said, place a prime on English proficiency. Interviews, he added, were conducted entirely in English.
A former trainer for call center applicants said that it merely takes a seven-minute interview for a company to determine whether to accept or reject an applicant. This is not an exaggeration, Tom said. “There was one instance when I spent more time waiting for the interviewer than the interview itself,” he said.
Tom lives with his mother and brother in a rented room in Sampaloc, Manila. He went to public schools for his grade school and high school education. For college he studied in a private non-sectarian school as a scholar. When he lost his scholarship, he transferred to another school and took up only the number of units that his mother could afford – which was always less than the regular load. He was not able to complete his course because of financial difficulties.
His mother, a secretary at a motor-bearing shop, is the sole breadwinner. His brother, a journalism graduate from a state university in 2004, worked as a contractual employee in a library and later on as clerk in a company. He is currently jobless. Tom’s father died when he was in grade school.
Asked how he assesses himself in terms of English-speaking skills, Tom says he is not able to sustain a conversation in English.Good pay, relatively
The reason he has been struggling mightily to get into call centers, Tom said, is the relatively high starting pay that these companies offer.
Call centers usually pay their agents P13,000 ($254.27 based on a $1:P51.125 exchange rate) a month, industry insiders say. This translates to P433.33 ($8.47) a day.
Based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), the national average family living wage for a six-member family – the average Filipino family – is P657.13 ($12.85) as of February 2006. Conversely, the daily minimum wage is presently pegged at a national average of P237.56 ($4.64) as of March 2006, with the highest being that in the National Capital Region (NCR) which stands at P325 ($6.35), NWPC data further show.
Because of the relatively high salaries that agents in call centers get, these companies are widely perceived in the Philippines as the gateways to gainful employment. And the government encourages this view, portraying the call center as a sort of Mecca for college graduates, and even undergraduates in need of jobs.Not that rosy
But the real picture is not quite as rosy. Data recently released to media by the John F. Kennedy Center Foundation-Philippines, which designs training programs for call centers in the Philippines and seeks to “revolutionize” the Philippine call center industry by “establishing centers of excellence,” show that only 11,526 applicants on the average are hired as call center agents in the country yearly. This is equivalent to only about 2 percent of all applicants annually, the data further show.
“Most fail because they fail to understand the requirement of global job interviews, testing and process,” Jim Santiago, president and chief executive officer of the John F. Kennedy Center Foundation-Philippines, told media in a recent interview. “Secondly, the spoken English becomes a challenge, in terms of conversational fluency, tone and accent.”
In a separate interview, Karl Mark (not his real name), who has been working in a call center since 2003, said that those who get accepted to work as call center agents tend to come from the middle to upper strata of the middle classes. They usually come from expensive private schools known for their good English training – most notably the Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University and other similar schools which cater to the more affluent classes. A student in Ateneo will spend around P100, 000 ($1,955) per year. De La Salle charges from P42, 000-P53, 000 ($821-$1036) each semester or around P120, 000 – P159, 000 ($2347-$3110) for a trimester. These schools are inaccessible to the ordinary Filipino.
Karl Mark confirmed that call centers indeed place a premium on oral English proficiency.
This was especially true, he says, in the earlier years of the call center industry in the Philippines. Call centers began operating in the Philippines in 2000, he says. “During those days they had really high standards for accepting applicants,” he says. “You had to be a college graduate and fluent in spoken English, otherwise they wouldn’t take you in.”
While the requirements have been eased somewhat, owing to the increasing needs of call centers, applicants who are good English speakers still have the advantage. They now accept college undergraduates – something Tom has been banking on in his hope to get in – but the stress on oral English skills is still there.
Most call centers now accept applicants who speak with heavy accents but with the correct grammar. But they have to undergo 80-hour training in American accent and culture, Karl Mark says.
In most call centers, newly-hired employees undergoing training are not paid, he further discloses. Only the large call centers like Convergys, Sykes, and and E-Telecare pay trainees, he says.
Good English speakers, mostly coming from expensive private schools, still have the edge as they usually do not have to go through the lengthy training, he added – they make money right away.Underpaid too
Call center agents receive relatively high pay compared to rank and file employees and workers of most companies. But these are inadequate if one has a family or is not living with their parents. Karl Mark says. “Many of my officemates and even my friends who work in other call centers have been asking for wage increases,” he says. “They find it increasingly difficult to cope with inflation and additional taxes.”
In a March 30 statement, Prestoline Suyat, spokesperson of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU or May 1st Movement), said call center agents in the Philippines earn way below what their counterparts in the U.S. get.
“The minimum wage in the U.S. is $4 an hour,” Suyat told Bulatlat in a follow-up interview. “That is equivalent to roughly P40, 000 ($782) a month, which means call center agents in the U.S. could actually be earning more than that.”
Aside from the increasingly inadequate pay, Karl Mark says call center agents are actually overqualified considering their educational background.
“Many call center agents are actually graduates of courses like engineering, computer science, nursing, pre-law, psychology and other – who got into this line of work because they could find no other jobs,” he says. “Their potentials are not maximized because their work is focused on customer service, which is not what most of them studied during their four or five years in college.”
Verbal abuse is also staple fare for them, he admits. “Everyday you have to talk to foreigners who think nothing of hurling invectives at you for what they perceive as poor service,” he explains.“The best” at present
“It is sad that the best our government can offer right now are jobs at call centers,” he added.
Despite all these, Tom still hopes to get a shot at a call center job. “That still turns out to be the best option right now for people like me,” he says. “I hope I get hired soon.”
This article was written by ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO of Bulatlat.
Tags: Call Centers, Philippine Call Centers, Pinoy Jobs, Filipino Jobs Bookmark with del.icio.us