Frederick Charles William “Chuck” Hipol III was the last person one would expect to have been a call center agent — especially during the height of the “call cenner” stigma when he joined six years ago. The possibility was so odd that when he told me he used to be an agent, I was shocked — and then I forgot.
Chuck was many things. He was a UP Film graduate and an advertising copywriter who called his office his playground. He loved telling stories through images and sound. He had sung with the Philippine Madrigal Singers and likened it to divine exultation. He was the charismatic theater actor who unassumingly auditioned for the ensemble and got cast as the lead.
“De La Salle Zobel, darling,” he drawled like honey when asked where he studied before college. He was a yogi who faithfully maintained the tone and chisel of his physique. He could also tell by the finish of your makeup if you were wearing MAC.
Chuck shifted from Statistics to Film during his senior year, only to have his thesis trashed four years later. After eight years in university and at the age of 25, he was still an undergrad with nothing accomplished and nowhere to go. “I told myself, ‘I’m depressed. I wasn’t good enough for my professor. I didn’t graduate again, yet again.’”
With three units left, six months in between, no degree to pursue his advertising dreams, and desperate to feel like he was up to something — anything — Chuck decided to apply at an American bank that sited its fraud, Collections, and automotive processes in Makati and The Fort. At entry level applicant with no previous experience, Chuck received a salary of P21,000 — net, with the opportunity to qualify for monthly bonuses of up to P9,000.
“When I got down from the building, I was crying, because I felt like I was something. I was finally in the corporate world, kahit call center lang. And I thought, call center nga lang, but I can earn P30,000 plus a month.”
Chuck was assigned to the Collections Department. His job was to call Americans who were falling behind on their credit cards and arrange payments over the phone. He gladly narrated a typical phone call.
“Hello, may I kindly speak to Ms. Cate de Leon.”
“Yes, this is she.”
“Hi, Ms. Cate de Leon. This is Richard Hill from ____ Card Services, and I’d like to talk to you about your ___ card. You’re a little behind, and we’d like to set up a payment procedure for you today, so you can pay over the phone.”
“F*ck you! It’s a f*cking Sunday! I just woke up!”
Some 50 to 80 percent of the calls made by Collections end with profanity and dropped calls. No one likes to pay their debts. Needless to say, this wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. It probably helped that Chuck was equally, if not more feisty than, his clients. “Magbayad ka ng p*tang inang credit card mo! I’m sure you were happy charging, pero ngayong kailangan mong magbayad, bibiche-bitchesa ka!” Of course this was merely the attitude behind the intention. On the line, he was always very personable.
“I really don’t have money right now.”
“What if I tell you this, Ms. Cate de Leon. If we set up a payment in the next two weeks, we could work out a discount.”
The amount of money each agent collected was summed and tallied for the entire department to see. Every month, the top 30 got a bonus of P9,000 pesos. The next 30 got P7,000, and still the next 30 got P5,000 — all net.
New employees weren’t entitled to bonuses during their first month, so Chuck used this time to play with the system. They had a database filled with manuals and strategies to get customers to pay up, and he read them from A to Z. He quickly became the reference guy for his co-workers whenever there was something they didn’t quite understand. There were calls that he merely experimented with. At the end of the first month, despite not being entitled to extra money, Chuck was in the top 15. Every month after that, he always brought home the prized P9,000. He considered himself an underachiever for being where he was, but he was an underachiever earning P30,000 per month.
Whenever his friends asked how he was doing, he proudly answered, “Oh, I’m working for a bank.”
“Basta bank and I earn money!”
He laughs about it now. “Hindi nila alam, call center ng isang bank.”
A bulk of the people who apply at call centers are nurses waiting for their visas, housewives who want to earn outside of their children’s school hours, and returning OFWs who can’t find jobs. Knowing this, Chuck, with his relatively glittering background (and admittedly inflated ego) fully expected to stand out. “When I got in ang feeling ko, ‘tumabi kayong lahat diyan kasi sasamsamin ko lahat ng pera dito! Kung pera lang ang usapan, akin ‘to!” But upon arriving at the actual scene, he encountered people of all shapes and sizes — a lot of them from UP.
“There was a Communications graduate from UST; a graduate from UP Manila who took up Developmental Organization. There was a housewife. There were a lot of call center agents who transferred companies because they heard this one paid well. The oldest in our wave was Wendell, 36. His goal was to eventually become a site manager. Basically, he treated the call center like any corporate ladder. He was determined not to remain an agent.”
Chuck even found a “fellow brat” named Liz, a Marketing graduate from La Salle. Together they turned the task of collecting money into a game, dressed to kill in show-stopping corporate attire, and enjoyed walking through the rows of cubicles to show off their Zara. “Rumarampa kami ni Liz kasi best-dressedkami.” Meanwhile they laughed about the fact that none of their clients could actually see them. Their job entailed pressing a button and talking to faceless voices. “Diyos ko, malaking pagpapanggap ito!”
‘Why are you here?’
As the satisfaction from being occupied and well paid began to wear off, Chuck started to earnestly ask a number of his co-workers, “Why are you here?” especially the young ones armed with Latin honors degrees and very marketable diplomas. They each gave different reasons. Some of them still didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives. Some needed to support their families. Some had grown comfortable with the income and their studied fields couldn’t offer them as much.
Their department manager, who was in charge of the entire floor of collectors, was a Geography major from UP. When asked if he ever wanted to leave, he answered, “Chuck, I’m earning so much here. When I look at my batch mates, wala silang pera. I can go wherever I want, anytime I want.”
A Statistics graduate, who could have been making the same amount of money applying what she learned, loved the fact that she worked for strictly eight hours a day. Come 6 a.m., she clocked out and didn’t need to think about work until 8 p.m. later that day. She didn’t lie in bed worrying about projects and complications. Her time away from those eight hours were fully and completely hers.
The call center is a pit stop for most of those who walk though its doors. Many start with the intention to leave eventually, waiting for their visas or taking up law on the side. And there are some who stay, like Wendell who recognized the opportunity and was dedicatedly climbing the ladder. Chuck left after four months, satisfied with what he had experienced, and set out once again to bag his degree.
“I loved those four months. It was an adventure. And it humbled me because I got to see call center employees as people who, just like everyone else, had jobs. And their job is a job. It pays the rent. It puts food on the table. It brings your children to school. And I really worked hard ah. Trabaho talaga. If you did well, you were rewarded, just like any other job.”
He also saw that call center agents weren’t the “walang choice” bunch he had previously believed them to be. “Looking back, I realized that they could choose, and they chose that.” Some people slave away at their jobs despite the long hours and the low salaries. They stay knowing what will be written on their paychecks at the end of the month, while their friends start to buy cars, condominiums, and insurance. In the same way, call center people know their cards. While the reputation for their industry has more or less normalized, they know that every now and then they might still hear condescending comments (whether in real life or in soap operas). And they choose to play however they choose to play. Different people have different priorities, and it is only by illusion that one is more important than the other.
“It’s easy for people to judge,” Chuck says in conclusion. “Go there.”
* * *
Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (15 November 2014)