BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Trade Secretary Peter Favila said that the Philippines is not lacking in work.Unemployed Filipinos are just choosy. He cited applicants in call centers who supposedly back out after learning that they would have to start from graveyard shifts. But many call center agents are actually graduates of courses like engineering, computer science, nursing, pre-law, psychology and others – who got into this line of work because they could find no other jobs.
Tom (not his real name), 27, has applied in four call center companies since November. The response of call centers, he told Bulatlat in an interview in Filipino, has been the same: “Wait for our call.” But there were no calls.
One of the call centers he applied at, says Tom, required skills not only in English proficiency but also in typing, data encoding, and written composition. But all companies, he said, place a prime on English proficiency. Interviews, he added, were conducted entirely in English.
A former trainer for call center applicants said that it merely takes a seven-minute interview for a company to determine whether to accept or reject an applicant. This is not an exaggeration, Tom said. “There was one instance when I spent more time waiting for the interviewer than the interview itself,” he said.
Tom lives with his mother and brother in a rented room in Sampaloc, Manila. He went to public schools for his grade school and high school education. For college he studied in a private non-sectarian school as a scholar. When he lost his scholarship, he transferred to another school and took up only the number of units that his mother could afford – which was always less than the regular load. He was not able to complete his course because of financial difficulties.
His mother, a secretary at a motor-bearing shop, is the sole breadwinner. His brother, a journalism graduate from a state university in 2004, worked as a contractual employee in a library and later on as clerk in a company. He is currently jobless. Tom’s father died when he was in grade school.
Asked how he assesses himself in terms of English-speaking skills, Tom says he is not able to sustain a conversation in English.
Good pay, relatively
The reason he has been struggling mightily to get into call centers, Tom said, is the relatively high starting pay that these companies offer.
Call centers usually pay their agents P13,000 ($254.27 based on a $1:P51.125 exchange rate) a month, industry insiders say. This translates to P433.33 ($8.47) a day.
Based on data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), the national average family living wage for a six-member family – the average Filipino family – is P657.13 ($12.85) as of February 2006. Conversely, the daily minimum wage is presently pegged at a national average of P237.56 ($4.64) as of March 2006, with the highest being that in the National Capital Region (NCR) which stands at P325 ($6.35), NWPC data further show.
Because of the relatively high salaries that agents in call centers get, these companies are widely perceived in the Philippines as the gateways to gainful employment. And the government encourages this view, portraying the call center as a sort of Mecca for college graduates, and even undergraduates in need of jobs.
Not that rosy
But the real picture is not quite as rosy. Data recently released to media by the John F. Kennedy Center Foundation-Philippines, which designs training programs for call centers in the Philippines and seeks to “revolutionize” the Philippine call center industry by “establishing centers of excellence,” show that only 11,526 applicants on the average are hired as call center agents in the country yearly. This is equivalent to only about 2 percent of all applicants annually, the data further show.
“Most fail because they fail to understand the requirement of global job interviews, testing and process,” Jim Santiago, president and chief executive officer of the John F. Kennedy Center Foundation-Philippines, told media in a recent interview. “Secondly, the spoken English becomes a challenge, in terms of conversational fluency, tone and accent.”