You are here: Home ∼ 2018 ∼ February ∼ 01 ∼ Deportation as Outsourcing in El Salvador’s Call Center Industry
When he’s standing, Pete towers over most Salvadorans. His height, buzzed haircut, and U.S. athletic jerseys easily distinguish him in a crowd. Like me, Pete gives off a decidedly foreign air. He was born in El Salvador but emigrated with his parents and brothers at the age of five in 1980 at the outset of what would be a brutal 12-year civil war. Pete was raised in New York, as his strong Brooklyn accent confirms. There, he finished high school, studied at Hofstra University for a year, and went on to work as an auto body technician for nearly fifteen years.
You are watching: Call center el salvador
“I was a U.S. resident alien for over 20 years,” he tells me. “That makes me almost a citizen. I just didn’t put in the paperwork. I was working on the paperwork, but then all of this caught up to me.” 10 years ago, after 27 years in the United States and several run-ins with the law, Pete was deported.
Today, he works in a call center in San Salvador, training agents to hone their English-language skills in order to pass as U.S.-based workers providing customer service and technical support for companies including Metlife, Canon, and Expedia. For Pete and the countless other deportees that swell the ranks of this growing industry, the work comes naturally. “Back in the States, we’re natives,” he explains. “I could recite you the whole Pledge of Allegiance! You know, I can’t recite you the
As research for my masters’ thesis at El Salvador’s Central America University (UCA), I interviewed 13 individuals who had belonged to the so-called “1.5 generation” of immigrants to the United States – those who emigrated as children and spent their formative years there – who, following deportation, now work in San Salvador’s burgeoning call center industry. Certainly, the plight of deportees like Pete points to what Susan Bibler Coutin calls “the irony of deporting people ‘back’ to a place that they are not fully ‘from.’” 1 The subsequent insertion of these 1.5 generation deportees into the outsourced transnational call center industry, however, points to an even more disturbing irony.
Much of the contemporary literature on deportation uses the metaphor of waste. Theorists often cite Nicholas De Genova’s important work on migrant illegality and deportability, in which migrant labor is termed “disposable,” or Jock Young’s concept of a “bulimic society”, through which deportees can be considered the discards of empire. 2 Nevertheless, the construction of a significant class of individuals deported from the U.S. working as call center agents throughout Mesoamerica suggests a different analogy: recycling. In other words, the industry has found a particular use for these discarded workers, whose cultural skills, capital, and very identities are repurposed and deployed to serve a critical function in the global economy.
This dynamic also forces us to re-examine certain prevailing understandings of labor migration, mobility, and exploitation. In her analysis of migrant Filipina domestic workers, for example, Rhacel Parreñas documents the “creation of a division of reproductive labor in the global economy” that arises from “the demand for low-wage service workers in post-industrial nations.” 3 In this system, migrant women’s low-waged domestic work allows for class-privileged women in receiving countries to engage in productive labor outside the home; these migrant women, in turn, hire poor women in their country of origin to perform domestic labor for them at an even lower cost in an “international transfer of caretaking.” 4 The neoliberal cycle that I describe, however, points to a disturbing new facet of this international division of labor in which migrants – in this case, mostly 1.5 generation men – are forcibly relocated to their country of birth to perform service work for the post-industrial nation from which they were expelled, in significantly poorer conditions.
In this cycle of migration, deportation, and outsourcing, then, the enterprise of deportation takes on a more sinister tone, as open coercion is combined with precarious forms of wage labor. It offers a singular example of the cynical and cruel efficiency of global neoliberal capitalism. The rise of the call center industry in countries like Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador signals the reimagining of mass deportation as outsourcing, in which not only are jobs offshored, but so are the workers that fill them, whose years of living and working in the United States have made them uniquely qualified for thework.
The Neoliberal Cycle
I take the term “neoliberal cycle” from Tanya Golash-Boza, who argues that the U.S. policy of mass deportation has at its core the goal of expelling surplus labor to the global periphery, while also exercising greater control over domestic workers. 5 In interviews with Guatemalan, Dominican, Jamaican, and Brazilian deportees, Golash-Boza notes that receiving nations find myriad “practical and rhetorical uses” for the deported in the project of sustaining securitized neoliberalism. In El Salvador, the surplus labor of deported 1.5 generation U.S. immigrants is currently being converted into low-cost labor for companies from Hotels.com to AT&T.
Mass migration from El Salvador to the United States began during the country’s bloody civil war (1980–1992) between leftist guerrilla forces and the U.S.-backed right-wing military regime, but in the years following the Peace Accords migration rates actually surpassed those of wartime. Indeed, from 1980–1990, an average 54,156 Salvadorans fled the country each year; between 2000–2010, that figure was 61,942. 6 These peacetime migrants were no longer fleeing political violence, but rather the economic devastation wrought by an onslaught of neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation encouraged by the United States and its international financial appendages and implemented by the governing oligarchic elites. 7 In recent years, of course, migrants increasingly cite gang violence as well as family reunification along with economic hardship as the cause for their flight. 8
This mass migration is not simply a by-product of neoliberalization in El Salvador, but in fact is central to sustaining the model. Post-war migration has been characterized as an “escape valve” for the unsustainable pressures of mass privatization, liberalization, dollarization and free trade. 9 Indeed, remittances from migrants in the United States constitute a principal pillar of the Salvadoran economy. Bibler Coutin writes that “remittance income lessened the impact of structural adjustment programs implemented during the 1990s.” 10 The role of remittances only grew in the subsequent years as the neoliberal model was consolidated; in 2006, the year that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was implemented, remittances to El Salvador grew by 24.6%. 11 In 2016, remittances represented over 16% of the national GDP. 12
In the United States, the same neoliberal economic processes that fed mass migration from El Salvador converged with the burgeoning national security state to give rise to the policy of mass deportation, first under the guise of the War on Drugs and subsequently under the War on Terror. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act broadened the definition of crimes subject to deportation, limited judicial discretion, expanded the use of mandatory detention, and accelerated deportation processes, suddenly rendering thousands of migrants vulnerable to deportation. 13 After 9/11, the USA Patriot Act increased the use of border patrols by 300 percent, and in 2002, the Homeland Security Act moved deportation processes over to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security; the Border Patrol’s mission was also modified to protect the United States from “terrorists.” 14 U.S. immigration policy had become fully securitized.
At the same time, the privatization of immigrant detention gave rise to a lucrative industry, inspiring private prison companies like Corrections Corporations of America (recently rebranded as “CoreCivic”) and Geo Group to lobby hard for some of the nation’s most appallingly racist anti-immigrant legislation, including Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. 15 At the national level, federal programs like E-verify and Secure Communities (rebranded by Obama as the “Priority Enforcement Program”) have turned employers and police, respectively, into immigration enforcers, rendering even casual law enforcement encounters into devastating events. 16
These developments have made migrant labor all the more vulnerable, precarious, and exploitable. Like mass migration, then, mass deportation and the criminalization of migrants in the United States is central to sustaining the contemporary neoliberal regime.
It was this collusion between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities that ultimately ensnared Pete, and many more. Raúl, for example, another call center worker in San Salvador, was six years old when he left for the United States with his mother in 1986. Raúl and his family had received asylum, but in the year 2000, he “fell out of status.” As he explains, “It was after September 11, that’s when it kind of, the immigration business boomed. So there was a lot of attorneys that got into it but
Karla, who also works as a call center agent, left for New York as a six-year-old in 1995. She was deported in 2009 at the age of nineteen after getting picked up by the police for a fight stemming from an abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend. The charges were dismissed, but she was released directly into immigration custody.
As a result of this juridical evolution, deportations have skyrocketed. In 1995, 50,924 non-citizens were “removed” from the United States; 17 in 2010, that number rose to 392,904, and reached a record high in 2013 with 435,498 removals. 18 El Salvador, a country the size of Maryland with a population of some six million people, has borne a disproportionate impact of these deportations: in 1995, 1,932 Salvadorans were deported from the US; that figure rose to 19,809 in 2010 and reached a record high of 27,108 in 2014. 19
For the 1.5 generation deportee call center agents whom I spoke with, the return to El Salvador was usually traumatic. TJ left at the age of five in 1986 and accepted voluntary deportation 20 years later, in 2006, for gang-related offenses: “I thought that since I lived there all my life, I was already an American citizen. So I mean, it was just like I didn’t really even think that I was from another country because I grew up knowing everything over there. <…> I grew up there, went to elementary school and did everything, I mean it felt like I lived there my whole life. I was like, ‘anything I do is like, where are they going to send me, if I’m from righthere?’”
Upon arriving in El Salvador, TJ describes feeling overwhelmed, foreign, and disoriented. “I was just blown away,” he says. “It’s just like coming from this world, and then coming to another world. It’s like two different dimensions, like I actually stepped back intime.”
Raul, for his part, found himself resorting to Hollywood clichés to make sense of the unfamiliar landscape: “Honestly? The first thing that came to my mind when I was in the van, you know I’m going towards my aunt’s house because my aunt picked me up. You know how when you see in TV, you see movies when they’re like in Africa, or their like in Middle Eastern marketplaces?” He laughs. “That’s the first thing that came to my head, that’s the first thing I felt, that I perceived, by looking at it. It was quite different. Shocking.”
Abruptly wrested from their communities and planted in an alien environment, 1.5 generation deportees seek to establish some kind of stability. “The first thing I did is start finding out about work,” Raúl remembers. “I kept hearing about call centers. They’re like, ‘Oh, they’re the best paying jobs.’”
The Call Center Industry
Outsourced garment factory sweatshops have long been the poster-child for capitalist globalization and its discontents in Central America. Ushered in by the foreign private investment incentives enshrined in the structural adjustments of the 1990s and cemented in the 2006 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the maquiladora model promised economic growth and development, but delivered low-wage, high turnover work with minimal oversight and maximum exploitation of poor young women. Less examined, however, is the latest labor trend in this race-to-the-bottom: call centers.
The call center industry arose in El Salvador in the wake of neoliberal reforms like the privatization of the national telecommunications company and the 1998 Ley de Zonas Francas, which identified foreign export industries as a national priority. Similar to the garment industry, it is a product of the global fragmentation and externalization strategies led by North American and European companies seeking to lower production costs. But unlike maquilas, call centers don’t export material products. Rather, they export human resources.
The United States has avidly promoted the industry’s growth in El Salvador, where majority foreign-owned corporations enjoy exemptions from income, sales, and municipal taxes. Under the bilateralPartnership For Growth framework, USAID and the American Chamber of Commerce support national programs like “Improving Access to Employment,” “Supérate,” and “English for Work,” which explicitly seek to train young Salvadorans for call-center labor. In addition, as part of its mission to “adjust workforce training to the demands of the market,” the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact with El Salvadorspecifically identifies call centersas a strategic sector for growth, along with the textile industry. 20
What’s more, the call-center industry is only likely to keep growing. In the grand imperial tradition of CAFTA, the Partnership for Growth, and the Millennium Challenge Compact, the new U.S.-championedAlliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America represents yet another vehicle for imposing militarization, extractivism, and neoliberalization on the region, and has as its central focus the improvement of the “investment climate” for private foreign corporations and “closing the gap” between labor supply and business demands – in other words, the training of more call center workers. 21 Currently, the Salvadoran government estimates that over 70 call centers operate in the country, employing over 20,000 people. 22
But while the United States touts call-center jobs as solutions to youth unemployment and mass migration, the reality is that like the maquila sector, the offshored call-center industry contributes to an ever more precarious and unequal economy for workers both in El Salvador and the United States.
For bilingual workers, the industry offers relatively advantageous conditions, with starting salaries of around $600 per month versus the miserable $295 in the maquilas. 23 Nevertheless, call centers follow the same maquila labor model: constant surveillance, limited bathroom access, demanding quotas, minimal break time, scarce promotion opportunities, and strict anti-union practices. Due to its accelerated pace and rigorous schedule, as in the maquila sector, the industry prefers to recruit young people. 24 Ten-hour shifts are the norm. Agents are required to stick to a script on monitored calls with customers who generally irritable, frustrated, and even abusive, generating serious levels of stress. 25 The result is, predictably, high employee burnout and turnover, and negligible unionization.
Literature on the growing transnational call center industry tends to situate it in a globalized neoliberal model of post-Fordist production. 26 Call centers and their workers are at the vanguard of new methods of production, accumulation, and labor extraction. These jobs are particularly unstable, as well as flexible, demanding multiple skills. Jamie Woodcock writes: “Although there remains a manual component to the labour process in the call centre – the demand to be at the desk for a set amount of time, the physical interaction with the computer and the headset, the verbalisation of communication at a particular pitch, tone and speed – the key element is mental labour.” 27 This labor can be also characterized as immaterial labor, that of producing affect, communication, and problem-solving. 28
As Mirchandani and Poster observe, “national features of speech – accent, voice, word choice, etc. – become key ingredients” of these virtual cross-border exchanges with North American customers, making “authenticity work” a critical component of transnational service labor. 29 Agents are engaged in a “permanent performance” for both their customers and supervisors. 30 Due to their accumulation of skills and knowledge growing up in the United States, 1.5 generation deportees are therefore uniquely positioned within the Salvadoran labor market to excel at thejob.
Recycling Deportee Labor
Here, the neoliberal cycle comes full circle. In addition to attracting university students and frustrated recent graduates, El Salvador’s call centers have been a central economic and social hub for the country’s ballooning deportee population since their inception. Indeed, call centers are some of the only workplaces that will open their doors to deportees, who are commonly associated with gang activity and face widespread discrimination. In the call centers, 1.5 generation deportees find an opportunity to commercialize their linguistic and cultural skills in a space uniquely tolerant of their highly stigmatized tattoos, shaved heads, baggy clothes and, in many cases, criminal records.
Today, the figure of the deportee call center worker has joined that of the deportee gang member in the hall of Salvadoran stereotypes. “The first thing they say about call center jobs,” says TJ, “
Despite their stigma, 1.5 generation deportees make for exceptional call center agents, and the industry knows it. Edgar lived in the United States for 16 years, from the ages of 10 to 26: “It was really easy, ‘cause like I said, I’m very Americanized with sports and stuff like that. So that’s why I think that the people here in El Salvador, they have a problem once they learn their English here and they go ahead and try to speak to a person in the United States. Cuz you know, ‘How’s the weather? Did the Rockets win? How’d the Dolphins do? Did you see that game yesterday?’ Stuff like that, these people here, they don’t know nothing about
Marvin, who spent six years of his adolescence and early adulthood in California, tells me, “I have never worked here. I don’t know how these people – I mean honestly, this is my people, but I don’t know how they are; I don’t know what type of customers they are. I know the States. I was there, I worked there, I know what theywant.”
“It was just like any other day for me,” says TJ of his first experience as a call center agent. “I can socialize about anything over there <…> Like in the East Coast, you got the four seasons: ‘Hey, it’s spring time. I love it when the cherries blossom and everything, it looks real colorful.’ Or when it snows, or autumn. I can actually talk about the sports, or football, baseball, Nascar. A lot of things like that that I was actually into, a lot of people that I talk to on the phone are into the same thing, so it was realeasy.”
For many 1.5 generation deportees, the call center serves as a refuge from the foreignness of Salvadoran culture, a welcome opportunity to enter a familiar register and chat in English with both their clients and colleagues. But the ironic inequities of their offshored labor are not lost onthem.
James, who was taken to the United States as a six-year-old in 1993 and deported in 2010 after being apprehended for driving without a license, points out: “Over there you get paid, what, like $300, $400 a week? Or maybe $500. Here, you make that in months.”
Raúl reflects: “Coming from the States, I didn’t live well, but I lived comfortably. So like here, I don’t make enough money. I feel like I’m getting gypped.” Raúl shakes his head, “The work we do here, the pay is not enough, and the pressure they put on you is enormous. Plus, the long hours of work. I mean, coming from the States where, 8-hour shifts, that’s normal. Or when I worked in construction, if I did 12
Call center labor is emotionally and physically exhausting work, and very few manage to make a career out of it. The companies advertise agent positions as temporary jobs for students on the way toward bigger, better things; a recent ad for Sykes declares: “Great environment, flexible schedules and the opportunity to work and study at the same time is for you! Apply Now: Our reservation team is waiting for you with a $300 welcome bonus!” In reality, most university-graduate professionals in El Salvador will have a hard time finding salaries in their field that compare to what the call centers are able to offer. For people who have been deported from the United States, the options are all the more limited.
Deportees often feel trapped, essentially interned in the foreign country of their birth. The call centers take maximum advantage of these anguishing restrictions imposed on deportees’ mobility. Many carry their time like a prison sentence, waiting to be legally eligible to apply for re-entry – itself a highly unlikely prospect. In the meantime, call centers have emerged to capitalize on their captivity.
“My father, he’s also deported, he tried to go back twice,” says Karen. “This last time they gave him 25 years without entering the country, basically the rest of his life, for my father’s 44. So I don’t want that to happen to me, I want to make sure I have those doors open. So for now I won’t be leaving for the States illegally, I’ll just wait until the legal paperwork is done and I’ll just pray to God that, you know, it all comes out. But in the meanwhile, while I’m here, I don’t wanna just sit here in a call center all mylife.”
Raúl, in turn, expressed a sense of paralysis: “I have thought about leaving the country. But what am I gonna go do somewhere else in another country? <…> My oldest is 13, you know, he can sponsor me back
The Call Center Diaspora
While call centers offers much-needed income and social support for a population that has been violently uprooted and thrust into an unfamiliar and often dangerous territory, they do little to integrate these individuals into Salvadoran society. In fact, call center work appears to help maintain and reinforce deportees’ identifications with the United States, and consolidate their lived and perceived otherness. The distinction is such that 1.5 generation deportees regularly describe themselves as being “from” the United States, while frequently referring to their co-workers who have never lived in the United States as “natives.”
After ten years living and working in El Salvador, Pete admits: “I only hang out with my girlfriend, that’s the only native that I really hang out with. <…> I don’t go out with everybody else, just deportees.” For Pete, the culture of his “native” peers is unfamiliar, even hostile. “I don’t like the way they address each other. Most of the time, I don’t understand what they’re saying,” he laughs ruefully. “My Spanish is really messed up.”
Call centers promote an English-only language environment, and agents spend ten hours a day speaking with North American clients in their best, “accent-neutral” English. Many 1.5 generation deportees spend most of their (limited) free time socializing with fellow deportees, and find little incentive or opportunity to develop their Spanish fluency.
Raúl has lived in El Salvador now for four years, and he has also struggled to make “native” friends: “I think all my friends are from the States. <…> When I got here, Spanish was rough, because I was more used to speaking English all the time. And ‘til now, still, here after four years, I’m more comfortable talking in English than in Spanish. So I tend to hang it with more people that actually speak English.”
Karla’s experience has been similar: “I do kind of prefer to hang out with people from the States, just ‘cause you always miss it,” she tells me. “Whoever tells you they’re here and they’re enjoying it – I mean you can enjoy your stay, but
Having grown up as fully acculturated U.S. Latinos, 1.5 generation deportees bolster Daniel Kanstroom’s claim that U.S. policy of mass deportation is creating a “new American diaspora.” 31 Their years of U.S. public education, civic formation, cultural consumption, and labor fostered an experience of what Bibler Coutin calls an “approximation of citizenship” that, while providing a strong sense of belonging and participation, was never formalized into official status. 32 The language skills and cultural identities cultivated by 1.5 generation deportees are not enough to constitute formal citizenship in the eyes of the State, but just enough to make a convincing call center agent.
Richard accepted voluntary deportation in 2002 after 26 years in the United States; his English, unsurprisingly, is impeccable. Customers, he says, “would always tell me that they were pretty upset about the service they had received from the Philippines, or that they were tired of talking to people from India. Most of the time, they would tell
In the latter years of the Obama administration, there were signs this landscape was shifting. Rather than waiting to capture migrants within U.S. borders, in 2014 the United States began to outsource its enforcement to Mexico. Plan Frontera Sur, as the program is called, has pushed forward the militarization of Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, as well as the traditional migrant corridors like the route along the infamous cargo train known as “la Bestia”, making the journey exponentially more dangerous for already vulnerable Central American migrants seeking to evade detention by notoriously corrupt Mexican authorities. 33 Abruptly, U.S. deportations to El Salvador dropped significantly, falling to 21,920 in 2015, while deportations from Mexico shot up to unprecedented levels, from 8,944 in 2011, to 22,137 in 2014. 34 As of 2015, Mexico now deports more Central Americans than the United States. 35
Under Obama, the United States also began promoting border militarization throughout Central America, ramping up assistance for border security task forces in the Northern Triangle under the guise of fighting organized crime. 36 In 2016, hundreds of Salvadorans were denied entry to or deported from Guatemala, despite an agreement allowing Central Americans to travel freely between the two countries. 37
As a result, 1.5 generation immigrants to the United States are now outnumbered in a deportee population increasingly dominated by women and children apprehended upon or well before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. 38 Accordingly, the call center industry is evolving. Many companies are imposing stricter hiring policies against those with a U.S. criminal record, and private “English for Call Centers” academies are sprouting across the capital, hoping to cash in on the training of a domestic workforce that need not rely on stigmatized deportee labor. As I finished my research in early 2016, I wondered what the new role of 1.5 generation deportees would be in the neoliberal cycle: could it be that transnational capital will soon have no more use for their recycled labor?
If the first year of the Trump administration is any indication, it’s unlikely. Today, 1.5 generation migrants and their families are in the crosshairs like never before. 39 It took Obama eight years to deport 2.5 million people – a staggering, disturbing achievement – but Trump’s orders have made millions more vulnerable. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order is being phased out, and the fate of nearly 800,000 1.5 generation immigrants is now in the hands of an extraordinarily dysfunctional Congress. El Salvador may well need to brace itself for a renewed influx of exiled diasporic subjects.
And despite Trump’s campaign-trail isolationism, the United States appears set to continue its imperial path in Central America and beyond.As head of SOUTHCOM, General Kelly, who briefly headed the Department of Homeland Security and now advises the President as White House Chief of Staff, is an avid proponent of the Alliance for Prosperity, which envisions Central America as a logistical corridor for U.S. commerce, traversed by massive highways, natural gas pipelines, and militarized borders, where young people sweat away the hours in garment factories, sugarcane fields, and, of course, call centers. 40
Neoliberal schemes like the Alliance for Prosperity purport to seek to help provide alternatives to mass migration from Central America, but the programs that they impose offer no such thing. Quite the opposite: they contribute directly to the conditions for mass migration, then banish those migrants back to the precarious economies that they created. And U.S. companies, from the private prison corporations and the border security firms to the banks, websites, and telecoms that outsource to the call centers, are reaping the rewards.
This neoliberal recycling, however profitable, comes at the expense of countless 1.5 generation deportees, who spend their days in El Salvador under fluorescent lights, strapped into a headset, sitting in front of a screen, providing first world service at third world rates to the community from which they were ruthlessly expelled.
As the Trump administration moves against vital temporary protections like DACA and TPS, migrant justice activists have insisted on maintaining an emancipatory horizon that envisions an end to deportation, migrant detention, and border militarization altogether. The fate of 1.5 generation deportee call center workers in El Salvador suggests, however, that we cannot address the injustices of the U.S. immigration system without also understanding its critical role in reproducing and advancing militarized transnational capitalism. The struggle for migrant justice is also the struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism, and it is global.