By ANDREA ZARAH DAYAO and ALEXANDRA FRANCISCO
A year ago, working student Laarni was earning P75.00 per hour and working eight hours per day as a call center agent in Libis, Quezon City. Her minimum take-home pay was P13, 500 (US$300) a month. Not bad for a starting salary, Laarni said, as she was also getting non-taxable food and transportation allowance and Philhealth benefits. But later, the company’s mandatory 3-hour overtime took its toll on her health.
A working student from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Laarni has recently applied for the position of full time agent in an “elite” call center company near her university. She said it seems likely she would be hired.
“My dad is no longer alive; my eldest sister and I are the breadwinners. I do not have a choice but to work at night and study in the morning. Now, I am looking for a more competitive salary,” she explained.
Cheap Labor, Deteriorating Health
Laarni said there remains a demand for Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) employees in the Philippines. She echoes the oft-repeated belief in the “industry” that US-based companies are now preferring to put up BPO companies here because of their strict requirements for credentials and the Philippines’ reputation as being the 3rd largest English-speaking Asian country, as well as having an abundant supply of cheap labor.
Because of the mushrooming call center companies in the Philippines, “It was easy for me to jump from one company to another,” said Laarni.
But for Kabataan Party List Representative Raymond Palatino, foreign-based corporations such as those behind the contact center industry in the country are only exploiting the country’s human capital.
At $3,964, the average annual salary of a call center agent in the Philippines is low compared to Thailand’s $4,874, Malaysia’s $5,199, and Singapore’s $16,884.
“If we’re indeed dubbed as the “Offshoring Destination of the Year” since 2007, then why do the salaries of call center agents lag behind those in other countries?” Palatino asked.
Moreover, Palatino said it has been reported to them that call center agents being hired here by foreign companies are being made to sign agreements with “overly strict time-keeping and no-union policy.”
Sometimes, because of schoolwork, Laarni said, she had to skip work and submit a fake medical certificate from her doctor. “Because I’m working eight hours, (on top of studying) I had chronic fatigue— my doctor asked me to choose between working and studying. But because I do not have money to support my education and that of my siblings’, I cannot do as the doctor said.”
In the House of Representatives, while legislators were discussing the budget allocation for the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), Palatino interjected that most complaints filed with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) were on “illegal dismissal; underpayment of thirteenth-month pay, holiday pay…, and night shift differential.” Talking about BPO employees who mostly work nights, he said, studies have shown that disruption in the body clock due to working graveyard shifts causes fatigue, disorientation, disturbed sleep, heart problems and manic depression.
“In fact, (because of their work hours) the BPO sector is changing the night life of Metro Manila,” said Palatino.“ Now the youth go dancing at bars during daytime.”
Palatino also said call center agents can be prone to verbal abuse from some of their customers.
“When dealing with an irate caller, they have to read a script three times to warn the caller of their improper behavior before they can drop the call. Worse, they are not supposed to be Filipinos when they talk to callers. In fact, some labor groups said many call center workers have now been needing psychiatric counseling because of the nature of their work,” said Palatino.
The call center industry resembles the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), Palatino said. Agencies for OFW welfare were established only a decade after the OFW phenomenon started in the 70s, he said, adding that the government should focus also on the welfare of the workers and not just on the dollars they earn.
Due to these circumstances, Rep. Palatino filed the first bill for the BPO, House Bill 6921 or the BPO Workers’ Welfare and Protection Act of 2009.
“This bill protects BPO workers from understaffing or overloading and provides them freedom from interference or coercion, protection from discrimination, freedom from company bond and safeguards in administrative proceedings, among others,” as explained in his press release.
In an interview with Bulatlat, Palatino said “We’re concerned that what is being aired and discussed by the government only revolves around new business process outsourcing activities and opportunities, but not on employees’ welfare. Where would the BPO employees rely on when it comes to their rights and welfare? They’re forbidden from forming unions— what would be their basis for complaining? They are fresh graduates, with less or no experience. Because they are receiving above minimum wages, are there no unfair labor practices or labor violations? So, we came up with this (bill).”