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Sunday, April 13, 2008

ALL THAT GLITTERS ISN'T GOLD: THE UNGLAMOROUS SIDE OF THE GLAMOROUS SWEATSHOP

I have been incarcerated in a call center for more than a year now and having dealt with probably a gazillion difficult, classified ID-10-T customers. Considering the work condition and the occupational hazards brought by the nature of the job, call centers have become what we now refer to as the white collar sweat shop.

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT ANTI AMERICAN OR ANTI CAPITALIST. I'M JUST LAYING THE CARDS ON THE TABLE.





THE LURE

Most (if not all) call centers dangle lucrative deals and benefit packages to entice new graduates and even undergrads. I mean, P12,000-P15,000 the least maybe, plus incentives, not to mention, the chance of getting promoted in less than 3 months. Sweet deal huh? Added to that, the decreasing rate of employment opportunities in most 3rd countries in contrast to the number of graduates produced by universities every year make the call centers even more alluring. Hence, the sudden rise of the call center industry in the country. Now, was that supposed to be a bad thing? For the Philippine Economy, maybe not... But for those contemplating to delve into the call center business (and for those who have been-there-done-that as well) read on and decide.





THE CATCH

Sure, I have earned twice as much as I did than my previous job as a marketing assistant in one of the city's most popular shopping mall. But was it all worth the sleepless nights, the verbal abuse and various health and occupational hazards posed by this kind of job?

Cards on the table.

Let's start with the health hazards. Though it has been thought as ludicrous by scientists before, recent studies may put working on graveyard shift in the list of possible carcinogens. Scientists argue that overnight work is dangerous because it disrupts the circadian rhythm, the body's biological clock. The hormone melatonin, which can suppress tumor development, is normally produced at night (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/29/health/main3554801.shtml).

Though, this has yet to be proven, how about the risk imposed by exposure to ELF (extremely low frequency) or other radiation brought by being in front of the monitor for 8-10 hours (or more)? NOt only will it put a strain on your eyes, exposure to radiation emitted by the computer monitor may further contribute to the risk of sterility or certain cancers. Facing the computer beyond 4 hours is no longer healthy according to research.

Added to that, the stress brought by coping with the unrealistic goals set by the QA and dealing with IRATE and DIFFICULT customers (mostly) from America, UK or Canada. Trust me. It's not gonna take you a month in a call center to actually hate these people. Been there, done that. Imagine being up all night, talking to, not just one, but probably hundreds of Americans, majority of whom are not too happy to hear from you, let alone if they find out you're from across the globe in some 3rd world country. It's hard enough keeping your cool and your sanity or whatever's left of it, what more with maintaining that positive vibe and that smile on your face to sound upbeat and friendly despite the verbal abuses. But what choice do we have? QA takes away points from your call for sounding monotonous and unfriendly and more points for exceeding average handling time, regardless if you have resolved the issue raised by the customer. Sanctions or even termination is imposed upon those who don't follow client directives. Usually, this kind of stress is dismissed as a common setback in this type of job and must not be made an excuse to flip your lid on a customer who has blown a simple issue out of proprtion. "Don't take it too personally. They're not mad at you, they're mad at the situation." So they say. Easier said than done I bet. But they are forgetting the human aspect in us call center agents. We too, get irked, irritated and hurt. And at the end of the day, we go home feeling tired, emotionally drained and abused. Energy level and morale goes to a zero. Not exactly worth the money we earned, not even with hazard pay and incentives.

Limited and closed monitoring of restroom and coffee breaks doesn't help either. Imagine 4 minutes of restroom breaks per 3 hours, 2 fifteen minute coffee breaks and a 30 minute full meal break for a 10 hour shift. Not enough to calm one's nerves after 3 gruelling hours on the call floor. Breaks are even withheld during queue time so we have to hold it in like a man. Hence, the increased susceptibility to urinary tract infection, again, one of the most common work related ailments in a call center.

Now, health hazards are just the tip of the iceberg. There's also the issue freedom in the workplace. Labor laws permit or even encourage unions. But for call center companies, it's a different story. Questioning the higher authorities' management can put one on the hotseat or possibly, even termination. What more with even contemplating on forming a union to address call center agents' concerns. It again, goes back to the contract you signed with your employer so as an advice, read it well.

Another occupational hazard is the risks of travelling at night, especially for the women call center agents. Imagine the possible perils one might encounter on her way to work. It's no longer new when we hear about call center agents being robbed, nabbed, raped or killed on their way to work. Though I was lucky enough to be based in Davao, I remained vigilant to the point of being paranoid when i go out to work at 9 pm. It's never safe to go out at night to begin with.

Lastly, let me point out the dehumanizing aspect of the nature of our job. We go to work, log in, say the same spiel over and over again before we take a break. No sooner, we're back on the floor singing the same old song until we finally log out to take a rest. Tomorrow's the same old story. There simply is no space for development of new skills as creativity and innovation is suppressed due to strict compliance with client directives and spiels read verbatim. Like the factory workers during the rise of Industrialism, we have virtually become mindless drones following the same routine everyday. Life becomes bleak and suddenly, you don't see the point anymore. That is one of the reasons why nobody lasts that long in a call center. Your work becomes painfully monotonous it bores you to tears and you don't get anything substantial out of it aside from the fat pay check you get every fifteen days. Morale and self worth becomes dangerously low, melodrama aside.

WHY WE'RE GETTING THE DIRTY LAUNDRY

Just as big corporations turn to China or Taiwan to mass produce their wares to be sold in the US or else where, These same corporations has also expanded outsourcing to countries like India, Australia and The Philippines for one reason: Low cost labor. How, you may ask? They get more people for pennies from these countries to take a huge amount of calls simultaneously in a day to earn more revenue as well as cut cost in labor. Simply put, they're getting all the money while we're getting their dirty laundry... FOR PENNIES... Well, that's just as much as I know.

Anyway, should you decide to delve in this kind of job, think about it long and hard before you sign that contract. Turning it down might be the best decision you'll make.

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