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A Telus call centre in a Manila mall. The Philippines has overtaken India as the world's No. 1 call centre outsourcing country. (Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail/Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail)
A Telus call centre in a Manila mall. The Philippines has overtaken India as the world's No. 1 call centre outsourcing country. (Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail/Andy Hoffman/The Globe and Mail)

Call centres are Philippines' new long-distance love affair Add to ...

To service the wave of nocturnal workers, the city now runs around the clock. Convenience stores such as 7/11 are mushrooming and many bars and restaurants are now open at 6 a.m., catering to the call centre crowd coming off shift.

Questions remain, however, about whether the Philippines can leverage its call centre success to attract more valuable contracts providing higher-end services to the health care, financial and IT sectors, as Indian companies have done. Moving up the value chain will be a critical step if the industry hopes to continue driving economic growth.

India dominates in IT and engineering outsourcing work because of its plentiful supply of engineers and computer science university graduates. The Philippines churns out more than 300,000 new college graduates a year and the outsourcing industry could provide them with much-needed jobs if international companies conclude the country’s work force is skilled enough to produce service higher up the value chain.

Despite its economic benefits, the call centre industry has come under fire from those who criticize the gruelling lifestyle and health risks it imposes on a workforce whose average age is about 25. Call centres are being been blamed for everything from a rise in the rate of sexually transmitted disease among young Filipinos to rising debt loads taken on by workers abusing the credit cards their new jobs have qualified them for.

The picture that many Filipinos have of call centre workers is groups of young people huddling outside office buildings smoking in the middle of the night or drinking in nightclubs at 7 a.m. That image is at odds with the contribution the industry has made toward creating a new middle class.

Count Regine Gargollo among Manila’s new call centre middle class. The 24-year-old has worked for Telus for six years and now trains other call centre agents.

Her wages have allowed her to rent her own apartment in Fort Bonifacio. Five nights a week, she hops on a Jeepney for a short ride to the office at the Market! Market! mall. Her shift runs from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. but three nights a week she arrives a few hours early to attend class at Telus International University. She’s studying the humanities and her favourite subject is literature.

“So far, I haven’t found another company that is willing to put me through school,” she says.

Ms. Gargollo’s family complains that they don’t see her often enough because of her unusual work hours.

She says much of her social life revolves around work. Telus provides its workers with access to a fitness centre and, not unlike a high school, has encouraged employees to form clubs and interest groups that include drama, art and photography.

“It’s the atmosphere. We have a really close-knit relationship,” Ms. Gargollo explains. “It’s almost like you are a family. Maybe it’s because we all work at night and the rest of our friends and family are all asleep at that time. We compensate by having our own little community here.”

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BY THE NUMBERS

640,000 – number of Filipinos working in call centres or Business Process Outsourcing sector in 2011.

$11-billion – industry revenues in 2011.

1.1 million – number of Filipinos forecast to be working in the sector by 2016.

$15-billion – industry revenue projected by 2016.

Source: Business Processing Association of the Philippines

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Telus International’s big bet on the Philippines:

8,500 – number of Telus International employees in the Philippines (during peak periods).

28,000 – number of Telus Corp. employees in Canada.

5 – number of countries where Telus operates call centres – Canada, United States (Las Vegas), El Salvador, Guatemala and the Philippines.

15 per cent – cost savings of operating a call centre in the Philippines compared to Latin America.

15 per cent – cost savings of operating a call centre in Latin America compared to North America.

Source: Telus International

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How to tell if you’re speaking to a call centre agent in the Philippines

Patience: Filipino call centre workers are highly regarded for their ability to remain calm and accommodating with elderly or difficult customers.

Occasional Tagalog: A common slip-up for Filipino call centre workers is to address customers as “Po” instead of sir or ma’am.

Please hold: Another giveaway is the use of the phrase “for a while,” instead of “one moment.”

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The tricky question:

What do Filipino call centre workers say if a customer asks where they are located?

The head of Telus International’s Philippines operations, Jeffrey Uthoff, says it depends on the client. Some companies don’t want agents to reveal where they are. Telus says it would prefer if agents were able to say they are in the Philippines if asked.

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