• Workers are given Australian cultural training before taking calls at this Manila call centre. (SBS Dateline)
Who’s at the receiving end of Australian calls to Filipino call centres? Dateline dials in to a world of round-the-clock working in return for abuse and racism, but also the reward of being part of a Philippines’ success story.
Tuesday, August 9, 2016 - 21:30

Moving call centre work to Asia from countries like Australia has long been controversial, but around a million Filipinos rely on it.

It’s a thriving industry, where jobs are highly sought after. Salaries are relatively low, but many wouldn’t be able to support themselves otherwise.

“It’s like you’re getting to an office in Manila – once you put the headsets on, everybody is in Australia,” 20-year-old Alex Magno tells Kathy Novak on Dateline.

He dropped out of university to work there and support his family.

On the wall behind him, there are pictures of a koala and kangaroo. For those speaking to the US, it’s Mickey Mouse ears. For the UK, it’s Stonehenge. And they all receive cultural training.

But Dateline hears some of the abusive calls – even death threats – that the operators have to put up with.

“They immediately ask for someone located in Australia to help them out,” another worker Dennis says.

“They tell me: you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re a monkey, we’re just feeding you peanuts to get work.”

The Philippines has become so successful in the business, it’s overtaken India as the world’s largest call centre hub. The industry is worth $300 billion worldwide each year.

But being available for different timezones 24 hours a day comes at a high cost for the workers.

Anna May works constant night shifts and is the sole income provider for her entire family.

“I got into this almost by accident and ended up enjoying the work,” she tells Kathy.

When she starts work, she drops off daughter April at the 24 hour crèche. Then has to wake her at 4am when it’s time to go home.

“The weekends, you’re not able to devote it fully to your family because you take up half the day of Saturday catching up on sleep,” she says.

There are even sleeping quarters – some workers bunk there for several days at a time, only returning to their families on their days off.

Will it make you think different next time you call? The Secret Lives of Call Centre Workers video is temporarily unavailable - please come back later to watch the story.

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It’s mid-afternoon on a Monday. A mother and daughter are getting ready for the day.  

ANNA MAY, CALL CENTRE WORKER: Time to brush your hair. What are you going to do today at the childcare?

APRIL: I’m bringing strawberry shortcake

ANNA MAY:  “OK Perfect. Let’s go”

Anna May and April are heading off to tackle the one hour commute in Manila’s endless peak hour traffic.  

She is one of the million Filipinos employed at call-centres – the person who answers the call when we ring “help” numbers. She is the sole income provider for her entire family. She juggles a demanding job with raising two kids; her youngest is six-year-old April.

ANNA MAY:  I got into this almost by accident and ended up enjoying the work

She’s a team leader at one of the largest call centre operators in the world. She works a permanent graveyard shift. That means dropping her daughter off at the 24-hour crèche at odd hours …along with dozens of other parents.

ANNA MAY:  I have April with me here so 3 times a week…And she just ends up staying until I’m done with my shift

ALEX MAGNO, CALL CENTRE WORKER: Hi Welcome to mobile phone support your speaking to Alex, how can I help you for today?

20 year old Alex Magno dropped out of university to take up a job here to support his family. Today, He's working in the Australian section of this call centre. Alex and his colleagues go to great lengths to better relate to you, in whatever corner of the world you happen to live. The Mickey Mouse ears for the USA...  Stonehenge for the Brits…

REPORTER: Looks familiar?

PAUL, CALL CENTRE SUPERVISOR: for them to come in the morning and they see a kangaroo for example or a koala or the harbour bridge it just reminds them where they, these are the customers you’re speaking to.

ALEX: It’s like you’re getting into an office in Manila once you put the headsets on everybody is in Australia.

TEACHER: In the Philippines we call it the republic of the Philippines and Australia is - the land down under.

As part of their job, they get culture training… staff learn the basics about the place they’re calling.

TEACHER: Australia is 25 times larger than the Philippines, imagine that.

ALEX: Oh thanks you that’s no problem at all, that’s really beautiful.

I spend time with Alex listening to him on the line to callers, learning how he handles different situations. He seems to take culture lessons a little further than most…

ALEX: I love talking to older Australian women. I’m telling you that. I would call them, I would say alright love. What seems to be going on with your internet? Okay then I’ll ask for your name. What’s your name? It’s Samantha. Oh I would say, Samantha! What a beautiful name. Oh thank-you! You’re such a charmer.

Alex, and others like him, are the Philippines’ secret weapon in the call-centre war. They’re highly educated; speak excellent English but demand relatively low salaries. The country’s so successful in the business – The Philippines has overtaken India as the world’s largest call centre hub. But despite all the training customers often know these guys aren’t just down the road. And they don’t like it.  

DENNIS, CALL CENTRE WORKER: They immediately asked for someone located in Australia to help them out because they tell me you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re a monkey we’re just feeding you peanuts to get work

It can’t be easy to be on the receiving end every day. These callers aren't to this business but they are real calls from irate customers.

DENNIS: We call it SSDD – same shit different day. He told me he was a bounty hunter and he was going to Manilla to kill me. I can’t forget that.

ANNA MAY: I actually trained a class where one trainee on her first day of taking calls she just stopped went to the bathroom and just started throwing up.

Alex deals with the rudeness - using humour.

ALEX: sometimes I would say “are you having a hard time understanding my English because I can speak a little bit slower for you or clearer if you want American or Australia I can even speak Indian.

Tonight they’re breaking up the tedium of their graveyard shift with this. The costumes are in honour of the catholic Filipino celebration - the "Flowers of May" festival.

ANNA MAY: It’s always great when they’re able to bring the stuff that they usually do outside but are not able to do because of the shifts we work and when you bring that inside it just brings people closer and makes you feel more connected.

More connected and more normal. The gruelling graveyard shifts make life pretty anti-social.  They spice up their days even further, by making team ‘call centre’ videos …this version even made them a minor hit on Youtube… But no matter the music videos, festivals or competitions – you can’t escape the daily grind of this kind of work. Some bunk here for several days at a time only returning home to their families on their days off.

ANNA MAY: My kids like to spend time with me but sometimes in the morning when they’re awake I’m asleep.  That’s the other downside.

Anna May is on overnights permanently – she finishes around 4am.

ANNA MAY: Like the weekends you’re not able to devote it fully to your family because you kind of take up like half day of Saturday just catching up on sleep or rest

CHILD IN CRÈCHE: I want to go home. I want to go home because I want to go to sleep.
ANNA MAY: Sometimes I pass by when it’s 11 and they’re still up and I wonder hmm I wonder what time they’re going to send these kids to sleep.

It’s now nearly 1am.  The kids are only just trying to get to sleep

APRIL’S FRIEND: Stop crying now. You sleep. Mommy will come back.

When I hung out with Alex on the phone, he always put on a happy face. But a couple of times, just briefly, I got a glimpse of his true feelings about his career on the end of a phone line.

ALEX: When you come to think of it, you get to ask yourself do you want to die as a call centre agent? Sometimes I think that I’m stuck in my position. Especially when I can see my classmates in college, I’m left out. Once you go back to college you’re going to be the old man sitting at the back, the old boy sitting at the back and everyone is wondering what is he doing here?

ANNA MAY: I wouldn’t mind them working at a call centre if it makes them happy. A lot of people think that call centre work is either low skilled work or it’s not the right.. You know I don’t send my kids to college so they can become glorified telephone operators. But I dare those people to come in and see the people who actually work the phones.     

It’s now 4am.  April is finally sound asleep. Just in time for Anna May to wake her up, to head home at the end of her shift.

ANNA MAY: The first couple of times it was a little bit difficult but she’s gotten used to it.

Filipinos have this kind of ‘get on with it’ attitude… You know, sure we’ll work through the middle of the night and we’ll do it as people are being rude to us and we’ll still do it with a smile and we’ll still be grateful for the jobs that we have. It’s relentless, around the clock, day after day, just to be there for us on the receiving end.

Kathy Novak

Meggie Palmer
Catherine Scott

Meggie Palmer

Paolo Dolina

Ryan Walsh

9th August 2016