Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cut that hurts

THE PAST semesters have made me change my views about call centers.

A student had to quit school to support herself last sem. Since it was midterms and her performance was exemplary, I proposed a flexible arrangement so she could at least continue the subjects she had with me.

The nature of the family crisis that figured in her decision to work seemed, to me, an even better reason to finish her studies.

After some weeks, though, she emailed that her training schedule changed. She had to pass this course because she needed the call center work. I respected her decision.

As I write this, I’m not sure if she’s back in school. But quite a number of the 80 students I’m working with this semester are working at call centers.

I used to flinch when I learned this. By the late 1990s, a few of my students just managed to drag themselves to my 7:30 a.m. class, except they often reached their seats with just a few minutes left before dismissal. Writing assignments’ 8 a.m. deadlines confused them, even though I’ve never bent this rule in over two decades of teaching.

And these were the survivors. Working on the graveyard shift seemed like a mordant prediction for preterminated university life. Unable to make up for the make-up work they missed in their classes, call center-working students dropped their school loads.

Or they wrote us off as an irrelevance. I once did the math while seating in my favorite chair, which has this student’s doodle: “push button to eject teacher.”

To acquire college “excellence,” a Mass Communication student pays, conservatively, P20,000 for one semester’s tuition and fees. She sits for three hours a week in a class moderated by a lecturer that might get P300 per hour. She spends another P20,000 for assignments, transportation, meals, lodging, all-night cram sessions. Upon completion of a writing class, she might now qualify as a neophyte reporter at P10,000 a month or at P300 per article, as a correspondent.

The math becomes increasingly malicious, based on figures: aside from a basic pay of P11,000 to P13,000 a month, a call center worker gets a monthly P2,500 food and transportation allowance and a performance appraisal bonus of P4,000. An agent meeting target quota sales gets an additional P11,500 commission plus a 30-50 percent night differential. “Spiffs” like appliances, cellular phone loads and gift checks boost the workers’ “sales per hour capacity.”

“All in all,” notes, “a well-performing agent gets a gross monthly income of more than P31,000.”

Unable to reach them in the confines of writing standards and class deadlines, I connect with them better when we’re both carping about jumping life’s hoops: work loads, bills, families.

For many a student, call center work is heaven-sent, specially when one’s parents decide they want a second adolescence. While many do support latte-and-Replay lifestyles, a lot also help younger siblings get the college education they defer for themselves. Supervisors and personnel officers haunt them every time they play musical chairs with call center employers.

“We must,” some say when they stumble in before I even open the classroom. The early morning light is no kinder on their tired 18-year-old faces as it is on my middle-aged wattles. After eight hours or more of professionally-induced self-control, they’re drunk with the desire to talk. Or keep one of the hardest silences.

Recent news of hundreds of Filipino workers getting laid off due to call center clients going under in the US meltdown has sparked anger, denial, jitters and fears on Internet forums. “Shove (layoff rumors) up your arse,” commented one, scoffing: where else can you find labor cheaper than the Filipino’s?

During early mornings with students, I listen and try to remember I’m not anyone’s mother. Still, I warn them from drinking too much coffee, smoking, unprotected sex. Listening to them rant against policies forcing them to fake accents and nationality, I really want to tell them to save their earnings, get their college degree and be whole.

But what is “whole?” For some 18-year-old breadwinners, a contact worker’s pay is passport to independence and family support.

So I never thought I’d see the day when I’d wish the business process outsourcing centers would remain the “sunshine industry.” Life’s tough when there’s no contest between losing the young and keeping them whole. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 23, 2008 issue


rencalago said...


i have read your column on sunday and it is truly interesting. Yes it is true that most student fit their extra time to some call center job. WHile focusing on their work as a call center agent, they possibly forget some lessons, assignment and even exams in school.

i am looking forward to your next column in

Mayette Q. Tabada said...


I have a lot of respect for working students. Those working in call centers are better paid than most but also face daunting pressure. One only hopes for the best. Salamat for reading and sharing your views!