Answering the Call
How Colombian land-mine victims became call-center operators.
At the height of Colombia’s civil war in 2002, Mario Escobar, then a 23-year-old economics student in Bogotá, noticed a disturbing trend. The Colombian rebel group FARC had started planting land mines — it called them "weapons of the poor" — throughout the countryside. Casualties from the mines began mounting; between 2001 and 2006, deaths tripled to more than 1,100 a year. Thousands more rural farmers and peasants were injured, and many of those maimed were forced to move to cities and beg to survive.
Eager to assist these land-mine victims, Escobar and several friends came up with a unique strategy: train them to work in call centers. Such work requires little physical movement. Eccos Contacto Colombia, the project they founded, hosts nine-month call-center training courses for disabled victims of conflict. And though call centers often suffer from high turnover rates — the jobs are generally filled by young professionals who consider the job a starting point on the employment ladder — disabled workers, who suffer from an 80 to 90 percent unemployment rate throughout the region, can be less inclined to leave a job that suits their capabilities. That means investments to train them truly pay off. "We transformed being handicapped into a competitive advantage," Escobar explains.
Today, Eccos’s graduates are working at the heart of Colombia’s booming call-center industry, which is growing 40 percent a year. Thanks to the clear Colombian accent and amenable time zone, the country’s call centers serve companies around the region, including those in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. Nearly 40,000 agents were added in the past five years, bringing the number of Colombians working the phones to more than 53,000. The government expects five new call-center companies to launch this year, and it plans to reintegrate former fighters throughout the country using Eccos’s model. Ring up Colombia, and you’ll find it is working.