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Call Centers Call On Multilingual Portuguese

Filipa Neves speaks five languages but still couldn't find steady work in her native Portugal. So she was about to move to Angola, a former Portuguese colony in Africa, where the economy is booming.

But she sent off one last resumé — to a call center. It was sort of a last resort. She'd heard the stereotype.

"You know, a contact center is like this dark hole they put you in. You're sitting all day with a headset, and it's like a scary movie and they don't pay you," she recalled thinking. "But then I saw this ad for French [language skills] and I said, 'You know, why not?' "

She got the job. Neves now works as a customer service agent for some of the biggest European companies, out of a glass office building overlooking Lisbon's riverfront. She's doing what she loves: speaking foreign languages.

"[At the office] it's kind of a whole new world of people speaking so many languages," she exclaimed. "During the day, I might speak five languages."

A History Of Migrating For Work

Sure enough, workers on their cigarette break outside Neves' new office are speaking perhaps a dozen languages. Many are half-Portuguese and half-French, or half-German, or half-English — the offspring of generations of Portuguese forced to go abroad to find work.

Many Portuguese went to France in the 1960s and '70s. Paris is currently the second-largest Portuguese city in the world, behind Lisbon.

Teleperformance in Lisbon is Portugal's largest outsourcing company, managing call centers and customer service hotlines for multinational companies.
/ Courtesy of Teleperformance Portugal
Teleperformance in Lisbon is Portugal's largest outsourcing company, managing call centers and customer service hotlines for multinational companies.

Now Europe's debt crisis has sparked a new wave of Portuguese migration, as educated youth flee for jobs abroad. While Portugal's overall jobless rate is nearing a record 18 percent, youth unemployment tops 42 percent.

Fluency in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and German virtually guarantees Neves a job elsewhere in Europe. But by landing a job at a call center at home, she won't have to leave her family.

As Portugal's economy tanks, there's one glimmer of hope and economic growth: the outsourcing industry. Multinational companies are increasingly turning to Portugal as a cheap base for their call centers and customer service hotlines.

They're taking advantage of Portugal's low wages, high unemployment and talent for languages. The average salary for new college graduates in Portugal is about $775 a month.

"This specific market is absolutely booming. We are almost doubling the size of our business, year on year," said Neves' boss, João Cardoso, the CEO of Teleperformance Portugal. The firm manages local call centers for multinational companies. "So this market is totally unrelated with the Portuguese economic situation."

A Rare Economic Bright Spot

Portugal's economy shrank by more than 3 percent last year. But call centers are adding thousands of jobs while other industries shed them. And Portugal is joining countries like Bulgaria, Ireland and Poland as outsourcing leaders in Europe.

Portugal is also benefiting from an outsourcing trend dubbed "near-shoring," in which Western companies base their call centers closer to home, rather than farther afield in countries like India, the Philippines and China.

"A lot of strong Western companies are coming back home, in terms of the operations that in the past they had placed in offshore locations," said Guilherme Ramos Pereira, executive director of the Portugal Outsourcing Association, which lobbies global firms to come to Portugal.

"They went [to India] because they needed large numbers of resources and low cost of operations. But stuff like innovation, quality of the service provided, quality and maturity of professionals — that's what we have. As we lobby, we use those arguments," he says.

For European companies, basing call centers in Portugal means there's no currency conversion, nor significant time difference. It's a bargain for companies, Ramos Pereira said — and also for the few foreigners recruited as call center agents in languages most Portuguese might not speak.

"It's a lot cheaper than living and breathing in Scandinavia," said Tommy Nielsen, a Danish citizen who grew up in Sweden and speaks several Scandinavian languages. He was recruited by a call center in Lisbon for his language abilities and made the move in part because his paycheck goes further there.

Economists say the growth of Portugal's outsourcing industry is promising and reveals how educated the population is, in terms of languages. But they caution against thinking of outsourcing at a cure-all for Portugal's economy, which had long relied on manufacturing.

"Portugal won't be the 'India of Europe' — that's just not realistic," said Pedro Lains, an economics professor at the University of Lisbon. "We shouldn't be thinking of a doomed, low-paid economy. We should be thinking of an economy that will remain poor but with some growth, and where wages will have to increase in the near future."

Until that happens though, Portuguese call center operators like Neves are happy to have a steady job. She wants to start a family.

"And that means that I need a stable job and a stable income," she said. "So that's one of my plans, to get pregnant and have a child. I think it's time now."

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