Call center blues
You’re not helping me at all. Are you a new employee?”
This was what a customer, during my first day as a call center agent, asked when I was slow in helping her resolve a technical error on a website. Caught completely off-guard, I confirmed reluctantly that, in fact, I was just recently hired. As if that wasn’t enough, she responded with what arguably every call center virgin detests hearing: “Then call your supervisor! I don’t want to talk to you anymore!”
I have been in the BPO industry for 18 months as of writing. From a line of work as enervating as being an onsite call center representative, especially if assigned to notorious accounts where irate, cursing customers are expected during almost every call, my level of tenure is already a badge of honor which, at least to me, feels like a decade’s worth of sleep deprivation and a huge toll on mental health, made worse by the constant anxiety brought about by the ongoing pandemic.
With this humble tenure, I have come across scenarios that I’d say could qualify as corporate horror stories. For one, I never imagined experiencing a bomb threat at 12 midnight that would force us to vacate the building without our personal belongings, including our phones. Then, an entire building was placed on lockdown due to multiple agents contracting COVID-19. Finally, the tragedy of colleagues dying of cardiac arrests and other related causes. This one gives me such an existential scare, what with how high the chances are that the constant lack of sleep, paired with stress accumulated over the course of several years, could have contributed to these colleagues’ deaths, given the unnatural, nocturnal lifestyle that we had to follow so as to ironically survive.
A 2020 survey by ABS-CBN and JobStreet Philippines said Filipino call center agents sleep an average of only 5.8 hours each day, resulting in fatigue and other health issues. Unsurprisingly, the comments section brimmed with objections saying they sleep even less than that average. Apparently, this is less a dignifying moment of self-abuse, and more a manifestation of how call center work should not be reduced to describing it as merely sitting and answering phone calls, altogether disregarding the adversities that agents experience regularly.
In a much deeper sense, what is arguably worse than agents losing sleep is when I hear of stories from colleagues not getting their overtime pay for their mandatory overtime work, as well as incentives they were guaranteed but never received. A colleague shared how not receiving her promised incentives after rendering a 16-hour work time a day for an entire week made her resign and apply to a different BPO company, hoping against hope to get hold of a less exhausting account and management that cares more about their welfare.
These unfortunate narratives often go unreported because agents fear losing their job even if their concerns are more than valid. It becomes a live-and-let-live setup, with employees making do with mediocre salaries, unhealthy working conditions, and racist customers, under the condition that employers are keeping them employed and compensated. All in the name of financial survival, at the expense of employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.
I have my own set of frustrations working in the industry. As a fresh graduate at the time of employment, I was clueless about how the corporate world operates. Having been promised a competitive salary during the interview, I ended up being offered a much lower amount upon official hire. I was too stunned to protest. Over time, I requested to work from home, citing the distance that I had to travel to work, only to have it held off after I was tapped to train for another account. Until now, with the government mandating at-home BPO employees to work onsite, a remote setup remains an elusive dream. At this point, filing my resignation letter and shifting to a different career path entirely have never felt this alluring.
But for whatever it’s worth, making it this far means I live for the customers at work who are kind enough not to pull a Karen, but instead express genuine gratitude for the services granted unto them. I live for candid moments when I and my colleagues share giddy excitement during payday, as well as the prospect of weekends spent with family and the chance to regain as much sleep as I could. These, alongside being able to pay the bills while saving up a little, are enough to make me stay.
I can’t help but also feel grateful as I owe it to the call center that this work experience has been instrumental to my professional and intellectual growth. From a nervous agent awkwardly admitting he’s a new employee, the next supervisor call I got was no longer a complaint about terrible customer service, but a commendation from an old couple telling my boss how unbelievably patient and helpful I was to them, as if screaming, “That young man deserves a salary increase!”
Jejomar Contawe, 23, is an onsite call center agent.
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