One of the more dubious effects of globalization in the Philippines is the explosive growth of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) economy, specifically the development of the call center industry in the last decade. It's a sector that the Filipino government, looking to attract more foreign investment, has been promoting as a "Sunshine Industry" and dropped millions of dollars for job-training programs. They predict that more than a million people will be working as customer-service representatives by 2010. Aside from advertising the obvious lower operating costs, the government also touts a large pool of highly educated, English-speaking workers who already possess deep cultural ties with America.
It's hard to deny the need for for any kind of employment during these recessionary times: Any job is better than no job. But setting aside the problematic and disproportionate nature of depending on capital from large multinational corporations to prop-up the local economy, working as a call agent sucks donkey balls. As anyone who has who has heard the tales of ex-employees (Or read User Friendly) knows, call work is a thankless job where (preferably) tech-savvy individuals have to deal with the whining end of customer relations. All the while everything they do, from the length of their bathroom breaks to the time spent on each call, is being carefully monitored by management. Filipinos also have to re-adjust their sleeping habits in order to accommodate to the schedules of foreign customers. They're only allowed to speak in English while on company grounds. And they're often on the receiving end of customer aggression when any hint of an accent is detected.
Hazel Manzano worked as a call agent for several years before being promoted up the chain to middle management. She started a humor strip about working in a call center, which are archived online. But her latest cartoons now appear in the Sunday comics section of a national newspaper. Callwork, A Call Center Life collects the earliest of these strips in TPB format. While not autobiographical, they offer an insider's take on what's it like to work for a call center. So there's a lot of dirt dished-out: Illicit affairs, employee theft, personal hygiene issues, nighttime ghost sightings, bad eating habits, sleeping on the job, high absenteeism, high attrition rates, job hopping etc.
Some of the criticisms leveled against the work-humor strip Dilbert could also be directed at Callwork. On the surface it shows empathy for its characters and how their layabout ways undermine the corporate philosophy of impersonal efficiency. There's something deeply capricious about a company that times employees when they leave their desks and arbitrarily enforces English on the work floor. But Callwork doesn't go after the BPOs themselves. The employees might occasionally rail against their immediate supervisors, but they ultimately bow to the corporate hierarchy. There is more than one way to look at this: Either Manzano is simply standing firm with her on-the-floor perspective, or any potential critique is being gutted out by insider loyalty. I'd like to believe that there are employees out there with a more critical perspective than Manzano's.
Callwork's ensemble cast is sketchily drawn, both literally and figuratively. There are a few circumstantial differences: One sleeps with her boss; Another vainly hopes to get promoted; Another frets about money. Overall they're not very distinct. They all possess preternatural quantities of geniality, which I suppose is really necessary for this line of work. The only character that stands out is a sarcastic call agent named Clover, who is also unfortunately wedded to the flaming queen stereotype. I get more than enough of that reading certain kinds of manga. As I haven't read her later work, I can't comment on whether her characters develop more clearly defined personalities. For the most part the humor found in this volume is affable but forgettable, and hardly to cause offense to Manzano's employers.