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A Nation on the Line (Review)

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Jan M. Padios. 2018.
A Nation on the Line: Call Centers as Postcolonial Predicaments in the Philippines
London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press
ISBN 9780822370598

A Solution That is Also a Problem
A Nation on the Line investigates a well-known phenomenon in and outside the Philippines. Less known, however, is how call centers operate in contradictory ways, thus giving readers an immersive and instructive analysis.

The Philippines’ brand as a destination for business process outsourcing companies is ‘care and compassion’ (p. 186). Indeed, call center agents have to endure rude customers, arbitrary contract termination, or being treated as dumb. Jan Padios’s interviews with call center agents suggest low-paying clients provide job security that a high-paying customer could not. A Nation on the Line argues how precarious this job touted as a solution to the long line of unemployed Filipinos. One will not fail to note that a call center building is a highly securitized environment. It is a privilege denied to call center agents whose term of employment deters them from being unionized.

Padios revisits the colonial history between the Philippines and the United States from which majority of the call center’s customers make their calls. Under a postcolonial context, the US–Philippine relation is both a blessing and a curse. Call center agents have to Americanize their accents to maintain their credibility to clients. Cursing is the response of a disgruntled American client upon detection of an accent. One senses that the postcolonial Philippines completes the process of Americanization courtesy of the Filipino call center agents.

Padios also puts America on the line because call centers were part of its service economy since the 1980s. Also known as corporate service outsourcing, it had a particularly ‘loathsome place in the American imagination’ (p. 16). Those at the end of the line have taken over their jobs. Corporate service outsourcing was a stabilizer of America’s destabilized economy in the 1990s. It paid a fraction to their Filipino counterparts who regarded it as already a fortune.

Reconciling Contradictions
Call centers might demonstrate the ‘unequal structure’ of global customer service, but not how a postcolonial country like the Philippines can carry such a burden. Padios devotes much effort in arguing the case of a poor country struggling against America’s economic and political dominance. This kind of framing backslides to the all too familiar accounts of oppression and exploitation. Padios, however, realizes that to see call center agents as simply exploited was ‘an obstacle to my research and analysis’ (p. 25). Her attempt to frame her research subjects on race, class, and gender lines, to informed readers, are concepts designed to expose exploitation along these lines. Hailed for being critical, such readers only produce suffering and subordinated subjects.

A Nation on the Line attempts to present its subjects not as victims but as agents in a situation that profits from belittling them. Padios notes the seeming indifference of trainees to American culture during an orientation for new recruits. Some of them have ‘emphatically’ told a trainer that to imagine America as a wealthy nation becomes irrelevant among Filipinos who now have that source of that wealth – American jobs.

Padios’s postcolonial perspective reads such kind of actuation of her informants as an instance of resistance and a ‘decolonizing position’ (p. 111). She would also emphatically conclude that postcolonial or postindustrial workers like the Filipino call center agents are no ‘supplicants to global capital’ (p. 183). This observation is her attempt to dispute the perception of industry leaders that Filipinos are happy to take any jobs because they need to support their families. A Nation on the Line would have wanted them to see the inequality among workers employed by global capital. This is a perplexing expectation given that industry leaders are not in the business of solving inequality.

Nevertheless, one understands why Padios has that expectation because A Nation on the Line is concerned about such inequality, which seems lost among her informants. To this, Padios expresses anxiety: call center workers have adopted the corporate culture of individualism, which prevents them from staging a ‘large-scale resistance against capital’ (p. 184). She maintains her preference for designating call center agents as ‘workers’ to enhance a ‘worker’s consciousness’ among them. Activists would surely commend Padios for this, though she does not elaborate what exactly is that worker’s consciousness that needs enhancing.

The call center agents, however, seem to have already defined who they are not. Workers are those who do manual labor, but they consider themselves professionals. Readers would note the contradicting positions of Padios and her informants because she puts them side by side. What is striking, however, is her attempt to resolve these contradictions to validate her political argument. This weakens the analytical power of contradictions or paradoxes. Critical reading tends to give a one-sided approach to an issue, but contradictions can reveal other sides.

Padios seems to have overlooked how the call center agents/workers have already brought the matter she pursues beyond the oppositional or resistance stance. Had she followed the logic of contradictions, paradoxes, or anxieties that inform her analysis, Padios might have given more justice to her original position that the call center workers are agents – ‘active mediators of their hopes and values’ (p. 25). A memorable instance of this is found on page 102 when one of Padios’s informants ‘aggressively stated that he did not understand the point’ of her study.

Readers are advised to pay attention to those contradictions or paradoxes because the call center agents have worked through them as limitations containing possibilities.

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