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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Call Centers and Racism

(Originally Published in the 15April issue of the Baguio Midland Courier, republished with minor modifications)

Months ago, I came across an article in the Baguio Midland Courier in which the writer, a former call center agent, vented out his rage at the rank racism in this particular outsourcing industry. Having worked briefly in the same work environment, I can understand how humiliating it must have been for him to get cussed or hollered at by irate callers several times. It is a wonder he came out of the industry still psychologically intact after two excruciating years! Toward the conclusion of his essay, he made a call to arms against the exploitative West.

Let me make my take on this matter.

One does not have to experience racism firsthand to know that this malady can cause emotional scars on its victim. Almost everyone has had the opportunity to read about or watch real-life stories of racism in its various forms.

It is altogether different though when one actually experiences it more than once. I should know. All the Filipino ESL teachers and nannies in mainland China whom I had lived with, met or talked to should know. All the other Filipinos elsewhere who bear marks of abuse by their racist employers should know.

And we feel – nay, even clap – for those who do muster the courage to speak out against this evil attitude or practice. We laud those who have fought hard to yank this disease off people’s system.

However, it is always best that crying out against an unfair treatment be taken with adequate care lest we unwittingly turn around and treat the issue or a group unfairly.

Which brings us to the issue of racism in our country’s burgeoning call center industry. Doubtless, there are many young call center agents who have been traumatized by their irate, condescending American customers. And yes, there must have been agents who have been insulted by certain Americans on the site.

But I guess, it is one thing to complain against racist remarks or behavior in call centers and quite another to give the impression that racism is rife and unchecked in this industry. For certainly, a lot of callers from the US have shown respect to Filipino agents not only through verbal commendations but also through cash gifts. I can point to the amiable American Chuck English, fondly called “Chuckie Tagalog” by some of his Filipino friends, as one on-site American call center instructor who has shown great respect for the Filipino. Although recent researches have shown a decline in our facility in the English language especially among the youth, the fact that this industry continues to thrive in our country is proof enough that a number of Americans out there do recognize our competence in this field. There are American managers in this line of work who do respect us for who we are.

It is one thing to rage against condescending Americans, and to make a sweeping generalization that all Americans are condescending. I suppose many of us have met here and abroad fine folks from the US who have regarded us as equals and, in some instances, their superiors in certain subjects or areas of expertise.

The unidentified American who was quoted to have said that Filipinos think of nothing but money and how they can take advantage of him is guilty of a sweeping generalization, all right, and should be ashamed of himself. We might as well conclude that all that Americans can think of is to devise ways to con smaller nations into getting sucked into the US of A’s great whirlpool of imperialism, simply because America’s foreign policy during this or that particular administration and toward this or that country undeniably sucks.

On the other hand, that misguided statement should not blind us to the fact that indeed, there are many of us who have acted like the Americans are our milking cows. I bet some of our churches here can attest to that.

But to continue, it is one thing to complain against egotistical Americans and quite another to single out Americans for racism. For all we know, many of our fellow Asians are more racist than some Americans. Our friends who tried applying for ESL jobs in South Korea or who have done ESL teaching in China can tell you pretty much how low we are in our neighbors’ estimation simply because we have the “wrong” passport or nationality, skin and eye color, or even accent.

But then again, it is one thing to damn those crooked and condescending Chinese and Koreans to hell and quite another to be blind to the fact that a great number of them are just as humble and hospitable as we can be.

We must concede too that some of us are racists in one form or another. Most of us may not have verbally insulted someone simply because of his country of origin, but certainly many of us have looked down on Chinese immigrants, Korean nationals, Afro-Americans and some others because of their “queer” culture or even skin color.

And while we are at it, why don’t we look around and point out the many verbal and non-verbal indications of racism’s kissing cousins– ethnocentrism or regionalism (e.g., the “highlander vs. lowlander” mindset) and sectarianism (e.g., you’re damned to hell because your church wears a different name). Let’s not forget to mix in “uppityism” as well (like a few Filipino supervisors or managers in call centers whose smugness makes their subordinate Pinoy “brothers” cringe).

Fight back? Why not? But I wish to see the youth fighting back and standing up to the jaundiced gaze of other people by being the best they can be in whatever (legitimate) career or profession they have chosen. I’d like to see more Manny Pacquiaos rising against and above unfair circumstances and earning their spot in the hearts of people from all stripes. (Although, I must hasten to add, I don’t like seeing a Manny Pacquiao allowing himself to be exploited by grandstanding politicos coming from every dirty corner).

Whether in a call center or not, successfully battling this and other kinds of human malady really depends on how we view and deal with them. Some go ahead and quit and find another “more decent” job. Others stay on and grin and bear simply because there is really not much choice in the face of our sagging economy and sordid politics. Still, others stay on and slug it out and eventually carve out their names into “western-style marble slabs” of fame and fortune.

So all these add up to a perhaps larger view of this issue, which includes a look at ourselves – our worldview, our work ethic, our learning strategy, our moral fiber.


yajude said...

..was once a call girl, hehe (call center girl). Graveyard shift sucks! Irate callers go to ***

sherwin said...

I just started to train as a call boy(CCA) in an at&t account… and from my point of view, getting irate callers is but normal for an agent right… you just need to know how to supress the feeling and think that they just like us getting irate because of poor customer service right… e.g. when calling smart or globe for our simcard problems… we just have to have wills of steel for this kinds of jobs… i salute you all CCA’s… ur all super beings to withstand such torture in ur lifes… super ears for super barbars from strangers… super stomachs for super uwat and super eyes for super puyats jejejeje by d way i’m an FBI(Full blooded Igorot)

scott saboy said...

hi sherwin, yep irate calls are to be expected in a call center industry and i guess a great many of these are justifiable somehow when considered from the irate callers’ end. however, what seems to be unjustifiable is the use of abusive language against CCAs by some callers… my best wishes to your new career kapatid! :)

Mary said...

I have been in the industry for almost 3 years and I worked hard to be in my current position. I left my previous job to seek for better opportunities in a well known call center in the Philippines. To share my experience, as an Operations Mgr reporting directly to our senior is a nightmare. I have experienced verbal abuse, using offensive language and literally being bullied by our Senior Manager. I really hope that someone from this site will read this and be able to help me. In 3 mons of dealing with this kind of treatment I feel that I have to put a stop and fight against his abuse because its affecting me mentally, physically and can possibly be financially damaging since I am still not a regular employee, wherein my job can be taken away from me anytime if I push through with the case. Please for those who can give me advise, I would appreciate it. thanks

scott saboy said...

hi mary, 3 yrs! since getting a taste of a CCA's life more than a year ago, i have always considered it an extraordinary feat for one to last even a year in the industry -- more so when that person gets to be an OM in 3 years. honestly, i don't know what to advise you on how to best deal with your predicament, except to wonder f you already had a heart-to-heart talk with your SM or with someone close to you who is also close to this SM. i've passed your case on to friends who have been in the industry for some time now and i'm hoping that one of them will respond... thanks for visiting this site :)