You call them when you are angry. You call them when you’re frustrated – when you can’t find what you’re looking for. You call them when you need something. And you call them when that thing that you “paid good money for” isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.
Every day, more than a million North Americans dial corporate customer service numbers to complain, to inquire, to activate accounts, to order products or to seek help. And every evening, hundreds of thousands of young workers pour into call centres more than 12,000 kilometres away in the Philippines, to be that friendly, patient voice on the other end of the line.
Endowed with a trove of young, well-educated workers who speak “American-style” English, the call centre industry in the Philippines is thriving. Last year, the southeast Asian country quietly overtook India to become the call centre capital of the world.
Manila’s call centre industry works when the rest of the city sleeps. The busiest time begins at around midnight.
On a recent Monday evening in the Fort Bonafacio district, hundreds of call centre workers sit clustered together fielding calls from the United States. They are providing 411 information services for a telephone company.
“For what city?” says a young woman in clear, unaccented English. “Please hold,” she says before a few clicks of a keyboard give her an address in a rural section of a northeastern state. Within seconds, she’s moved on to the next call. Neither she, nor any of her colleagues look much older than 25.
Economically hobbled for decades by systemic political corruption, high unemployment and subpar GDP growth, the Philippines was long referred to as “the sick man of Asia.” But the country, with a population close to 100 million scattered across more than 7,000 islands, is now capitalizing on a seismic shift in global business practices.
Labour pools in Asia are become increasingly transient as companies seek to reduce costs. Lured by competitive wages and an ability to maintain or even improve the quality of service, a portion of the call centre sector is shifting from India to the Philippines in much the same way that parts of the textile industry has relocated to Vietnam and Bangladesh in response to rising manufacturing costs in China.
At the same time, many Western companies are still facing a persistently uncertain economic outlook and remain reluctant to invest the capital needed to expand and hire new employees. Costs continue to be cut wherever they can.
Few industries have benefitted more from this prolonged corporate austerity than what is euphemistically called the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector. Western companies are now outsourcing everything from back office services to forms processing to customer care. Call centres, such as the ones now flourishing in the Philippines, are the front lines of the $130-billion global BPO industry that has grown by more than 10 per cent a year since 2005.
The industry is expanding even faster in the Philippines, growing by an average annual rate of 28 per cent for the past six years. In 2011, sector-wide revenues topped $11-billion (U.S.), accounting for about 4 per cent of the country’s GDP. Almost 640,000 Filipinos work in the industry and 75 per cent of those are located in the capital region of Metro Manila.
Calls from North America are routed to places like Market! Market!, a cavernous mall in Fort Bonifacio. Teeming with shoppers and people looking for a respite from the city’s oppressive temperatures during the day, the mall’s top two floors continue to hum at night. They are home to about 3,000 workers at a massive call centre operated by Telus International, an arm of Canada’s second largest telecommunications company, Vancouver-based Telus Corp.
In a business venture that is rarely talked about publicly by its Canadian corporate parent, Telus International has placed a weighty bet on the Philippines, making it the cornerstone of its outsourcing operations. It acquired a local company named Ambergris Solutions Inc. back in 2005, slightly ahead of the industry’s Philippine influx. It now operates three call centres in Manila that employ as many as 8,500 workers during the busiest parts of the year. Telus’ investment in the Philippines makes it a rare breed among Canadian companies. Canada and the Philippines share a deep and growing tie, as the Philippines has become the biggest country-source of immigrants to Canada. But few Canadian companies are active there.