How Can I help you? - The faceless life behind call centres.

José Sarmento Matos



"How Can I Help you?" is about call centres and the daily life of their employees, focused on the two biggest markets in this industry, India and the Philippines. Together they employ two million people. who are calling and taking calls to and from such faraway places as the USA, the UK and Australia. With this project I want to reveal the lives of this faceless people with whom we may talk on a daily basis.

India joined this industry in the mids 90´s and quickly became the leader. There, the average agent earns as little as 100 to 500 USD/ month, even though most of them are highly qualified with engineering and business degrees. The lack of job opportunities in other businesses in the country are the main reasons why so many people work in call centres.

The Philippines overtook India in 2011, becoming the leader in this industry. Workers get paid slightly more, from 200 to 1000 USD/ month. A call centre agent in Manila might get payed twice than a nurse working in a Hospital, for instance.

Overall, these workers value their job significantly. It is paying their living, specially when it is so difficult to find a full time job in both countries. However there is a question mark about the future of this industry and its employment. The developing of technology (workers might be replaced by robots) and the fact these companies need to find cheaper outsourcing work, so they keep moving from country to country.

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  • “Paradigm A and Paradigm B”. The view of two call centre buildings in Malad, the biggest hub from Mumbai where even more call centres are being built. Companies like Vodafone, JP Morgan, Concentrix and other big corporations have offices in this area. Although the call centre industry keeps growing in India, it was overtaken by the Philippines in 2011, replacing them as a new leader in the field. Mumbai, India. 21st March 2016.

  • Call centre agents working on emails. They are working for a North American account, Uber´s competition. As they are only helping customers through emails these agents don´t need to work at night and they can have a normal work schedule. Makati, Manila, Philippines. 14th April, 2016.

  • Ian, 33 years old, is about to go to sleep at 10 o´clock in the morning, 10 pm in the USA. He works in a call center from his home. Ian got his first job as a call center agent 12 years ago, and he has been teleworking for the past 2 years. “When I started working in this industry it was difficult for me, it was all a new thing, our families are very traditionalist, and they were suspicious why I was working during the night. You might have a shitty job or something wrong!, they were saying. It took some years for this to be considered as a good job.” He considers that call centers are “economically speaking, a big player and help our economy to grow and to increase people´s purchasing power.” On the other hand, he wonders about the future, once young people are quitting their University studies and even their accomplished degrees to make easy, quick and more money in this industry: “We see nurses, doctors and engineers working in this business because of the higher wage.” Manila, Philippines. 27th April, 2016.

  • Young Indian agents in a training room listening to their recordings in order to improve their call quality. They are working on domestic calls. Many agents in India, before they start calling the USA or the UK, would already have experience working for the indian costumers. Most of the people I saw working in this industry were aged between 18 and 35. They were mainly students or recent graduates who could not find another job. There were also people in their 40´s, both in India and the Philippines, who started working in this field since it started around 20 years ago. Some of these agents have developed a career in the industry, progressing to higher ranks such as supervisors, trainers, team leaders or managers. Thane, Mumbai, India. 25th February 2016.

  • Christine, 34 years old, is drying her hair with a fan before going out with her friends on a Saturday night. Working at night in a call centre from Monday to Friday causes her to remain awake at night during weekends too. She has been working in this business for the past 11 years. Although she has a University degree in Management and Business, she started her call centre career one month earlier finishing her studies. She already worked for 7 different companies in the industry. When she joined she earned 250 USD and her wage had climbed in stages to around 700 USD in April 2016. San Andrés Bukit, Manila. Philippines, 16th April 2016.

  • Call centre workers having dinner around 1 in the morning during their break. They started their shift at 9 pm and finished working at 6 o’clock in the morning. As they work for the USA on a daily basis, their working schedule follows American time. Pune, India. 5th May 2016.

  • Bessie, (Rachel) 32 years old, is selling health insurance to the USA consumers. Bessie is a transgender. “I have been using the name Rachel at work. I think it is a strong woman´s name.” The Philippines has a large a number of transgenders and they find difficulty in seeking a job. By the most part they either join the sex or the call centre industries. “Transgenders have more opportunities in call centres because we don´t really have to face our customers in person. We can have a different “persona” / image on the phone. We can be who we would like to be in real life,” said Bessy. Ortigas, Manila, Philippines. 25th April, 2016.

  • Rajender, 42 years old, at home watching cricket with his daughter while his wife cooks. Rajender started his career in a call center in 1999 and is now about to become a supervisor. “When I started in this business no one was aware of what this job was. For me internet and technology it was all a new thing. Once we start working in this business we have trainings on how to speak to the costumer, how to make the American accent. We have to develop a very fake accent to convince the client that they are speaking to someone in the USA.” Navi Mumbai, India. 13th March 2016.

  • One of the working rooms of Altius, a call center company based in Navi Mumbai, calling during the day Indian and Middle East based costumers. During the night they call and answer calls from the USA and the UK. Navi Mumbai, India. 8th March 2016.

  • Bessie, (Rachel), 32 years old, at her house, she is getting ready to go to work and take care of her niece. She is a transgender who started working in a call centre in 2009. Unlike other businesses in the Philippines, call centres do not discriminate transgenders. Bessie quit studying to work and to pay her sisters’ studies and for a while she was the only one from the family who was bringing money home. After some time her sister fell pregnant, so now Bessie works nights shifts calling North American customers and takes care of her niece while her sister works during the day.
    Philippines is one of the countries with more transgenders in the world and many end up following a career within call centres, some becoming team leaders and supervisors. “I started the transition when I joined this industry. I felt like I was accepted as I am so then I could change,” she said. Cavite, Manila, Philippines. 25th April, 2016

  • Michelle, 34 years old, and Ian, 33 years old, teleworking (working from home) while their daughters are having breakfast. They work for the same call centre though they have different shifts. This is the only time during the week they meet each other. Ian works at night and sleeps during the day and Michelle does the other way around. They have a tough lifestyle as they don´t see each other much, but on the other hand they can take care and spend more time with their kids. Also they save more money and time. “The money I can get from home is pretty much the same I could get in an office, however I am saving time. I am not wasting my time in traffic,” said Michellle. Ian is a Manager and Michelle is a Quality Assurance Specialist. Together they were making (in April 2016) 1800 USD, which is well above average for a family from the Philippines. When asked about his daughters´ future Ian said, “I would be ok if they work in a call centre but I would prefer them to work as a lawyer or a doctor. There are bigger opportunities for their future.” Manila, Philippines. 27th April 2016.

  • Three call centre workers enjoying their lunch break in a domestic call centre in Thane. As a result of the fact that the Philippines had overtaken India in 2011, more indian companies are focusing their business locally, calling indian customers instead of those in the USA or UK. Mumbai. India. 25th February 2016.

  • A call centre agent working for an Indian account at day time in Thane, a city on Mumbai´s suburbs. Call centre agents earn an average of 200 USD a month when working on domestic accounts. However an agent can earn twice as more when making international calls. Thane, Mumbai, India. 23rd February 2016.

  • Christine, 34 years old, fell asleep on her sofa after returning home from her night shift. With the time difference Christine gets confused about what day it is in the calendar. “We basically follow US time. Even the calendar. If it´s the 24th here, in the USA it´s still the 23rd and I feel like I am still on the 23rd in the Philippines,” she said. Christine was preparing to quit her job: “I am tired. I want to quit. 11 years working in this industry is too much. I want to quit and not do the same thing ever again.” She plans to travel with the money she saved and go abroad, to Cambodia or Vietnam. San Andrés Bukit, Manila, Philippines. 13th April 2016.