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No Call for Action? Why There Is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers

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Abstract

This contribution presents findings from a qualitative study which focused on young urban professionals in the Philippines who work(ed) in international call centers – workplaces usually characterized by job insecurity and other forms of precarity, factory-like working conditions, and disembeddedness. Nevertheless, trade unions in these centers have not come into existence. Why collective action is not chosen by call center agents as an option to tackle the above mentioned problems – this is what the research project this article is based on tried to understand. After outlining some workrelated problems identified by Filipino call center agents, the article will focus on the strategies the agents employ to counter these problems (mainly accommodation and everyday resistance). By highlighting five objective and five subjective reasons (or reasons by circumstances and reasons by framing), we conclude that it is not repressive regulation policies, but rather the formative power and the internalization of discourses of rule within individual life strategies that are preventing the establishment of unions and other collective action structures.
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doi 10.4232/10.ASEAS-6.1-8
Aktuelle Südostasienforschung / Current Research on South-East Asia
No Call for Action?
Why There Is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers
Niklas Reese1 & Joefel Soco-Carreon2
Citation Reese, N. & Soco-Carreon, J. (2013). No call for action? Why there is no union (yet) in Philippine call cen-
ters. ASEAS - Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, 6(1), 1 40-159.
This contribution presents fi ndings from a qualitative study which focused on young urban profes-
sionals in the Philippines who work(ed) in international call centers – workplaces usually character-
ized by job insecurity and other forms of precarity, factory-like working conditions, and disembed-
dedness. Nevertheless, trade unions in these centers have not come into existence. Why collective
action is not chosen by call center agents as an option to tackle the above mentioned problems – this
is what the research project this article is based on tried to understand. After outlining some work
related problems identifi ed by Filipino call center agents, the article will focus on the strategies
the agents employ to counter these problems (mainly accommodation and everyday resistance). By
highlighting fi ve objective and fi ve subjective reasons (or reasons by circumstances and reasons by
framing), we conclude that it is not repressive regulation policies, but rather the formative power
and the internalization of discourses of rule within individual life strategies that are preventing the
establishment of unions and other collective action structures.
Keywords: Call Centers; Coping Strategies; Everyday Resistance; Philippines; Precarity
Der folgende Beitrag präsentiert die Ergebnisse einer qualitativen Studie unter jungen Berufstätigen,
die in internationalen Callcentern im städtischen Raum in den Philippinen arbeite(te)n – an Arbeits-
plätzen, die gewöhnlich durch hohe Jobunsicherheit und andere Formen der Prekarität, wie fabrik-
ähnliche Arbeitsbedingungen und Entbettung charakterisiert sind. Trotzdem wurden bis dato keine
Gewerkschaften in den Call Centers gegründet. Warum kollektives Handeln unter ArbeiterInnen in
Callcentern nicht als Option für die Lösung der oben genannten Probleme identifi ziert wird, stellt die
leitende Frage der Untersuchung dar, auf der der folgende Artikel aufbaut. Nach der Skizzierung ei-
niger arbeitsgebundener Probleme, die von philippinischen ArbeiterInnen in Callcentern identifi ziert
werden, fokussiert der Artikel auf ihre Strategien, diesen Problemen zu begegnen (hauptsächlich
mittels Anpassung und Formen alltäglichen Widerstands). Indem wir fünf objektive (umstandsgebun-
dene) und fünf subjektive (framing-gebundene) Ursachen hervorheben, kommen wir zu dem Schluss,
dass nicht repressive Regulierungen, sondern die formative Macht und Internalisierung von Regeln
1 Niklas Reese is a social scientist, freelance journalist, and researcher, with regional focus on the Philippines,
Germany, and Latin America and working mainly on issues of democratization, gender, migration, social movements,
and social security. Since 1997, he has been involved in political solidarity work through his involvement with the
philippinenbüro, a socio-political information center on the Philippines in Germany. Currently, he is working on his
PhD thesis on The Sense of Citizenship Amongst the Lower Middle Class in the Philippines. Contact: reese.niklas@gmail.
com
2 Joefel Soco-Carreon studied Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University in Davao City, Philippines, and
was research assistant at the three-year research project on The Making of Social Movements Under the Condition of
Precarization and Transnational Migration in South East Asia, directed by the University of Bonn: 2010-2012.
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innerhalb einzelner Lebensstrategien die Entstehung von Gewerkschaften und anderen Strukturen
kollektiven Handelns verhindern.
Schlagworte: Bewältigungsstrategien; Callcenter; Philippinen; Prekarität; alltäglicher Widerstand
Introduction
Are the unorganized organizable? This question haunts sociologists as well as activists
in Europe nowadays. Especially social uncertainty (precarity) of life paths and working
conditions seem to aggravate this dilemma. Bourdieu (1998) and Dörre (2006) are just
two out of many who believe that precarity discourages collective political protest and
that the lack of biographical perspectives caused by precarity (allegedly) leads to despair
and depression.
Also in the Philippines, activists are concerned that young urban professionals
do not organize themselves and often accuse them of being politically disengaged.
Agents in International Call Centers, which nowadays offer employment to hundreds
of thousands of well-educated young people, are specifically highlighted in this con-
cern. In this case, however, reactions of despair to a precarious life are not evident,
or at least not among the young urban professionals interviewed in this study. Three
out of four respondents (of altogether a total of 40 participants) claimed that they
have “clear life plans”; four out of five strongly disagreed with the statement that
“when a person is born, how things are going to work out for him/her is already
decided”; and the same number likewise strongly disagreed with the statement that
“seeing the way things are, I find it hard to be hopeful for the world” .
Likewise, in the last years, one could witness from the Mediterranean up to Chile
that young professionals are not per se in despair due to their precarious lives. Recent
protest movements in Portugal and Spain, or Egypt have even proven that strate-
gies to counter precarity are not necessarily confined to ‘muddling through’ and
can actually catalyze political reactions and collective mobilization. These examples
indicate that it is inaccurate to consider precarious living and working conditions
as causes for the lack of political mobilization and collective political protest as, for
instance, Bourdieu would assert.
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This paper though does not aim at providing an answer to the question of whether
young urban professionals in the Philippines may soon emulate their Mediterranean
counterpart and carry their disgruntlement into the public sphere. After having ruled
out the more general assumption that precarity triggers despair and thus inaction,
we will rather concentrate on identifying alternative reasons of why collective action
is not arising among call center agents.
After outlining some work-related problems that Filipino call center agents iden-
tify as significant, the article will focus on common but not collective strategies that
agents employ to counter these problems (mainly accommodation and everyday re-
sistance). In the second part of the article, five objective and five subjective reasons
(or reasons by circumstances and reasons by framing) are identified as of why collec-
tive action and trade unions are scarce in the Philippine call center setting.
This paper presents an overview of the findings and preliminary conclusions of
a qualitative research with 40 currently employed and former call center agents in
Metro Manila, Davao City, and Dumaguete City in the Philippines; 28 of them took
part in all three interview stages. This study – which is part of a three-year com-
parative research (2010-2012) by the University of Bonn on the making of new social
movements under the conditions of precarity and transnational location in South-
East Asia, supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft – included biographical
interviews; problem-focused interviews on how to cope with work-related problems;
and finally, interviews on the political orientations of call center agents. Addition-
ally, we used secondary literature on Filipino call center agents and complementary
Indian call center agents (Noronha & D’Cruz, 2009; Taylor, Scholarios, Noronha, &
D’Cruz, 2007). The latter was included as the situation in Indian call centers proves
highly comparable with that in the Philippines, and analytical literature on Indian call
centers offers a more detailed picture especially with regard to collective action and
unionization.
Not an Unproblematic Industry
Nearly all employees in international call centers in the Philippines have finished at
least a few years of college, several even graduated from college. They have studied
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to become nurses, engineers, anthropologists, or political scientists. Given the scar-
city of better paid opportunities in their chosen courses and professions and the li-
mited employment opportunities for those with a liberal arts or science degree, high
pay and easy entry in call centers have enticed mostly young individuals to join the
workforce. Hence, the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector has become the
fastest growing provider of employment for Filipino college graduates, employing
more than 600,000 people by end of 2011.
Job dissatisfaction and high work stress are widespread among call center agents.
The findings of this research reaffirm former findings on the nature of call center
work (Fabros, 2007; Noronha & D’Cruz, 2009) and already outlined earlier in this
journal (Reese, 2008a). Despite the glowing promise projected by job offers at call
centers as a place of self-realization, it could be observed among the respondents
that the less the work in the call center resembles their chosen course (and the less
autonomous and challenging the position is), the more they feel that they are wast-
ing their talents, and the less they see call center work as a career. This is reflected
in the common assertion of: “Do I really want to touch the lives of North American
people? Na-ah.”
The central aim of the research though was not to capture ‘objective’ situations of
‘exploitation’, but rather to find out how people deal with their dissatisfaction and if
this may lead to protest – maybe even in a collective manner. This research direction
was identified because social movements and political socialization theories agree
that readiness to political action (Politische Aktivierungsbereitschaft) and political ac-
tion itself do not (mainly) spring from ‘objective criteria’ – be it precarity, poverty,
or social inequality. People also have to (subjectively) suffer under such a crisis (the
reasons for which should be attributed externally); they have to “dare to protest”, for
which next to “a minimum of education and self-confidence . . . various resources
and personal qualities are required”; and, it finally needs “categories creating collec-
tive identities” (Schmitt, 2006, p.19). Hence, Schmitt draws the conclusion that “the
emergence of social protest is a process with lots of requirements” (p. 19).
In order to claim rights, it is usually not enough to have an awareness of such
rights (framing), or a sense of injustice, (relative) deprivation, and denied dignity
(Piven & Cloward, 1986; Scott, 1990; Thompson, 1963). It is also important to be-
lieve that these rights can be enforced and that violations can be remedied. These,
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likewise, rely on the perception/detection of existing political spaces and favorable
opportunity structures that would increase the likelihood of successful action: “For
a protest movement to develop out of the traumata of everyday life”, as Piven and
Cloward (1986) assert, “the disadvantages and disorders experienced by people must
be considered as unjust as well as alterable” (p. 36). Here, collective protest is usually
only the culmination of a series of protests, starting off as everyday resistance and in
the form of a hidden transcript (Scott, 1990).
But indeed, there are several issues which respondents to this study consider
problematic. Next to performance pressures, which a majority of them consider a
major or significant (pinakagrabe/grabe) problem, issues like the denial of vacation
and sick leaves, forced leave (without payment), the lack of security of tenure and
easy termination, or excessive and tedious workloads were perceived as “(pinaka)
grabe”. A considerable number of them also consider the lack of due process in cases
of termination or that they have no say in working conditions as a major problem.
(Although, a significant number finds this latter problem manageable [or OK lang, as
expressed in everyday language] or did not mention it at all.) Despite the relatively
high pay, almost half of the research participants (12 out of 28) also categorized both
issues of low wage and high deductions as pressing and significant (while 12 said it
does not arise as a problem for them).
However, for quite some agents (including the respondents), there is not much to
heavily complain about (pinakagrabe) when it comes to their working conditions. De-
spite the fact that the pressures of mass servicing are unrelenting, call center work
provides real benefits and increased autonomy outside of production, which agents
prize quite highly. Many agents do not necessarily consider themselves oppressed,
calling themselves instead as “stressed out”.
Coping Strategies
Because the reason to work in the call center industry is foremost economic, frontli-
ne call center workers struggle to positively construct the workplace and learn ways
to cope in order to deal with various levels of precarity (Fabros, 2007; Noronha &
D’Cruz, 2009; Taylor et al., 2007).
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One of these ways is identification, done by embracing the imperatives of the call
center regime. One respondent claims: “I do believe in the products which I am trou-
bleshooting or handling. So it’s not that difficult to sell, not difficult to love the prod-
ucts, so it’s not difficult to love the job.” Other agents associate themselves with the
company and its policies. Regarding overtime, one respondent had this to say:
“If they do ask you for overtime . . . you would understand because you would know: If we are going to
lose half of those 200 calls, that would be a loss for the company . . . if it’s a loss to the company, it’s our
loss as well cause it’s the company who is paying us.”
Others resort to adjustment and submission – not agreeing to, but simply accepting
the conditions of the workplace as inevitable. Complaining is considered as whining
or as ‘unprofessional. On the number of calls taken by the agents, a respondent said:
“Sometimes, it hurts, like you’re so tired, your throat is so dry … but you could not
really complain about it, about changing the way things are.” Another agent explains
that: “Eventually you’ll get used to it. It’s already normal, although inside you rebel
against it.” Another says: “You don’t really have a choice . . . your option is either you
can resign and get more time for yourself or you accept that you don’t have time for
yourself, then you only have to work, you only have to take up calls.” It is in this spirit
that half of the respondents said the monotonous and routinely work is OK lang, one
out of four does not even have an issue with it at all.
A strong belief in God’s providence has also been mentioned by several respondents,
which could be interpreted to rationalize submission. Such is expressed by one of them
in this way: “I believe that there’s always a hand that guides us, that no matter how
much you want to, it will always guide you to something else . . . I believe that there is
always a purpose” (male agent, 35).
Another way of coping can be to resort to split off from the ‘real life’, a term often
heard to label the life outside of the call center. This kind of coping can especially
be located among former activists who struggle with the fact that “before, we were
fighting the imperialists and now we are serving them”, as well as artists (singers and
writers) who especially suffer under the lowbrow work in the call centers. They live
two different lives and leave the real persons that they are behind once they go to their
workplace – making activism in the workplace more unlikely. This is shown in the re-
sponse by an agent who was once an activist (and is now an NGO worker):
“I would not take [problems in the workplace] personally … I know that even if I’m not doing good in that
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[i.e. work performance], I know I’m still an intelligent person; I know I’m capable of other things . . . I can
write, I can speak to other people . . . it’s not the basis of my personhood; it’s just my job.
Such split off though can also be an expression of self-management (Selbstführung) – just
like identification and adjustment – by which agents condition themselves for work to
be able to handle the demands of the job. This is considered by governmentality studies
as “governing from a distance” and as the main means of neo-liberal governmentality
(Opitz, 2004; Reese, 2004). This is illustrated in the statement of a respondent saying:
“The moment you step inside the company, you have to totally log yourself out from
(your) problems … it’s just a matter of how you manage your emotions, yourself. . . .
Being able to manage oneself might even be a source of pride for being a profes-
sional. Like for this 26-year old female respondent who shared:
“I realized, all you need to is . . . you should adopt it, you should adopt to the changes, you should adopt
the pressure and eventually you will love the job, then you’d feel proud of yourself. Hey, I can stay awake
the whole night.”
Professionalism also goes along with finding the mistake in oneself: “Maybe you
wouldn’t be issued a termination order if you didn’t do something wrong in your job,
as one respondent said. Professionalism also includes keeping up a notion of agency
even in difficult situations and criticizing colleagues of being a reklamador (habitual
complainant). As one agent said: “There are others who always blame the company,
company, company . . . You have the will to change your life so why rely on the hands
of other people . . . They really overstretch themselves.
Not every coping though should be understood as making ends meet and even
fooling oneself. Indeed there are at least traits in the call center work that agents
consider fulfilling. Aiming to be helpful, they believe that they are able to be of help
by assisting callers (e.g. old people or disaster victims calling a hotline) and so they
aim to give satisfaction to customers – a notion fed by the management side: “Agents
are advisers who help people fix their problems” (Executive Director Jojo Uligan of
the Call Center Association in the Philippines, personal communication, in Ermitanio,
2012). Feelings of fulfillment are also oftentimes present when agents are able to hit
performance metrics or resolve issues especially with irate callers.
At the same time, this ambition for self-fulfillment and the sense of professional-
ism which is “capturing the essence of agents’ lived experience . . . [and] mak(ing)
agents accept stringent work systems and job design elements, techno-bureaucratic
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controls and the primacy of the customer” (Noronha & D’Cruz, 2009, p.72) serves
as an entry point for dissent. The delivery of so-called ‘good work’ is systematically
obstructed by the relations of production, which hurts the employees’ pride of doing
their work well. Like in the case of a female agent who was troubleshooting for the
company’s cell phone products – models which she never actually saw except in an
online manual which the company provided her with.
The frustration that management does not listen to the views and ideas of agents
is likewise an entry point for dissatisfaction, as an agent says: “(W)e have suggestions
. . . they don’t know the real issue at work . . . there are things we are aware of that
supervisors are not aware of . . . so we are suggesting but they are still the ones that
will be followed.”
Self-management though does not make external management (Fremdführung)
dispensable as people do not always ‘want what they should’ (wollen, was sie sollen).
Therefore, instilling a self-construction as professional, e.g. as done in job advertise-
ments, is complemented by surveillance and monitoring techniques which at times are
reminiscent of Bentham’s panopticon, where inmates always feel observed without
seeing the one observing them. An example for this is recording calls or documenting
the transactions done within the IT-based interaction between agent and callers.
Hidden and Open Individual Protest
The narratives of several research participants are not only marked by stories of co-
ping. Significant everyday resistance could be identified in the narratives of nearly
every second respondent, “small, seemingly trivial daily acts through which subordi-
nate individuals or groups undermine – rather than overthrow – oppressive relations
of power” (Groves & Chang, 2002, p. 316), as well as open protest on an individual
basis – be it in the form of ‘voice’ with the human relations department or by ‘exit’
exemplified by call center hopping or even leaving the industry.
Individual struggles against the ‘system’ are evident with call center agents who
have familiarized the ‘insides’ and who have evolved ways of challenging the status
within the bounds of strict rules of operations, for as long as it does not threaten
employment. An agent phrases it the following way: “There are lots of things you
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cannot do, especially on a call . . . (but) there are lots of crimes you can do, until you
get caught.” Agents found ways of subverting the control of the panopticon over the
process, which is also a source of pride for them. In seemingly trivial matters, some
tend to bend certain floor policies.
Respondents share a variety of ways in asserting themselves to irate callers. Since
there is a strong policy over call-releasing (hanging up), agents typically put up with
such callers by cursing at them while putting the phone on mute or on hold and mak-
ing the customer wait on the line for a long time until they hang up, or getting back
in other ways possible.
But while the everyday resistance of subalterns shows that they have not con-
sented to dominance and resist to being totally converted into a docile body, many
of these actions might as well be classified as adaptation strategies, which make
work easier to bear than as disturbing the process of accumulation. Agents calling
these actions ‘stress out’ rather than ‘resistance’, offers a hint of this perspective.
Fabros (2007) explains that “these forms of resistance have been practiced within
spaces available, without considerably altering relations and conditions in this global
enterprise” (p. 170). “Interventions do not result in any considerable improvements
in work conditions or bargaining capacities of call center workers”. (Fabros, p. 273)
“Everyday resistance” is not even necessarily detrimental to the interest of their
employers and may even be a form of governance to leave marginal arenas for alter-
native practices to the subalterns (here, to ‘stress out’), serving the reproduction
of the agents’ performance and allowing them to believe that they can exert some
agency and resistance. In this sense, McKay (2006, p.179) states that
“workers necessarily help constitute the labor regimes they consent to or resist. In spite of the benefits
of high-tech work to workers’ personal lives, without collective organization, such individualized or
‘asymmetric agency’ does not challenge management authority in production, thus demonstrating how
workers’ actions and discourses can simultaneously challenge and reproduce their own subordination
and capital’s flexible accumulation strategies”.
However, everyday resistance and irony may not only serve as valve that helps to
make the pressure bearable but might also be “building blocks for more manifest
resistance against structures and apparatuses to control” (Scott, 1990, p. 57).
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Why is Collective Protest so Sparse? And the Unions Even Fewer?
As mentioned above, there are instances when individuals resist not only ‘everyday’,
and cautiously so as not to be caught, but also protest openly. This is done on a case
to case basis, depending on the kind of situations the agents consider to have brea-
ched their personal limits of what they view as just and reasonable (tama na, sobra
na), the resources they have command over, and on how promising they consider
the tearing down “the political cordon sanitaire between the hidden and the public
transcript” (Scott, 1990, p.19). While some agents put up with supervisors or account
managers when they are humiliated on the floor or shouted at during calls, others
publically defy the company, like by refusing to work overtime, especially if unpaid.
These are individual acts of protests though.
“Forms of resistance have yet to take on a more organized and collective character to substantially
transform bargaining power of workers in order to establish a level of control over the pace, content,
direction, context and over-all conditions of their day-to-day work
as Fabros (2007, p. 270) concludes her study on call center regimes and experiences
in the Philippines.
There have been protests staged collectively in call center settings in the Philip-
pines. More than half of the respondents report that they have experienced taking
action together with others, although it is only in one out of the four cases when
the issues were raised beyond the team level, i.e. with the management. Oftentimes,
court cases are raised against erring companies, mainly for reasons of undue termi-
nation and non-payment of salaries. Such is the case involving 664 Cebu-based agents
who filed a legal suit not individually but collectively (Mosqueda, 2012). Furthermore,
the taking of legal actions is singular and usually only initiated after the employees
have left the call center they are protesting against.
Efforts of union building, however, show more or less nil results, despite several
attempts by radical political groups and moderate labor federations (especially the
Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, and party-lists and labor centers from the
orthodox Left spectrum). An organizing project initiated in 2007 by the Internation-
al Labor Organization (ILO), which involved major trade union federations, did not
successfully lead to the setting-up of a sustainable union. Expert interviews in this
research with personnel of organizations whose efforts to organize agents were in
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vain revealed that, up to now, they only attained the role of serving as support in
filing cases and as givers and sources of advice. This failure in organizing unions
persists, despite the fact that the (scant) research done on the organizing potential
in call centers (Sale & Bool, 2005) shows that there are more agents who are open to
joining a union than those who are against it. Likewise, in this research, nearly every
second respondent considered the ‘no-union’ policy within call centers as a problem
and said that they would be willing to join a union; while another 25 percent at least
said “it depends”. Only one out of four are hostile to the idea of unions. The reasons
for the lack of collective actions on interest representation, therefore, have to be
located elsewhere. This study proposes ten probable reasons; five of them are due to
external circumstances (lack of resources and political opportunities) while five can
be described as internal (framing).
1. The “no-union” policy discourages some agents as they fear termination or discrimination
During their trainings, call center employees are usually discouraged by management
from joining or forming unions. In some companies, a ‘no-union’ provision is even
clearly stipulated in pre-employment contracts. Instigating such formations there-
fore spells a threat to their employment. As one agent reveals: “Once they [the ma-
nagement] hear you provoking or doing things like that [fighting for your right], you
are immediately out of the company . . . Of course, if you’re against the company, it
leads you nowhere. You lose.” An agent in Manila conveys her apprehension by saying
that:
“There’s this cloud hanging over our heads that if you’re too hard on the company there’d come a time
that they’d replace you, then you have to pay for your bills . . . here comes me, I have to pay for my apart-
ment, I have to pay for my brother’s enrollment.”
These fears are aggravated by the fact that, in Filipino culture, the ones speaking out
are easily considered as disturbo or “troublemakers” and hirit (talking back or disagre-
eing) is frowned upon. An agent shares that during an apprenticeship in a fast-food
chain: “My co-trainee told me that management said that I was an activist. What?!
Just because you speak your mind, just because you raised a question, they tag you
as an activist.”
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2. Forming unions in call centers is perceived as futile given the transient character of the
workforce [and the accounts]
Many young agents do not consider the industry as their lifetime career and they do
not intend to stay in such a workplace for a long time. Additionally, frequent changes
of employment are believed to hinder the deeper understanding of shared affected-
ness, the development of solidarity and of common interest patterns – all prerequisi-
tes for association organization. The interaction spaces that exist – e.g. the teams the
agents have been organized into by the management or any place outside of the call
center which is no longer under surveillance of the management – (only) serve as a
vehicle for discussion of work-related issues aside from account updates. Their mere
existence does not suffice to trigger organizing.
Experiences of successful organizing amongst the precariously employed show
that the few who lead (and push the ‘rank and file’) have been permanent in one
location or have even been with one company over several years (cf. Girndt, 1997).
Moreover, campaigns like the Justice for Janitors in the US, which is famous for its
successes, have been planned and carried out over several years.
3. It is not clear whom the agents should turn to
“There are really huge violations against labor laws in the call center industry,” says
a respondent, “but . . . you don’t know who to blame. You don’t really know whom
to talk and bargain with.” Rapid changes in clients make it difficult for them to have
a clear counterpart to turn to or mobilize against. Furthermore, these clients who
should be held accountable are abroad and not visible in the tripartite container so-
ciety, and hence, cannot be approached. Others even say that nobody is to be held
responsible in particular: “You could not help it; it’s the system . . . You could not
really complain about it, about changing the way things are. The supervisors don’t
have control over it.”
4. Grievance procedures are a form of token participation
In almost all call centers, workers are encouraged to approach and settle issues with
the Human Resource Department (HRD) individually or raise them during town hall
sessions. This creates the imagination that it is easy to approach the HRD whenever
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one has a grievance (open door policy). The image constructed by the management is
this: There is no need for unions as the HRD takes up individual complaints, employ-
ers take care of employees’ needs, and the interests of employers and employees go
in the same direction. This is furthermore fostered by an atmosphere of congeniality
and camaraderie created by fun initiatives or the first-name principle and the percep-
tion that employers value their professional employees.
Yet, most respondents doubt that their opinions are of great value to the company.
An agent observes that: “You can tell your supervisors but they can’t do anything
much,” as complaints may go unaddressed if supervisors are busy with an account.
He elaborates that: “All you can do is tell your concerns, but it’s up to the manage-
ment to act on it . . . you can say your concern but I don’t know if the management
will act on it.” A Manila respondent echoes this sentiment by saying that: “We had a
grievance mechanism where you can rant but nothing happened.” An agent from a
different company affirms this, stating that: “How many times did they do surveys
and still nothing happened; there’s no improvement.
Town hall meetings are controversial as well. Management’s responses to some
issues, e.g. office facilities, are written in tarpaulins and publicly displayed in office
premises. But, for several agents, major issues that they view as pressing are often
unclearly answered, if responded to at all, or neglected.
Noronha and D’Cruz (2009) consider the participation mechanisms therefore as
a “false claim, concerned only with impressing and misleading agents” (p. 165). This
notion is shared by a respondent of this study who says that:
“I considered it [the participation mechanisms] as . . . a game by the management; it’s a spectacle just
to show that they have a grievance process . . . the management can tell [i.e. promise] them [the agents]
everything . . . they’re not in the company anymore when that’s supposed to happen.”
Another agent says that: “In the call centers, they want to prevent unions . . . they
don’t do union busting, they do union-avoidance . . . you have to give the democratic
space so that (agents) would not think that they are being oppressed.
Agents who have experienced utilizing the grievance and participation mecha-
nisms consider them mostly as token. Seven out of ten respondents in the study,
therefore, consider no genuine grievance mechanisms to exist, with more than half
of them considering this a (very) significant problem. Similarly, while several agents
are impressed by the seemingly symmetrical relationship practiced between a boss
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and a worker in call centers – contrary to the hierarchical Filipino society – most of
them recognize that this kind of relational symmetry limits itself to the interper-
sonal surface, which does not necessarily manifest in work standards and dynamics
that are essential to a worker’s well-being. In the overall structure of authority, this
emphasizes the agents’ disadvantaged position – one wherein they cannot negotiate
with management over matters of utmost concern for them, i.e. job security, ac-
count selection, work schedules, and rational work tasks, contract terms, or even in
the implementation of trainings.
All in all, agents are fully aware that participation and grievance mechanisms are
subordinate to production imperatives which at any time may override whatever
feedback procedures have been put into place. “As long as they can squeeze out
more from you, they will,” an agent believes (Fabros, 2007, p. 211). As an agent in this
research concludes: “You might be performing (well) in other fields, but you’d be
summed up in only one system: ‘We don’t care how you manage your personal life;
we just want this; and this alone.’”
But even if agents come to the conclusion that human resource management
practices do not sufficiently address the grievances they have presented, in the Phil-
ippine call centers this does not (yet) spark organizing alternatives – be it in the form
of unions or through company-independent redress systems.
5. Call Center hopping
Finally, it is often heard that the ease of moving from one call center to another
(termed call center hopping) when problems arise might be a reason why hardly any
collective action can be observed. Exit, ergo seems to be another coping mechanism
for agents. With the mushrooming of the industry and the lack of qualified person-
nel, changing a call center company for another one presents an easy option. When
asked what the respondents would do if they lose the job, “find another job” is easily
articulated.
Circumstances hostile to unionizing alone though cannot comprehensively explain
non-unionization in the Philippine call center sector. Many of the structural and ex-
ternal reasons for non-unionization mentioned so far also apply to call centers in the
US or in Europe, wherein, however, a few unions have been set up. (This may also be
Niklas Reese & Joefel Soco-Carreon - No Call for Action? Why There is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers
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due to the fact that some of these societies are relatively densely unionized.) Other
reasons, which can be classified as issues of framing (i.e. the way people perceive and
construct the circumstances), seem to be equally important.
6. Individualism
People with considerable resources tend to believe that they can manage and thrive
on their own. They believe they can rely on their individual capabilities for success.
Schultheis and Schulz (2005) have documented among the precarized in Germany
that the “ethic of achievement is very pronounced among those who believe to be
able to make it” (p. 539). This is why they are less inclined to organize themselves
collectively at least in socio-economic matters.
Agents are further induced by a corporate culture that encourages competitive-
ness and individualism. The display of performance statistics, for instance, is such a
tool used by management to promote competition (in terms of productivity) among
the workers, which affects ‘individualization’. Agents’ calls are considered their own
and how these turn out depends on their individual communication skills. The only
help they can get from other agents is encouragement. “It’s like you’re programmed
. . . you don’t really work for the team; you’re working for yourself. You are just con-
tributing something to the team” (male agent, 25). As a result, an agent’s scores are
his/her own, and how one fares in the competition and mechanical dynamics of the
workplace is one’s struggle for wage.
Fixing of wages and settling disputes are done individually. Employees are encour-
aged to not discuss salaries with each other and to think of salary figures as a purely
personal issue. This not only prevents people from developing notions of relative de-
privation (which could have a mobilizing effect), but also feeds to the idea of person-
al performance, which is also evident in most of the agents’ personal perspectives.
7. Violations of rights and the lack of humane working conditions are considered “normal”
Contractualization, e.g. workers getting terminated after a five-month probationary
period, is typical for many parts of the Philippine service sector and has increased by
about 20 percent in the past few years (Reese, in print), creating the impression that
such is ‘normal’. When things are considered ‘normal’ or ‘without alternative’, they
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evoke less protest. The same applies to the explicit ban on unionizing – a policy which
many other companies have imposed as well, even if this goes against the Philippine
Labor Code.
The necessity of finding a living (hanapbuhay) forces workers to accept nearly any
working condition because “beggars cannot be choosers”, as a common saying in the
Philippines goes. When one is a proletarian (i.e. one who has no control over the means
of production), there is something worse than being exploited: Not to have work at all.
The demand to have whatever kind of work takes paramount precedence, while the
demand for humane work takes a backseat. A female agent (30), puts it clearly this way:
“If you’re helping your family, . . . you won’t think of the hardships or the exhausting
work inside; just think of the money that you can get [as an agent].”
It was also observed that the agents do not find it unjust to earn around five times
less than their American counterparts who are doing exactly the same kind of work.
The variations in the cost/standard of living are quickly regarded as a convenient justi-
fication for the disparity, even if the comparison of purchasing power only explains a
difference of 200 to 300 percent (cf. United Bank of Switzerland, 2013). It can therefore
be assumed that the acceptance of these wage differentials can be traced to the habitu-
alization of one’s position in the current world order, i.e. of coming to terms with the
fact that one belongs to a country which is supplying the rich countries with cheap or
sought-after manpower as “servants of globalization”, as Rhacel Parreñas (2001) calls
them in her book on the massive outward migration in the Philippines; or a natural-
ization of social inequality (Souza, 2008). Some respondents frame it as: “You have to
accept the fate of the world . . . It’s life. It’s not fair”; and this is immediately followed
by the claim that: “It’s kind of a blessing in disguise actually, here in the Philippines.
Because it’s generating a lot of jobs.
The phenomenon of “normalization” is closely connected to the strategies of down-
ward comparison. Agents consider themselves to still be in a better situation than other
workers (relative privilege instead of relative deprivation). The jobs in the BPO industry
in developing countries are of reasonably good quality by local standards in terms of
working and employment conditions (wages, hours of work, non-wage benefits, etc.).
Seen relatively, these jobs are less precarious and easy to get. As an agent puts it well:
“Because of the benefits and salaries, one cannot even think anymore of unionizing.
What more could you ask for? You already have health benefits and the like.
Niklas Reese & Joefel Soco-Carreon - No Call for Action? Why There is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers
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8. Trade Unions are Considered by them as Something for Workers
Furthermore, several researchers have observed that despite the fact that many of the
issues faced by agents in mass service call centers are no different from those faced by
their blue-collar counterparts, trade unions are considered by them as something for
workers (Fabros, 2007; Noronha & D’Cruz, 2009). Experiences of mass servicing are side-
lined by highlighting academic backgrounds, the well-equipped working places (gyms
included), and the above-average salaries they receive. They are “communication people”
and their direct contact in service work should not be confused with the physical and
menial work of blue-collar workers. However, despite the difficulty to completely ignore
the fact that the repetitive, even robotic mode of work, makes call centers appear like
factories, agents take pride in being able to “make something out of it”. Furthermore,
being involved in sloganeering, picketing, and striking – activities commonly associated
with trade unions – is considered as an unworthy demeanor of a professional. Manage-
ment supports the strategy of dissimilarity by giving call center employees catchy des-
ignations and prestigious-sounding positions such as Customer Care Agent, Customer
Support Agent, or Customer Support Executive.
9. The Stigma Attached to Unions
That unions do not have much appeal to agents is aggravated by the “stigma” (Aganon,
2008, p.124) attached to unions in the Philippines in general. Not only has the ‘no-union
policy gotten more and more normal, it is also that membership in trade unions has
in general reached new lows. Barely 5 percent of the workforce is organized into trade
unions and a mere 13 percent of them are covered by collective bargaining agreements
– which are not even deemed universally binding. Together with the rapid and steady de-
cline in the number of trade organized workers, strikes have also dramatically dropped.
10. Underestimation of Market Power
Finally, this study has come to the observation that agents underestimate their mar-
ket power as expressed in this response by a male agent (30): “It’s useless . . . they
can always hire more agents if you strike.” What may hold true for factory workers
is, however, questionable in the case of call center agents. As outlined above, the
call center industry has difficulties in meeting its demand for personnel who have
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the specific qualifications needed to sustain its operations (e.g. flawless English or
communication skills). Furthermore, it can be considered highly unlikely that the call
center industry would reach the point of moving out from the Philippines once the
workforce would demand and organize for more in terms of better working condi-
tions and benefits. Call centers demand very specific skills that are neither easy to
find nor can be quickly developed, namely, the ability to speak the customer’s lan-
guage in an acceptable manner and to be familiar with the culture the callers come
from. The call center industry has made the Philippines the world champion as far as
voice-based operations are concerned. A significant number relocated their operati-
ons from India for the very reason that American customers complained about the
British accent of Indian agents. It is very unlikely then that call centers would move
on to Vietnam or China, as some factories did.
Prospects for Unionizing: Dim, but Not Impossible
This study concludes that the prospects for unions in the Philippine call center indu-
stry are for now rather dim. As a result of the combination of external and internal
reasons, there are even indications that it is also more difficult to establish these
unions in this high-end service sector than in the production sector. In the case of
export processing zones in the Philippines, repressive regulation policies are resorted
to at times to prevent unionizing (McKay, 2006). In the Philippine call centers, open
repression is of no need as it is rather the formative power and the internalization
of discourses of rule within individual life strategies that is preventing the establish-
ment of unions and other collective action structures.
Having said that, the prospects collective action offers to agents are considerable:
Call center agents not only have market power, they also have productive power
(terms following Silver, 2005), as the industry is very vulnerable to production slow-
down and in need of a quick turnaround. What they lack is organizational power
which would give them even more leeway to push their interests.
But as mentioned above, call center agents are not closed to the idea of joining a
union and most even consider it a better grievance mechanism in lieu of token spaces
such as town hall meetings and individual complaints. But considering it trade orga-
Niklas Reese & Joefel Soco-Carreon - No Call for Action? Why There is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers
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nization in reality boils down to strategy. As one agent cum activist explains: “If you
think about a union, the image that we have is that of a poorly dressed worker . . .
and then you’re this someone with high heels, super attire.” The agent continues that
it could be an “English-speaking union . . . but it should have a different approach, not
the militant one that could possibly antagonize the agents. It should be done gradu-
ally, depending on the capacity of your mass base”. This resonates very much with
the successful experiences on organizing in India, Europe, and North America (for
the experience of the union UNITES, cf. Noronha & D’Cruz, 2009; Taylor et al., 2007).
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Niklas Reese & Joefel Soco-Carreon - No Call for Action? Why There is No Union (Yet) in Philippine Call Centers
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The chaotic traffic situation in Metro Manila has been characterized as a major roadblock to the country’s economic development and has turned into an important discussion point in political debates. In this paper three traffic related web services, aimed at helping their users gain an insight into the traffic situation of Metro Manila and beyond are analyzed in regards to their use of cooperation using Benkler’s concept of Collaborative Peer Production. The three web services differ starkly from each other in their concept – PH-Commute.com is a blog, Taxikick.com is a service for short messages pertaining to misbehaviors of taxi drivers, Sakay.ph is a navigation service. As I conclude, all three however share in common that they are indeed highly dependent on cooperation on different layers. Determined by the underlying concept of each of the websites, they incorporate inputs from their users, but they might also let their users help them in developing their software by publishing their source code, and they rely on community-created, open-source software infrastructure to be able to run their own.
Conference Paper
The contact center industry in the Philippines, named by Deloitte as one of the two top contact center destinations in Asia, has been expanding rapidly in terms of technology, workforce size, and economic scope. This study aims to explore, using the Glaserian grounded theory method (GTM), the main concern of contact center agents, particularly inbound technical support representatives, in Northern Mindanao in the Philippines, and how they resolve their main concern, especially using information technology. GTM goes beyond the descriptive approach of most qualitative methods by generating from the data, a theory of the substantive area. The rationale for GTM reflects the source of the developed theory grounded in the behavior, words, and actions of those under study. The theory can inform the development of systems, processes, structures, and policies that will support the actors in the substantive area. Preliminary results suggest that staying at the organization or else seeking other employment opportunities is the main concern of the technical support representatives, who resolve this main concern using a cyclical process, each cycle of which has four stages: training, struggling, coping, and motivating. The application of technologies in contact center operations can play a key role in sustaining the technical support representatives' decision to stay longer in the industry.
Chapter
This chapter examines the difficulties of the country to emerge as an industrial power, despite the rich mineralization of the country, which has given birth to a proliferation of mines and conflicts focusing on the environmental and social consequences of mining. More than the lack of abundant energy reserves, the choices of the economic and political leaders have not been conducive to an industrial takeoff similar to neighboring countries. The steel and garment industries have never been very strong, the automobile cluster of Laguna province is much less impressive than what is seen in Thailand, and the high-tech industry works mostly for foreign companies, in the absence of any major industrial firm in the Philippines in this economic segment. The main sources of wealth are in the valorization of land holdings, as shown by the assets of the richest Filipinos. Real estate and shopping malls are some of the main drivers of the domestic economy. The country, however, has a leading position in the world of Business Processes Outsourcing, especially through call centers concentrated mostly in the southern part of the Manila Metropolitan area.
Book
Das Buch leistet einen grundlegenden Beitrag zur Globalisierungsdebatte, indem es dem Autor gelingt, eine theoretische Alternative zu den vorherrschenden Paradigmen der Modernisierungstheorie herauszuarbeiten.
Article
Ethnographic writing in sociology and anthropology emphasizes everyday strategies of resistance among disempowered individuals over their submission in relations of power. Rather than asking whether disempowered individuals resist or submit to their situation, this article examines how tales of resistance and submission get written. Both authors studied a community of migrant Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. Yet, each came up with a contradictory tale: one of empowerment, and one of submission. Reflecting on the interactions that each author encountered in the field, this article argues that resistance and control do not exist outside the power relationships that ethnographers establish with their informants.
Article
[Excerpt] So how do we make sense of high-tech production as it emerges in developing countries like the Philippines? What explains the changes and wide variation in how work is organized? What can these changes tell us about the transformation of work in a globalizing economy? And finally, what consequences do these changes have for workers, the vast majority of whom are women? This book engages these key research questions by taking them up at a strategically crucial and empirically grounded flashpoint: a local site of global production and the local labor market in which it is embedded.
Revitalizing Philippine unions -Potentials and constraints to social movement unionism
  • M E Aganon
Aganon, M. E. (Ed.). (2008). Revitalizing Philippine unions -Potentials and constraints to social movement unionism. Quezon City, Philippines: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and U.P. School of Labor and Industrial Relations.