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Call Centers Call On Multilingual Portuguese

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Call Centers Call On Multilingual Portuguese

Call Centers Call On Multilingual Portuguese

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. Let's stay in Europe. Portugal is the eurozone's poorest country. Its economy is in tatters after a bailout two years ago. Now it's facing a political crisis after the resignation of two top government ministers last week. There is one bright spot, and that's the outsourcing industry. Multinational companies are increasingly turning to Portugal as a base for call centers and customer service hotlines. The country is even getting the nick name the India of Europe.

Lauren Frayer traveled to Lisbon, and sent us this report.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Filipa Neves speaks five languages but still couldn't find steady work in her native Portugal. She was about to move to Angola, in Africa, where the economy is booming. But she sent off one last resume - to a call center. It was sort of a last resort. She'd heard the stereotype.

FILIPA NEVES: 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 then they don't pay you. But then I remember I saw this ad and I said, you know, why not? And it's kind of a whole new world of people speaking so many languages. During the day, I might speak five languages. And that's really nice.

(LAUGHTER)

FRAYER: Workers on a cigarette break outside Filipa's new office are speaking maybe a dozen languages. Many are half-Portuguese and half-French, or half-German; the offspring of generations of Portuguese forced to go abroad to find work.

Filipa's five languages...

NEVES: So it's Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and a little bit of German.

FRAYER: ...virtually guarantee her a job abroad. But as Portugal's economy tanks, multinational companies are setting up call centers here - and Filipa doesn't have to leave her family.

Joao Cardoso is Filipa's boss, the CEO of Teleperformance, which manages call centers in Portugal. He says companies are taking advantage of Portugal's low wages, high unemployment and the Portuguese talent for languages.

JOAO CARDOSO: This specific market is absolutely booming. We are almost doubling - let's say - the size of this business, year on year. So this market is totally unrelated with the Portuguese economic situation.

FRAYER: Call centers are adding thousands of much-needed jobs while the rest of the economy sheds them. Portugal is joining countries like Bulgaria, Ireland and Poland as the outsourcing centers in Europe.

Guilherme Ramos Pereira is with the Portugal Outsourcing Association, lobbying companies to come here, rather than places like India. We spoke by Skype while he was on his way to a conference in China.

GUILHERME RAMOS PEREIRA: 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. They went there because they needed large numbers of resources and low cost of operations.

FRAYER: But with youth unemployment above 40 percent and the lowest wages in the eurozone, Portugal can provide those now too. Economist Pedro Lains says the growth of outsourcing here is a mixed blessing.

PEDRO LAINS: I think this kind of business opportunities show to a certain extent how flexible and dynamic the Portuguese economy can be, and how educated the population is.

FRAYER: But he says it won't be a cure-all for Portugal's economy.

LAINS: Portugal won't be the India of Europe. We shouldn't be thinking of a doomed low-paid economy. We should be thinking about an economy that will remain poor but with some growth and where wages will have to increase in the near future.

FRAYER: Until then though, Portuguese call center operators like Filipa Neves are happy just to have a job. She wants to start a family.

NEVES: And that means that I need a stable job and, you know, a stable income. So I have that as one of my plans, to get pregnant and have a child. I think it's time now, you know.

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