Working for a Call Center in the U.S. from Venezuela

For an English speaker in the Andean city of Merida, it looked like a great opportunity to put bread on the table. I had no idea the kind of hell it could be

“Hi, my name’s Gloria. I’m calling about the property on…”

That was the opening line of the script from the first call center I worked at in Mérida, my hometown.

My name isn’t Gloria. I chose it because I’d recently seen a movie about a woman with that name. My actual name is Laura, but that doesn’t matter much when you work at a call center.

I was with my mom the first time I heard about a call center job. We ran into our neighbor, and he asked what I’d been up to. I said I was working as an English teacher, and he said that his son, who is around my age, had started working too. “He doesn’t make much,” he added,  “around $150 a month. At least he’s able to save a bit.” My mom and I exchanged glances: my salary as an English teacher was no more than $12. Her salary as a worker in the public sector with a trajectory of over 30 years didn’t surpass $20. “What does he do?” I asked. “He works at a call center. The customers are from the U.S., so he gets to practice his English.” Then he paused for a moment, and finally said: “If you want, I can give you his contact so you can ask him directly.” 

So I did. The boy was very kind to me, and sent me the contact of what I assumed was the supervisor. The office was close to where I lived, and everything about the job sounded overall convenient. “It’s a real estate company from the U.S. Six hours a day, six days a week,” the boy said. 

No, I was never interested in marketing or real estate, but a perspective of savings and financial comfort was something me and my family hadn’t had in a long while.

A Discreet Offshore Industry

Nobody knows for sure when and where call centers first appeared in the world. Some authors believe it was in the U.S. in the ‘60s, but some others would argue it was actually in the UK in the ‘70s. Throughout the years, this industry has experienced diverse changes in structure and dynamics. These changes are always aimed at optimizing productivity and reducing costs. 

Eventually, companies would start to realize that they could significantly reduce costs by hiring remote workers from low-wage locations (this practice is known as offshoring, but in Venezuela we’d call it “chanchullo”).

This was when call centers first started to emerge in third-world countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These countries don’t usually have the infrastructure to regulate and supervise these offices, nor to guarantee that their workers’ rights are being respected.

Venezuela’s current socio-economic situation has created a dynamic in which any job position that offers a salary in dollars is highly coveted. In comparison to other jobs typically performed by young people and students, such as shop assistants or waiters, call center operators can get a fairly decent salary with very little experience and training. However, hardly any of these call centers are legally established. Nothing physical can prove the existence of these companies or their workers.

Four Educational Days

After waiting for a few months, I was summoned for the interview. I had read the script many times, and I had practiced my smile and intonation (even though the client can’t see you, smiling as you speak makes you sound natural and polite and definitely not as an underpaid worker from a third-world country). The interview consisted of two simulated conversations with the coordinators, where they played the role of customers. No personal documents such as ID or CV were ever requested, and we never signed a contract. There’s no space for you to exist in this job, and they make this clear from the beginning. “From here on out, when you speak to the clients,” said the coordinator, “don’t ever refer to yourself as ‘I’… Always use ‘we’ instead, okay?”

We weren’t allowed to reveal any personal information, nor did we have any kind of direct contact with the customers we spoke to over the phone, or with the American companies we worked for.

I started working in July 2021, when the pandemic in Venezuela was at a peak. There were no biosecurity measures in the office whatsoever: the place had no windows or ventilation, the computers and headsets weren’t being properly cleaned and there was no separation between workers. Nobody wore their masks during work or were requested to do so.

After four days, I decided to quit the job mainly for my family’s safety: both my parents were at risk of presenting complications if infected with COVID, and the last thing I wanted was to bring the virus home with me.

Although I worked there for a very short time, I got to see the reality of the people who worked there. 

Barely a Name

I particularly remember Saray, a girl who lived near me and with whom I used to walk to work. She told me that her mom and sister had left the country, and she lived alone with her dad, who was ill. She needed the job, for she was her home’s main breadwinner. “When my dad gets better and I get the money, I’ll leave too,” she said.

The people who run local offices (supervisors and coordinators) are usually rather young too. One of the workers interviewed for this article, Pamela, said: “None of them is educated in marketing, human resources or business management. They aren’t prepared to fulfill their duties.” 

Another interviewee, Samuel, talked about the lack of consideration towards workers’ individual needs. “It doesn’t matter if you had an emergency. If you miss a day of work, they’ll take money from you, even if your absence is justified. For them, you’re barely a name and a number.” 

The second call center I worked at was different. It was run by two sisters, and the office was an apartment on the fourth floor of a residential building. They searched for contracts with American companies through Upwork (a freelancing platform) using fake profiles. Once they had the contract ready, they would call you to start working. Of the full payment they received from the companies, they’d pay workers a flat monthly fee of $190, for 40 hours of work a week.

The interview was a simple conversation, just to see how I got along in English. “First, I want you to get this straight. I make more money than you do. And if I were to find out that you’ve revealed any kind of personal information to your American employer, I’d have to fire you,” said the boss after we finished. 

I didn’t like her way of saying this. It felt like a threat.

Furthermore, the company wasn’t incorporated yet—so, again, there was no contract.

I didn’t feel comfortable having to lie about my identity. This time, the contact with the companies was direct, and all the while I had to pretend I was a 35-year-old woman with a degree in Engineering and a seven-year-old kid.

“They (the bosses) would avoid their employees to not pay them, they’d lie to someone about the weekly hours they had to cover just to maintain a contract, and the office’s sanitary conditions were terrible,” said Cristina, one of my coworkers. We were all victims of these actions, in one way or another, but the reason why we continued putting up with it was that the payment was still good when compared with other jobs in town. These places feed on the lack of better opportunities.

The Attack on Sofía

I decided to quit this job in late October. A week later, I received pictures of two damaged headphones from one of the bosses, followed by a text asking me for explanations. At that time, I hadn’t been to the office in a week—moreover, one of the bosses herself was with me on the last day I worked there, and saw that the headphones I used were in perfect condition until then. In spite of these arguments, they wouldn’t believe me, and took $20 off my payment (which was also delayed until late November).

I cut ties with these people, but I kept in touch with two of my coworkers. In early January 2022, one of them called me. She was very upset, and told me that something terrible had happened in the office that morning.

Sofía, one of our coworkers, had decided to do an interview for a side job using the office’s equipment. This was when one of the bosses and her husband stormed into the office and asked her what she was doing. “I told them the truth, and asked them to give me 5 minutes to grab my things and go, but they didn’t. She pulled me by the hair, and knocked me to the floor. Then she and her husband started kicking me. I screamed for help, but nobody came. I felt completely helpless.” 

Sofía is an 18-year-old girl that doesn’t weigh more than 47 kilos. The aggressors were both adults over 30, much bigger than her in size. The man lifted her against her will, dragged her through the floor and kicked her out of the apartment. “Of course, I thought about calling the police, but then I stopped myself. It was too dangerous: these people had enough money to bribe anyone, and I was afraid of what they could do to me or my family.” In the end, she called her dad to come pick her up. Sofía’s belongings were in the apartment: this included her phone’s charger, her house keys and other personal items. When the aggressors finally opened the door to give these items back to her, they threatened her with sending her to jail, hurting her family and even murdering her. When Sofía got home, she realized that her house keys were missing. To this day, she doesn’t know where they are. “I’m sure they kept them. God knows what they did with them,” she says.

Sofía had bruises on her rib cage, shoulders, wrists, and face, and several scratches on her arms. She spoke about her case with different lawyers, but they all agreed that reporting it wasn’t convenient.

The owners of the company are in a privileged economical position, and Venezuela’s distorted law system can’t provide protection, safety or justice to Sofía and her family. It’s in these moments when we, Venezuelans, realize that we have been left completely alone: as citizens, as workers and as a country.

I always thought about how the first thing that’s taken away from you when you start working at a call center is your name. This is a way of taking control over you and your identity—these places are meant to make you forget about who you are, so you can become what they want you to be: merely a tool, a productivity rate, a modern slave. Venezuela’s current situation has left an open path for these companies to establish and develop, and since the employment opportunities for young people entering the labor market in the country are so few, they’ve quickly become an extremely attractive option. By telling this story, I want to visibilize the situation, and warn other people who are considering this job for themselves. All that glitters is not gold.