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Who takes the phone and solves your fucking problem?

A Nation on the Line. Call Centers as Postcolonial Predicaments in the Philippines
Forfatter: Jan M. Padios
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
The call center industry has grown to over one million employees in the Philippines, who for decades have struggled to create jobs. In a new book, the question is asked about what it means to solve problems, often for unreasonable people across the globe – all night long.


The Philippines has, for as long as anyone now remembers, been plagued by lack of work. A situation that is also called «population surplus»; if you do not have an official paid job, you are, as you know, left over. People have therefore traveled the world in large numbers to find jobs, and since the middle of the 20th century, the state has acted as an intermediary. Ten years ago, it suddenly happened that neither exportsorientering, population exports or industrialization attempts could have resulted in: New jobs being created, – hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Padios describes how the telephone centers form part of a global, racialized and (post) colonial economy.

The first call center opened in the Philippines already in 1992, but at that time virtually no one knew what this was. It is probably still the few who know. I was even in doubt when I started reading A Nation on the Line – I just knew that if you have problems with your computer or printer or phone, you have to spend an unreasonably long time finding a phone number on customer service, and then the person who might take the phone will probably be in a completely different part of the world than the company whose product you are about to throw out the window. Exactly what goes on in a call center – who works there, how they are trained and led, how they experience the work and what it does to them, and how the call center phenomenon is inscribed in the sociogeography, economics and national self-narrative of the Philippines – tells US – Filipino Jan M. Padios in his ethnographic study of this rather distinctive part of global capitalism. 

An industry full of promises

Since the Accenture Group opened the Philippines' first call center, the industry has exploded, especially from the mid-2000s. In 2010, the country overtook India and became the world's largest so-called BPO hub; BPO stands for Business Process Outsourcing and can include the relocation of everything from Human Resources to customer communication. New companies emerge (or old mutants) with offers to provide services to other companies: For example, US computer maker Elphin has had Vox Elite handle all their customer inquiries, which is done through a call center in Manila's business district. 

When Jan M. Padios began his research in 2006, the Philippines' call center industry could count its employees in the tens of thousands. Today, more than one million people sit and pick up phones all night, as they are mainly customers in western time zones they serve. The industry is expected to grow by 17 percent annually, and already generates a larger share of the country's GDP than labor migrants' repatriated money.

Since Accenture Group opened the Philippines' first call center, the industry has exploded.

In the book, Padios shows how this "sunrise industry" simultaneously builds national pride and encourages "unpleasant feelings about the nation's future and colonial past", and she describes in detail how the fact that workplaces are spatially, temporally and socially isolated from the rest of society's rhythms , gives rise to deep distrust of the call center agents' way of life. Call center work is a relatively well-paid job in the Philippine context. It is possible as a newcomer to earn up to five times as much as a newly qualified nurse, and the salary can in the foreseeable future more than double. This makes call centers a realistic and attractive alternative to migration. But the cost and implications can be very similar. As Padios puts it, among other things: "Despite the economic promises, the cultural and economic value of call center work is anything but stable."

Mobility or dead end?

Although the BPO industry, according to Padios, has allowed the Philippine state to create “a counter-image of the country as a source of mental rather than bodily work,” call center work is as grueling and stigmatizing as it is coveted. It takes place at night and thus in a parallel world, it is closely linked to a flamboyant consumer culture, many go out and drink in the morning after a shift to digest the night's experiences with foolish and disgusting customers in the tube – while the supervisors listen. The youth culture of call centers is supposed to demand promiscuous sexual practices, and it is an open question whether the industry really fulfills the promises of social mobility or rather is a dead end for ambitious university-educated Filipinos. 

Padios describes how the call centers are part of a global and (post) colonial economy.

Padios describes in narrative language how call center agents interpret their work life and their life situation in general: the evaluation and control regimes they are subject to, the communities with colleagues they build, the purchasing power they achieve, the sociality they develop, the isolation they experience, the identity they create and are assigned. She also describes how the call centers are part of a global, racialized and (post) colonial economy, and how Americans perceive the Filipinos who "take their jobs". On the whole, she analyzes what the rise of the call center industry means for the way to relate between the former colony and the colonial master, how everything is under disarray and yet still the same. 

What about yourself?

One objection to Padio's writing style is that she is very much present in the text. This is partly due to the fact that her fieldwork included her own participation in Vox Elite's recruitment and training program. For the most part, her participatory method helps to make the book captivating, just as it contributes crucial details about life in a call center that could not have been developed in any other way. But sometimes it becomes revealing, both for her "research participants", as she calls her informants, and for herself. This is especially true of her description of how her Filipino colleagues relate, or do not relate, to her during training; how they (according to Padios) try to invest in what she with her affiliation with the United States represents. She could with advantage have turned down her own gaze on the other, just as it would have been useful with a thorough discussion of the extent to which her colleagues are aware that she is there as a researcher, and what that means for the relationship. . Nevertheless, gives A Nation on the Line a unique insight into an industry that embodies some of the most contradictory and captivating features of capitalism today. Full of promises, and full of gaps.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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