Manila 411

Author: Clement Nocos

©iStockphoto.com/BrettCharlton

At night above the skylines that dot Metro Manila’s multiple city centres, a sign featuring the logo from Telus, one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies, shines brightly over the tallest building of the Ortigas Centre, and can be seen from the rooftops of surrounding slums and squatter neighbourhoods. Even though it may be 3:00 am on a Tuesday, the streets below the glowing Telus sign are busy with activity. Fast food restaurants are left open, traffic is still gridlocked, and street vendors continue to peddle cigarettes in order to cater to the massive Filipino telecommunications work force that stays up all night to cater to North American clients during their daytime hours.

In only the last few years, the Philippines’ telecommunications services industry has seen a dramatic expansion and has taken over India as the call centre capital of the world, thanks to the country’s official language, English. This unique legacy of the American colonial period has meant that millions of Filipinos have lived within the Anglosphere for decades, alongside the Tagalog “national language” and about 175 other regional languages and dialects. English is used everywhere, from government and business affairs to the “Taglish” spoken by security guards and fast food workers. Manila, where most of the country’s call centre services are based, provides a pool of millions of English speaking, low-wage workers for the call centre industry. Steeped in a century of American culture, Call centre managers boast of the quality customer service that caters to the colloquial quirks of their Western clients who can easily understand the “neutral English” of a Filipino telecom worker.

Third party telecommunications firms throughout Manila have experienced a surge in outsourced call centre jobs from Canadian, American, and Australian firms. Some would argue that this kind of outsourcing moves jobs from the company’s home country and hinders the development of the Philippines’ tech and innovation industries, but for a country whose major export is arguably its own people, most Filipinos welcome these jobs. Major Canadian communications companies like Telus and Bell outsource large portions of their customer services, IT support, and even 411 services to Filipino call centres. The call centre industry only seems set on further expansion and has become a major source for service industry employment.

In order to have the stamina and motivation to work overnight shifts on a daily basis, the typical call centre employee tends to be young. Alongside a typical diet of cigarettes and energy drinks, workers are also fuelled by the higher than average wage which works out to roughly $278-$350 CDN per month.

From shantytown neighbourhoods, many young people ride tricycles, Jeepneys, and buses in the middle of the night to get to call centre jobs in the business quarters of Metro Manila. During a recent visit to the notorious Tondo district, I spoke to a young man leaving for work one evening after he learned that I had come from Toronto. He told me he had studied as a nurse but could only find work at the local call centres, and had lived in Scarborough, ON for a six-month stint training with Bell Canada. It’s his hope to one day to return to Canada to find real work in his field.

For decades, the nursing profession had promised young Filipinos that they will have the skills needed to get a respected job overseas. With about 200 000 registered Philippine nurses currently unemployed and 80 000 new nurses produced each year, a saturated job market at home and abroad, coupled with cuts to national healthcare programs in developed countries, has meant more nurses finding jobs in call centres. A trend I found during my last stay in the Philippines was that many call centre workers had been educated in nursing and healthcare, but seemed to have found no opportunities to work in those professions at home or abroad.

My most uncanny experience with the scale of Canada’s telecommunications relationship with the Philippines came with the arrival of a cousin who came to work as a live-in housekeeper in Toronto. Though her background was also in nursing, she had spent a number of years working in call centres for Bell Canada’s 411 services. For eight hours a night, taking in 600 calls per shift, she answered questions on the locations of institutions and businesses throughout Canada via a headset and a broadband connection. A common question she would be asked was the location of the nearest coffee shop to the caller.

Though only newly arrived, she surprised me by being able to recall a number of Tim Hortons and Starbucks locations throughout downtown Toronto - even the stores hidden in shopping malls and business centres.

Though many Canadians may not realize it until they need to call tech-support, the Canadian telecommunications industry has made key investments in the Philippines and has taken advantage of the country’s sui generis history and culture. The development of tangible technology, R&D, and financial industries for Manila, as well as benefits for the rest of the country, still remains to be seen from the rise of the call centre. Nevertheless, because it is a large English-speaking business ally in Southeast Asia and currently is the largest source of new Canadians, Canada and the Philippines could certainly benefit from a relationship that moved beyond the exchange of nurses and call centres.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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