Sweet SONA and a grain of salt: thoughts on OFWs and BPOs

The first thing I will confess is I fell asleep yesterday afternoon watching the live streaming of President Aquino’s SONA. The drift was inevitable when he was promising the police force and the military big toys for big boys. I dozed off in front of my laptop.

Please excuse my untoward reaction. My brain was tired, so it hit the Sleep button. It was tired processing all the global news it digested that morning. Tired of placing the Philippine president’s speech in the context of the world’s current events.

Now that the brain has refreshed, here are some good bits from the speech:

[box] First, the NAIA terminal 1 overhaul plans. Thank heavens. That airport is an embarrassment of a structure, so any attempt to improve it, or any small part of it (a plank of wood, a chair, a lone light bulb) would be welcome. If we are serious about this whole “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, which by the way looks great on TFC, we need to fix not just the airports in Boracay and Bohol, but those roads and highways within small towns, especially those that connect markets. I understand the bulk of the work to be done, so I’ll remain optimistic about this. (Gordon reportedly not impressed with “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” simply sounds bitter. Excuse me.)[/box] [box] Next is the budget increase for education–you’d have to be the lord cynic not to see the good news in that report; it would’ve been better though if state universities and colleges are fully subsidized. How’s that for dreaming? (But let me elaborate on this later).[/box] [box] Another box of goodness is the plans to export rice and stop importing as part of the self-sufficiency project of DA Secretary Alcala. However, international rice traders remain in doubt of the country being self-sufficient because, for one, much of the reported rice in stock/in the market are smuggled from Vietnam and other countries whose rice surplus is being disposed. Smuggled cheap rice that is counted as local yield will put an imbalance in the production equation and an illusion that we are helping our farmers. Also, if we are planning to export rice, one analyst from Singapore advised that we still ought to keep open the possibilities of importing rice to build trust among countries. This, methinks, is how international trade operates—you buy some, sell some. Not sell all, buy nothing, because that’s tilting the global trade into a dangerous imbalance.[/box]

And now. Let me focus on the big news of the Philippines being reported as the Asia’s next tiger economy. As I expected, the President quoted international reports on the country’s strong economic potential. I’ve seen this Bloomberg news before. It made me proud, but then, it pays to take sugar-coated lollies with a grain of salt.

See here, the two main reasons for this reported tiger spring are the OFW remittances and the BPO industry, both of which are driving dollars into the country. Ok, let me discuss this carefully. My stand on this is that, relying on the OFWs and BPOs is a gamble as risky as betting in bonds and futures.

Let’s start with the OFWs.

My salary as an overseas Filipino worker is about four times more than what I get from my previous job in the Philippines, and that alone gives me the purchasing power to invest in a small condominium. While I was signing papers early this year, the sales team were saying that a major part of their market is the OFWs who are planning to return to the Philippines or invest on Philippine properties.

Suppose the global economic crisis hits rock bottom and no bailout could save the super powers, I was wondering how the million Filipinos working abroad (and their remittances) would be affected; I was wondering how tough the Philippines’ insulation from global markets really is.

One case I could think of as an illustration is the price shock of crude oil. Whether you own a car or take public utility vehicles, you must’ve known that oil prices have been ridiculously rolling up and down and up, which raised the fares for some time. It’s interesting to note that much of the oil price behaviour depends on sentiments, whether fear or optimism. A single geopolitical cause of this is the gridlock between oil-rich Iran and the countries that sanction it for its nuclear ambitions. Iran, in response, threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, where significant number of freights and delivery cargoes carrying international trade commodities pass by—if Iran blocks the Strait, an inflation in certain commodities is inevitable. Worse, if Iran does block the Strait, the US will likely open fire (and Iran is armed to respond). Such tension in the Middle East causes the volatility of crude oil prices, something that the Philippines is not quite “insulated” from. If oil continues to climb more than a hundred dollars per barrel, LPG, transportation, food prices will shoot up—aka inflation.

Clearly, the Philippines is affected by a seemingly distant political tension. Point here is the interconnectedness and volatility of the global market and its possible effect on the OFWs, the “bagong bayani,” whom we depend on, thanks to the billion peso remittances, which are easily liquidated because of consumerism.

Let’s now turn to the BPO industry.

First, a story.

[box] Months after I resigned from the Department of Humanities, I took the boyfriend’s challenge of experiencing the call center work. I was sharing with him my disappointment with some people who opted to go to call centers rather than finding their niche in a more humane industry, when he argued that my criticism is without sensitivity nor knowledge of the call center world. Challenge accepted: I applied at one of the biggest call centers in the Philippines, was hired, and experienced it for two months. My account was under the US telecommunication giant, AT&T.

After three weeks of communications, culture, and product training, I was already on the floor (secretly shaking everyday), fixing the problems of Americans with their internet connection, landline, and TV—for the call center agents out there, that’s right—I was enlisted under the notoriously mind-blowing account, U-Verse, which so many applicants wanted to avoid. From 30, I think, we were down to 12 because of the account’s fast-paced, highly technical training.

Of course, during the training and work, my presence raised some suspicion. What is a former teacher doing in a call center? Many told me I was over-qualified. They didn’t know how profusely I was bleeding during the product training, where I struggled to understand the goddamn switches of U-verse remote control and residential gateway (modem), plus, the fiber optic connections, voice over IP network, pay per view channels, and the most intense of all is familiarizing oneself with all models of laptops available in case somebody wants to connect to the Internet using Lenovo Z370 one day and MacBook Pro the next day.

When I resigned, I have formed a totally new perspective of call center agents—one that is based on respect and deep appreciation of their skills and discipline. But here I stop. [/box]

Maybe I’ll write the rest of my call center experience someday, because for this post, I just want to say something about the BPO being mentioned in the SONA.

Look at the BPO sector. Back in the year 2000, only five thousand people were employed in this industry. Fast forward to 2011: 638,000 people are employed by BPOs, and the industry has contributed 11 billion dollars to our economy. It has been projected that come 2016, it will be bringing in 25 billion dollars and will be employing 1.3 million Filipinos

It didn’t feel right that the President reports about the BPO’s billion dollar income, while an agent’s monthly salary is just around 20,000 pesos. I received Php18,000 two years ago during the “call center challenge,” while here in Singapore, the minimum one could get for the same life-draining job is equivalent to Php60,000. The overworking agents are embarrassingly underpaid, given the skills they got—remember? top English speaker in the whole world? Beating India in all aspects of the English usage? Side note: as if this “robbery” is not enough, we let the agents be robbed at the dead of the night, no thanks to the notion that call center agents are rich. If these people are the pillars of Philippine economy, why not protect them?

It didn’t feel right, too, that the President reports about 638,000 people employed by BPOs, without citing that many of these are nursing graduates and even undergraduates who have no money to finance an expensive college education. I wonder, too, how the global economic crisis and volatility of the markets can affect the booming BPO industry. And lastly, I wonder: what if the Philippines finance the education more (even more than the reported boost), wouldn’t it be more sustainable if the country invest on minds that can be useful in research and development, instead of letting them earn their tuition fees from midnight shifts so that when they graduate they work for the BPO?


These are my thoughts on the SONA. I would’ve went on and on, but I fell asleep, tired of placing the Philippine president’s speech in the context of the world’s current events, but hopeful that things can be improved; the start of which is pointing out where the glitches could be.

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alex jordan
alex jordan
11 years ago

I couldn’t agree more on the points cited. 🙂

11 years ago
Reply to  alex jordan

hey, you’re alive, dude!

alex jordan
alex jordan
11 years ago
Reply to  Ai

of course i am, ms ai. hehe 🙂 i still regularly check your site, but opting not to comment much. 🙂

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