Hello World, this is the Philippines
It’s a sunrise industry where night turns to day and day to night. At the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, employees forsake restful sleep, fueled by cups of java 24/7 to serve countries several time zones away.
With revenues second only to OFW remittances, the BPO industry in the Philippines has attracted young, hip, tech-savvy IT professionals mainly enamored with its generous compensation package. Eastwood City in Libis, Quezon City, the first approved IT center with its bandwidth-enabled towers, hosts a wide range of call center companies that provide outsourcing services for both local and global companies.
In 2007, at age 53, I entered the BPO world alongside trainers who could easily have been my own children. Backed by a writing and communications career in the private sector and government, I found work as corporate English trainer for a largely European clientele.
Now at 61, I am defying ageism as my contemporaries dandle grandchildren or welcome retirement with glee. Competition and the whole notion of a corporate setting acquire a new meaning in the BPO industry for people my age who are latecomers to the Internet. Nevertheless, I learned computer jargon and basic troubleshooting skills, and navigated software side by side with the young ’uns. My decades-long experience in my field has become my trump card as I and my fellow trainers mentor mostly executives from four continents in a globalized workplace.
Although the outfit where I work is located at Eastwood City and employs the same technology, Benito, 40, our HR Manager, makes it clear that ours is not strictly a BPO company doing backroom operations.
But our workforce similarly has to contend with issues and concerns that hound the BPO industry—like that Health Department report some years back which said that call center agents have a higher risk of acquiring Human Immuno Virus-Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV-AIDS). The report said that because of their environment and peer pressure, call center agents tend to indulge themselves and engage in risky sex practices.
My fellow trainer, Sharline, 31, who has worked in our company for seven years ends her shift at 10 p.m. She uses the morning hours to do freelance work as a writer. At the end of a grueling workweek, she ends up organizing Friday nights-out with friends. And Eastwood is uniquely geared for this, offering bars, bistros, band gigs, and tiangges (bazaars and flea markets) for its still wide-awake denizens.
But Rocky, 34, a 12-year call center veteran, who remained on night shift throughout his career, says the body never quite acclimatizes to this day-for-night reversal. “The body rebels against this,” he says. On weekends, he would catch up on sleep only to be jolted back into the same reversal mode on Monday, making Mondays tortuous for him.
Still, the generous paycheck somehow makes up for his disrupted body clock. But that extracts a price as well.
Back in 2003 when Rocky started his career as a call center agent, entry-level salaries averaged P15,000. Today, it’s currently in the P20,000 to P25,000 range, luring young BPO workers to indulge in spending sprees on devices, travel, real estate, and the habit of conspicuous consumption.
In 2003, Carlo, 33, with a total BPO experience of 10 years, started as an outbound agent with an average net pay of P14,000, a windfall for a new graduate. Such rates have made many BPO workers family breadwinners, while some have attained independence. Rocky was able to move out of the parental fold into his own place and built his own nest egg in financial investments.
Sharline was able to travel “at least once a year” to nearby Asian destinations, help her OFW mother support the family, and buy the badly-needed family van on a salary double that of her former job as a lifestyle magazine writer. Like Rocky, she was able to move into her own flat with another trainer.
Overtime opportunities abound as well in the BPO industry that could augment one’s paycheck, enabling another trainer, Barney, to take a long-held dream trip to Vietnam.
As Adam, 43, an American call center Account Manager, who has worked in the BPO industry since his arrival in 2013, points out, “One thing I’ve always been proud of is the hand the industry has had in helping establish a middle class in the Philippines.”
All those perks however leave most BPO employees prone to hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disorders, insomnia, and diabetes. Fortunately, one of the priceless offerings of the BPO industry is its health package. As one of a handful of senior employees, I have mainly praise for this package as my contemporaries in other fields complain of losing their company-sponsored medical insurance upon retirement. I gratefully availed myself of physical therapy sessions for cervical strain and underwent an angiogram without shelling out a centavo.
But there are safety and security risks as well in working in a sleepless industry, as indicated by media reports on how BPO workers have been targeted by muggers, holduppers and other criminals because of their ungodly work hours. A recent case is that of Teng Santaromana Gamboa, widow of the late Filipino musician Dominic “Papadom” Gamboa, who died shortly after logging off from work, apparently a victim of a holdup inside the cab she hailed to go home. Gamboa was working in a call center in Legaspi Village, Makati City, and had left the office in the early hours of Feb. 10 when tragedy struck.
Because of their payday schedule every other Friday, Rocky’s colleagues became similarly vulnerable to muggings, robberies, and taxi holdups in Manila. To address this, Carlo’s company had an ATM unit installed within the office building to save employees the trouble of withdrawing their pay in public.
Some companies arranged for batches of homeward-bound employees to be escorted by their security patrols to the nearest MRT station. Others organized shuttle services for employees with fixed drop-off points. The Human Resource department at Rocky’s company also published a list of safe and reputable taxi companies that employees can call instead of hailing cabs on the street. Our firm has developed a system of alerting employees to any event or act of nature that could threaten our safety. Adds Adam: “Companies generally provide transportation when there are typhoons or flooding, with emergency provisions so people can crash [in the office] in [unforeseen] circumstances. ”
As for the perception of promiscuity among its mostly young workforce and the resulting spike in HIV/AIDS cases, the BPO industry is like any other in that love can bloom amid work deadlines. But yes, “the median age of 23 to 25, plus the sheer number, the close proximity among employees, and the unorthodox work hours” can breed new rules when it comes to relationships.
Ramona, 26, a trainer whose five-year experience includes working for small BPO companies, says many employees rotate partners within the company, often breaking the unwritten code about not dating a friend’s ex. George, 48, another trainer with about 10 years of experience in the BPO industry, notes how short-lived most pairings are, with many of them lasting only weeks. In BPO companies he has worked for, stories of amorous tussles in the sleeping quarters are not unheard of. To avoid such encounters, Ramona recounts how some companies have installed separate male and female sleeping dorms.
Says Adam: “As with any generational divide, the older generation doesn’t always approve of the choices the younger generation makes. The companies themselves certainly don’t promote any specific lifestyle other than a professional and safe working environment. I know of one company where an extramarital affair is ground for termination.”
But there are enduring relationships as well that have led to the altar, such as George’s love story with fellow trainer, Chin, 38, which started with him giving her and other colleagues a lift home. A shared devotion to their families drew them closer. The couple made the union official in 2014 and are now parents to a daughter born this year.
Says Rocky, whose current partner is not in the industry: “I felt I needed to get daytime work to be more in sync with him.”
Is a career in the industry forever? In the global cyber workplace, the Filipino English trainer’s voice is heard loud and clear. Benito, our HR Manager, attributes this to the Filipino’s adaptability, flexibility, and ability to empower learners to express themselves with confidence and accuracy in the international corporate setting.
But while I and fellow trainers in our senior years feel blessed to be enjoying this second wind, younger employees remain open to other career options.
Benito says burnout in the job arises from the routine work. Carlo observes that the average length of stay is about six months for about half of the employees.” These moves are often spurred by the ease with which employees can transfer to other BPO companies.
Despite the revolving-door careers, the BPO industry does try to build a culture of job security. Carlo cites their janitor who moved up from agent to supervisor. He himself has climbed from being an outbound agent to becoming a process improvement program manager. Rocky observes that BPO companies prefer to promote from within their ranks and invest in their employees with leadership training. Even supervisors who transfer from other companies must start again as agents. Adam points out: “One thing that is powerful about this industry in the Philippines is that agents can build a career here. In the US, agents often see it as transitional work. There are so many [call] centers in the city that every company is looking for strong people at all levels. So there’s a huge opportunity for personal growth in this industry here.”
To break into the industry, Benito says the worst thing an applicant can write is that he/she is applying for “any position.” “Understand your skill and how you can be useful to the organization,” he advises. Rocky says to debut in the industry, an applicant should “speak well, learn to be conversational, must have attention to detail, and be good at problem-solving.”
In my sunset years, I am proud to be a part of this sunrise industry that continues to give the Philippines—a small country—a big voice in the global marketplace.
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