MANILA — The Philippines is the undisputed call-center capital of the world. Home to the customer service operations of such multinational companies as IBM, eBay and Capital One, the industry employs half a million people in more than 400 centers across the country, and in 2016 contributed $25 billion to the national economy.
But the call-center business has also had another, perhaps unexpected effect: It has provided transgender women with a safe space to express their gender identities at work. Since the call-center boom kicked off in the mid-2000s, thousands of transgender agents have entered the industry, often because of the lack of job opportunities in their chosen fields.
Kate Montecarlo Cordova has been working in call centers for 13 years. Today she is a senior manager.
"The biggest issue that transgender women face is economic. We are like any other women or men, we have skill sets," she says. "But in the Philippines, many industries do not employ transgender women, so we end up working in a different industry from where our skills lie."
Outside these business process outsourcing (BPO) companies, as they are known in the Philippines, there are few opportunities for transgender Filipinas to present themselves in their authentic gender identity and escape discrimination.
"My friend is a doctor and yet no hospital will hire her because she is a transgender woman, so she'll have to find work elsewhere," Cordova says. "Skilled and educated women are affected financially, as they end up in jobs with a lower wage and not suited to their expertise."
The biggest issue that transgender women face is economic.
But call centers are different. Given the anonymous nature of the work, many transgender women can explore their gender presentation and identity in the workplace, wearing women's clothing and using women's names, a freedom that would be impossible in most other industries in the country.
"The ability to be an openly transgender woman in the workplace gives them confidence to be themselves outside, in their communities," Cordova says.
A steady paycheck
Before the arrival of call centers, most transgender women found work in the beauty and entertainment sectors. Cordova won the Miss Gay Philippines beauty pageant in 1995.
"In the '80s, there was no work for transgender women here outside the pageant industry," she says. "Beauty pageants, in particular, offered a way for transgender women to earn money and be recognized."
While these industries were a rare refuge for transgender women, they offered low wages compared to the 20,000 pesos ($370) a month available in call centers today — more than double the national minimum wage. Call centers also offer more stable and secure work in the form of full-time positions. Service work in entertainment, in contrast, tends to be part time, and workers usually have to rely on tips.
Amiel de Dois was able to support her family through call center work. Photo: TELUS International Philippines
Many call centers are run by U.S. companies, and so adopt American anti-discrimination policies, which are more robust than those in the Philippines. Some even provide domestic partner benefits that extend health coverage to the partners of LGBTIQ employees, regardless of gender identities.
But while call centers offer a relatively LGBTIQ-friendly environment, they often lack policies specific to the needs of transgender people. So employees have set up support groups within their workplaces to provide solidarity and support. At the Philippine headquarters of the Canadian company TELUS international, LGTBIQ employees set up a support group called Spectrum Philippines, which has nearly 500 members.
"If I wasn't working in a BPO company and no one accepted me, I wouldn't have been able to support my family," says Amiel de Dois, a member of Spectrum Philippines. But with her income from the call center, she was able to put her brothers through school.
"One of them is now a professional teacher, while the other one, hopefully, she becomes an accountant – I said 'she' because she's also transgender," she adds.
De Dois started out as a customer service agent at TELUS 10 years ago, and is now a senior operations manager.
"Here at TELUS, they look at you beyond your appearance [to] what you can contribute to the program or organization," she says. "And I guess that's one thing that they saw in me."
Short occupational ladders
While Cordova and De Dois have found career success, they represent only a small percentage of transgender women in positions of leadership. Emmanuel David of the University of Colorado Boulder has studied the call-center industry in the Philippines. He says that for the most part, employers overlook transgender women for promotions and career progression.
"Most of the transgender women I interviewed were in entry-level positions and experienced limited upward mobility," he says. "Very few of them progressed to supervisor or management positions."
Transgender women tend to be clustered in positions with shorter occupational ladders, David says, leading to stunted career growth.
Janeille Natividad, 30, has been working at a call center in Quezon City for the past four years, but she says she doesn't see a bright future for her career.
"I'm only in this industry because I can present myself as female," she says. "In other industries I would have to cut my hair and dress like a man. I cannot go into other work. I'm stuck in this industry."
And for some employees, something as simple going to the bathroom during a work day is a challenge. "Most call centers do not have a specific policy allowing transgender women to use the female restrooms, despite companies claiming to be LGBTIQ-inclusive," Cordova says.
I cannot go into other work. I'm stuck in this industry.
"It has nothing to do with your genitals," she adds. "It's about security and the psychological effect of barring transgender women from women's restrooms. Psychologically I'm a woman, so not being allowed to use a woman's restroom is a major struggle for me."
Unlike Cordova's employer, three of the biggest call center operators in the Philippines — IBM, TELUS International and Convergys — do have gender-neutral bathrooms in addition to male and female toilets.
There are currently no gender recognition laws in the Philippines that would allow transgender people to change their names or gender status on legal documents, even if they have reassignment surgery. This is something of a regional anomaly: other Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan recognize a third gender on specific government-issued documents, while China provides an administrative process to change gender markers on official identity documents.
But change might be on the horizon. On September 20, 2017, an anti-discrimination bill passed its third reading in the House of Representatives — after 17 years of failing in Congress. The bill would prohibit unfair discrimination against LGBTIQ people, and make it illegal for anyone to force a person to take a medical or psychological exam to assess their gender identity. The bill also proposes jail terms for those who violate its provisions.
Advocates take hope from another bill — one that will make the Philippines the last country in the world to legalize divorce — that passed the committee stage of the House of Representatives for the first time in March this year.
Cordova and Natividad stress the importance of policies being formulated outside the workplace that allow transgender people to change their name and gender on legal documents without being forced to undergo surgery. For some, that may mean a way out of the call center business.
"It would lead to more opportunities to work in different industries without discrimination," Natividad says. "Divorce wasn't allowed here, but now the law is passing in Congress, so maybe we will get gender recognition laws also."
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