With the Asean Economic Community due in 2016, LINDSAY MURDOCH reports how life has already changed for employees in the Philippines.
PHUKET: Pinkey Barrozo says she has come to know Australians, even though she sits in front of a computer thousands of kilometres away in a glitzy building towering above Manila.
”I have developed a close affinity with Aussies – I even find myself saying slang like ‘G’day’ and speaking with their accent,” she says, after a period of handling more than 100 calls a day.
Barrozo, a 35-year-old university graduate, is one of thousands of Filipinos who have been taught how to calm Australians when they are angry or frustrated and to know what football team they probably barrack for, what they probably would like for dinner or watch on television.
She is among the 638,000 Filipinos who crowd into open-plan offices in purpose-built centres across the Philippines in an industry that reaps a phenomenal $11 billion a year for the impoverished country, which is overtaking India as the biggest call-centre operator in the world.
An increasing number of large Australian companies – including Telstra, Vodafone, ANZ, Westpac, Jetstar, Foxtel and Macquarie Bank – are using what are known as business-process outsourcing (BPO) companies in the Philippines to make or receive Australian calls or to communicate with customers via the internet.
But many smaller Australian companies are also using Filipinos for often complex specialised services, such as accounting, chasing debts, responding to complaints, writing software, file transcriptions, organising internet and social media campaigns, activating sales accounts, dealing with dissatisfied customers, reactivating subscriptions or insurance covers, and organising loans.
Call centres in the Philippines also provide a wide range of personalised services, from booking a car or upgrading a flight to fixing a computer problem.
Exequiez Magaling sits amid rows of hundreds of cubicles in a vast room taking calls – with his slightly American-sounding accent – from Australians wanting to make plane bookings or change flights.
He barely has time to catch his breath. ”I can’t remember the last time a caller asked me where I was speaking from,” says Magaling, 30, an employee of Stellar, a company which has its headquarters in Melbourne and operates call centres in the Philippines, Australia, Britain, Europe and the US.
”They just want to fix their flights,” he says. As he speaks with ”Linda”, who wants to book flights from Brisbane to Melbourne, a worker nearby throws his arms in the air and calls out, ”Hey, I got one,” referring to a just-secured sale.
The room erupts in applause.
Throughout the day workers often huddle in small groups and shout ”power hour starts now.” revving themselves for sales pitches.
The seemingly well-motivated workers receive bonuses for making sales in a buzzing environment where their basic salary is between $327 and $421 a month, well above the average wage in the Philippines.
They are mostly university graduates or college-educated middle-class Filipinos in their 20s who work in jobs that are largely envied in a country where almost three million eligible workers are unemployed.
Promotion can come quickly from agent to trainer and eventually to a management role.
One of the main reasons for the extraordinary growth of call centres in the Philippines is that Filipinos speak English with a more neutral accent than Indians and have a knack of quickly mimicking customers and learning their idioms, centre managers say.
Some companies employ as many as 20,000 agents who work nine-hour shifts, but there has also been a proliferation of smaller companies setting up in the former American colony.
The chief executive of Brisbane’s NRG Global Solutions, Michelle Bubke, says that in 2007 her company looked at whether to set up a call centre in India or the Philippines.
”One of the reasons we chose Manila was because the Indian accent is harsh – that’s not being rude. It’s just with Indians the pleasantries aren’t often there,” says Bubke, whose company employs 110 people at its Manila centre.
Wages in the Philippines are slightly higher than India but the Philippine accent demands a premium.
Companies that set up in the Philippines have tax breaks for up to eight years.
There is also a ready-educated workforce in a country of 90 million people.
Nevertheless, the country is unlikely to overtake India in the entire range of outsourced offerings.
Some Indian companies have moved their voice-related operations to the Philippines, where a wave of new 24-hour call centres are being built, including in the fast-developing city of Cebu and in Eastwood, an outer suburb of Manila, where a dozen tower buildings have risen from an old industrial site.
”There are a lot of companies here you might not think would be – back-office work that people don’t know about,” Bubke says.
As dawn breaks over the Eastwood call centre, workers huddle in groups outside office buildings drinking beer, their shifts over, as others arrive to start theirs.
Nearby cafes, bars and cinemas are open around the clock and are doing a roaring trade.
Call centres have been blamed for a rise in debt problems as workers get access to credit cards.
The jobs can be quite stressful and the lifestyle gruelling, particularly for workers on night shifts.
On occasion workers calling into Australia have been subjected to racist abuse and reduced to tears. The turnover rate is 40 to 60 percent, with workers moving frequently from company to company.
Australian companies tend to have a lower turnover rate because the time difference to Australia means many agents can work day shifts.
NRG Global Solutions employs two masseuses to pamper their workers in Manila and organises themed weekends away.
Bubke says fewer people are now asking agents where they are calling from. ”I think this is because Australians have become used to overseas call centres,” she says.
”The mentality is changing, but it is still important for companies making the move to be careful how they handle the transition.”
No Australian jobs at NRG Global Solutions were made redundant because of the Manila centre.
”We just couldn’t get the workers in Australia as our work piled up,” Bubke says.
Most companies do not advertise they are using Manila call centres, managers say, because they are worried about the perception they are taking jobs from Australians.
Bubke says if a customer does not want to be handled by an agent in the Philippines they are put through to the company’s Australian office. ”This happens very rarely,” she says.
Stellar’s client-services manager in Manila, Dhesie Acay, says Filipinos are ”very customer service orientated . . . even if a customer is upset, we remain nice and try to empathise with them. It’s part of our culture,” she says.
Acay says Stellar’s workers undergo weeks of training to learn aspects of the country they are calling into, including the system of government and popular sports.
Training to handle technical requests can take up to six months.
Acay says, for example, Filipinos don’t have a clue what a ”fortnight” is and must learn slang like ”she’ll be right” and ”no worries”.
The Philippines government predicts that by 2016 its BPO industry could add another 700,000 jobs and generate revenue of $25 billion, creating a new middle class to help propel the Philippines, long regarded as the ”sick man of Asia” to the economic heights of its neighbors.
The first calls were taken in the Philippines only six years ago.
Pinkey Barrozo, who is single and works for Stellar, obtained two university degrees in nursing, hoping it would allow her to work in the US.
But her visa application was rejected. ”Nursing barely pays an allowance in the Philippines, so I quit my job at a Manila hospital,” she says between taking calls.
”This job pays well; it’s a good environment to work in and it’s fun to come to work to speak with people in another country.”
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