Call Centers, An Unlikely Refuge For Transgender Filipina Women

BPOs (business process outsourcing) companies are booming in the Philippines, and providing safe workplaces for transgender women to present themselves in their authentic gender identity.

Kate Cordova used to work in beauty pageants, but prefers her current call center job.
Lynzy Billing

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.

Promising signs

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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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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