The everyday racism of offshore call centers

As a Filipino call center worker, I experienced racism in nearly every shift.

I used to be a call center agent in the Philippines, until daily racism from U.S. customers pushed me out. For four years, I worked in five call centers in Iloilo City, taking calls for banks, internet service providers, insurance, and telecommunications companies. My parents had not been able to finish high school and dreamed that I, the first in our family to have a university degree, would get a corporate office job. But because we lived next to a call center, I decided to give it a shot.

BPO, or business process outsourcing, is a booming industry in the Philippines. Since the early 1980s, firms in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe have saved on costs by subcontracting parts of their operations to third-party companies.

Around 1.3 million Filipinos work as call center agents, making BPO one of the leading drivers of the Philippine economy. Manila, the country’s capital, is ranked as one of the top 10 outsourcing destinations. It’s also lucrative for workers: the sector lures talented young people with better pay and more robust benefits than most local workplaces. Entry-level call center agents often receive salaries that are double the norm — $400–$600, as opposed to $200–$300, a month — in addition to health insurance and performance bonuses.

Still, those benefits aren’t always worth it. As anti-Asian discrimination has increased in the United States, I am reminded of the overt racism I endured from American customers during my four years working in a call center. Racism can be transmitted over the phone, and the effects of it linger even after we leave the production floor.

The topic of race first came up in my training in 2014, when I found myself sitting in a conference room beside 20 new hires. Our trainer had fair skin and bottle-blond hair.

“We need to make an impression that they are talking to American agents. Otherwise, we would not be trusted,” she said in a flawless American accent. An English-only policy was to be strictly observed the moment we stepped inside the building, especially on the production floor.

Before I could start taking calls, I had to complete a training course that included segments on accent neutralization, English grammar, common American idioms and expressions, and U.S. holidays, current events, and TV shows. Anything distinctly Filipino was replaced with its American equivalent. For me, this included my name. I was “Neal” on the phone.

At the end of the course, we were put on mock calls, in which the trainer pretended to be slow, rude, and irate. We were tested on how well we spoke, how effectively we built rapport with the customer, and how quickly we resolved the concern. But this didn’t prepare me for the bigger issue I would face on the job.

“Please transfer me to an onshore agent. I don’t want to talk to Filipinos or Indians or anyone in Asia,” customers would demand. “Do you even speak English?” others would ask. Sometimes, callers would act as if they couldn’t understand me; other times they would ask for my location, a question I would answer with linguistic gymnastics: “We are located in one of the global contact centers. Our headquarters are located in California.”

This happened nearly every shift. If I didn’t follow the scripts we were provided, I could lose my job.

I did my best to resolve each customer’s issue without transferring them to an onshore agent in Texas or Florida. If I did, that would count against my productivity quotas, which determined whether I would receive additional compensation.

Though onshore and offshore agents had access to the same tools and systems as we did, we did not enjoy the same policies. Onshore agents mostly worked regular office hours, while offshore agents were given the graveyard shift. Onshore agents received $2,500 monthly, while offshore agents were paid a quarter of that. Onshore agents could disclose their location.

The only opportunity we had to vent was during our 15-minute break. Outside, in the smoking area, we could escape the chill of the air conditioning and speak in our own language.

We complained about how toxic the calls were and how our queues were so long that we could never pause between them. We would share the responses we wished we could give: “I want to speak to a non-racist caller. Is there anyone like that there?”

At the end of these breaks, we would laugh at ourselves, return to our desks, and respond to the next call with a perky tone and an ear-to-ear smile: “How can I help you today?”

During my four years in the industry, I could not count the number of new call center employees who broke down when they were called names and shouted at by Westerners on the phone. Veterans consoled them by telling them to pull themselves together, to not take it personally. The queue was too long; there was no time for drama. Some stuck around and grew immune to verbal abuse over time. Others just quit before their second shift.

Colloquially, call center agents are called bagong bayaning puyat, which translates to “tired modern Filipino heroes.” We are also called zombies because of our hours. I would leave the house for work just as my family was getting ready to go to bed. When my shift ended, I’d walk outside and be blinded by the sun. Then, I would go home to sleep, only to wake up, bathe, and return to the call center. My life revolved around sleeping and working.

One day, I told my team leader about a tough call. A caller wanted to contest extra charges in his cable TV account. I looked into it and found that he had been watching porn videos from a premium channel without a subscription. After explaining this to him, he lost his temper and accused me of lying. Then, he accused Asians of stealing jobs from Americans. He told me that American companies lowered their standards by employing “stupid, stinky Asians” and added that he could smell one from where he was standing. I dropped the call.

“It’s part of the job,” our team leader responded. She told me I was being overly sensitive. “You should be thankful to have a job.”

What could I do about it? There was no complaint desk. What choice did I have but to leave? I gave my notice, left, and never looked back. I had had enough of the daily racism.

Now, I work at an international nongovernmental organization. My job includes engaging with U.S.-based staff. Sometimes, when they give me a call or send me an email, it takes me a moment to respond. I’ll pause and ask, “Are you sure you want to talk to me?” Then I’ll remember I no longer work at a call center.