New hires for Mexican call centers: US deportees

The English language skills of returning migrants have lured major US cable and tech companies to set up branches of their multi-billion-dollar customer service industries south of the border.

Years of record-breaking deportations in the United States are helping to fuel a developing industry in Mexico: call centers to serve American customers.

Major US companies are moving pieces of their multi-billion-dollar customer service industry south of the border to take advantage of a burgeoning workforce of returning migrants. Many are recent deportees who are better able to relate to their US customers and who speak English with American accents.

The call centers contract with major US companies such as Time Warner, Dish Satellite, and Best Buy. They pay lower Mexican wages, as little as $4 an hour, while their customers may not realize they’re speaking with someone in a foreign country.

Some say the call centers exploit returning migrants while they’re still jarred from the trauma of being uprooted from the United States and dropped in a country they may barely remember, if at all.

But they acknowledge that the centers play a valuable role in helping these young people acclimate to what probably feels like a foreign land. The centers offer needed jobs in an economy where few are available and, more importantly, an immediate support network.

“It provides a community of people who are like them, who get them, who have the same sense of humor, who have shared similar experiences, who speak English, who went to the high school prom – or didn’t go but know what it is,” said Jill Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for North American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in Mexico City, who’s studied the growth of Mexican call centers. “It sort of creates this little piece of home in the middle of a really alienating experience.”

The extent to which the industry’s growth is tied to US deportations is unclear. But it serves as an example of the unintended outcomes of America’s fractured immigration system.

Under President Barack Obama, US immigration officials have deported more than 1.4 million people, at an annual rate that, if it continues, will exceed any other American president. Mexico-based call centers, serving the United States and other foreign markets, grew 116 percent from 8,632 to 18,701 locations from 2007 to 2010, according to research by Jordy Micheli Thirion, an economics professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Azcapotzalco , Mexico.

Anderson estimates that more than 60 percent of the employees at some of the major Mexico City call centers are deportees, based on conversations with managers and workers.

Dozens of 20-year-olds, many in baggy jeans and designer sneakers, gathered outside a glass four-story call center recently in downtown Mexico City. A young man bumped knuckles with another: “What up, dude?” A young woman jumped on a young man’s back and gushed about how much she’d missed him.

Gerry Guzman, 21, chided Itzel Lopez, 21, that their friend was taking too long. He was hungry.

“Let’s go get some tortillas,” he said, pronouncing the word like an American, “tor-TEE-yas,” instead of "tor-tee-EE-yas,” like a Mexican. Guzman was deported a few years ago from Sacramento, Calif., where he was attending Center High School. He wouldn’t say why he was arrested or deported, only that it involved federal charges: “Your parents try to warn you, but you know how it is.”

In the United States, the issue of customer service centers is a sensitive one. With an estimated 11.5 million Americans out of work, many oppose the corporate practice of outsourcing jobs.

Also bothersome is the anxiety many Americans experience in dealing with outsourced call centers. Some compare the experience of spending 20 or 30 minutes trying to explain a problem to a customer service representative halfway across the world who speaks little English to having a root canal.

“Honestly, outsourcing your customer call center to India must seem like a great idea until you realize your customers hate it,” Betsy Lowther, a New York fashion blogger, wrote recently on Twitter.

Mexican call centers are not a new concept. For years, the “Press two for Spanish” that Americans heard on the line when they called their phone companies often meant being redirected to Mexico City or Monterrey while the English-language calls were sent to India or the Philippines.

But more Mexican call centers have begun handling English calls, as well, during recent years of record-breaking deportations.

The trend isn’t limited to Mexico. Call centers are opening across Latin America.

In July, President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic participated in the ribbon cutting of a new Santo Domingo call center that touted it will invest $7 million in the local economy and provide 2,500 jobs.

City newspapers publicize the opening of new call centers while municipal officials tout the jobs they bring.

“Size matters a lot. If you’re talking about a small town, 5,000 jobs – or even 500 – are extremely important. And some of these call centers can be huge,” said Jose-Luis Alvarez-Galvan, a Mexican economist who tracked the rise of call centers for his book “Outsourcing and Service Work in the New Economy: The Case of Call Centres in Mexico City.”

The economic impact may not be as significant to the Mexican economy as the arrival of major retailers such as Wal-Mart, but Alvarez-Galvan said the centers created thousands of jobs in an country that was desperate for them. However, he sees the centers as more of a temporary economic lift as customer service work becomes increasingly automated.

One of the major challenges of having call centers in Asia is not only language but also the time difference, said Christopher Wilson, an associate with the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute research center in Washington. As language resources improve, the call centers are part of a growing service-sector industry that includes software development in Guadalajara, which might be the next wave of trade between the two countries.

Call center worker Guzman doesn’t think much about whether he’s been exploited. He’s thankful just to have a job. And the call center pays well and has better benefits compared with many other Mexican jobs.

“I feel lucky my parents gave me this skill to speak English,” he said.

– This story was sponsored by an international reporting fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

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