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PHILIPPINES: Call Centre Boom Breeds New Culture – and Risky Behaviour

MANILA, Oct 1 2010 (IPS) - Anthony, a 22-year-old call centre agent, goes to work at 6 p.m. and finishes at around 2 a.m. But instead of going home, he heads to a bar to meet another male agent over beer, and if the late night looks promising, they spend more time together until daytime.

“The rest of the day is a struggle to sleep,” Anthony said in an interview. The young man’s typical day consists of work, chill time with his buddy, often having sex with that same buddy, and then forgetting what happened during the night to try to sleep when the sun is up.

Since the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry created a growing number of call centres in the Philippines – its BPO industry is second to the world’s largest, India – professionals like Anthony and his friend found their niche in the world of work.

Here, they can be comfortable being gay. They can come to work in jeans, sneakers and hoodies, and can grow or colour their hair without being reminded of office rules. “You can be who you are,” said Anthony. When asked why having sexual relations seem casual among his colleagues, he said it might be because of the unconventional work hours and the comfort that the workplace offers.

“It’s just us seeing each other during odd hours every single day, and because nobody seems to be looking, we can do things we don’t normally do outside,” he said. The non- judgmental atmosphere creates an accepting environment for homosexual males like him.

In other words, a new social phenomenon is taking shape around the lifestyle of Anthony and nearly half a million young people like him working in call centres in this South- east Asian country of 94 million people. Their unusual hours stem from the fact that centres provide services – including customer and technical support – to banks, telecommunication and Internet companies – during work hours in places like the United States.

This environment has come about not only because of the promise of employment and income – studies say call centres provided 70,000 new jobs in 2009 and 2010 in this country where 33 percent of citizens are poor. It is also due to the accepted permissiveness among workers that is perceived as risky sexual behaviour, several studies say.

The high prevalence of risky behaviour might put the youthful workforce in call centres at risk of sexually transmitted infections (STI) and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), two studies say. A third study found 12 of its respondents testing positive for HIV.

One of these studies into risk behaviour, conducted by the Ateneo de Manila University among 650 respondents aged 15 to 29, from 20 call centres in Metro Manila, showed that casual, unprotected sex is quite widespread among both males and females.

More males had multiple sex partners – nine out of 10 males and seven of 10 females had sex, but in the sexual encounters, 73 percent of males and 80 percent of females did not use protection such as condoms. Among the men who have sex with men younger than 20, all said that they did not use condoms, and 70 percent reported having four or more partners in the past 12 months.

Dr Isabel Melgar, head of the Ateneo university’s psychology department, said that “sex under the influence of alcohol” is rampant in the call centre industry, and that since sexual contact, often with different partners and at one-time encounters is accepted, dating is no longer the norm. “We also saw changes in socialisation, gender identity, and sexual attraction,” she said.

The mobile phone is the most common mode for meeting up, while personal interactions have been minimised due to social networking, email and chatting on the Internet. The Internet is also the major source of information about STI and HIV among males, as against magazines for females.

Although awareness of STI and HIV is relatively high, the young workers do not seem mindful of the risks of their sexual behaviour even if, as one respondent said, “sex sometimes occurs during the 15-minute or one-hour break”.

Melgar said “there is a fear factor attached to STI and HIV, and they don’t want to talk about it,” especially because call centres and HIV infection are already in the news. One male respondent admitted, “I’m embarrassed to say I’m a call centre worker because people think I have AIDS.”

But “to consider the call centres a hotbed of HIV infections is stigmatising and totally wrong” points out Melgar.

Prior to the Ateneo study, the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and the UP- Philippine General Hospital (PGH) released findings of their studies on young professionals’ vulnerability to STI and HIV.

Conducted from November 2009 to January 2010, the UP-PGH study interviewed 406 young male respondents and conducted free rapid HIV tests; 130 of the total respondents were call centre agents. The study found 48 HIV-positive respondents, 26 of whom worked in call centres.

The UPPI study on sexual risk behaviour among young workers in call centres and other industries found that call centre workers reported having more sexual encounters than those in other industries, and that more males than females practise unsafe behaviour.

Regardless of industry, the risky behaviour was high, but levels were slightly higher among call centre agents in unprotected, casual, paid sex, and sex with multiple partners.

These point to the fact that “there is a need to embed HIV prevention in a total health package for call centre agents, and this needs the cooperation of managers and owners”, Melgar pointed out.

She said a young person’s sexual behaviour is strongly influenced by the immediate environment, and values from one’s family and any sexuality education learned from school, even in this mainly Catholic country, can only do so much.

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