Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Culture of mendicancy

San Francisco-based Filipino American lawyer Rodel Rodis wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer issue of September 18, 2012, that overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are responsible for promoting a culture of mendicancy among their family members and relatives who rely on their dollar remittances. This article must be read, not because Mr. Rodis has enlightened us or written something worth our time, but for his shallow and misplaced ideas so we may purge them out of our thinking.
The world doesn’t need charlatans like Mr. Rodis. He masquerades as a concerned Filipino patriot (as co-convenor and leader of the US Pinoys for Good Governance, USP4GG), yet looks down on his poor Filipino compatriots who leave their homeland to support their families.
Mr. Rodis highlights two documentaries which depict and describe why Filipinos are going abroad to work. But he misses the main storylines of these two films and instead pushes his own false thinking that OFWs are making our society a population of mendicants, people living on handouts and charity.
Filipino workers line up the sidewalks in Hongkong during their day-off. Photo courtesy
of  Kabayanmark Images. Click link to view "Destination Anywhere" by Vanguard, 
The first documentary, “Destination Anywhere,” tells us why millions of Filipinos have gone to work overseas to provide for their families, such as expenses for their housing, clothing, health care, education of their children, and other personal needs. However, the film did not fail to mention that OFW remittances have reached about 20 billion dollars every year, a statistical fact that keeps the Philippine economy afloat.
The second documentary, “Mendicant Society,” however, is more critical of the economic conditions that drive Filipinos to work abroad, and the changes—both the misery and triumphs—they have brought upon their families and the society as a whole.
Why Mr. Rodis should conclude that OFW remittances promote a mendicant culture befuddles the mind. For one, his observation is outside the scope of the two films and is a very dismal characterization. Dollar earnings of millions of Filipinos abroad continue to shore up the country’s economy. Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has recognized OFWs as the country’s new heroes for their remittances, buying properties, and creating businesses. OFW remittances represent 13.5 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. The economic managers of the current administration of President Benigno Aquino III have also credited the contributions of overseas workers to the country’s economic stability.
Next to Mexico, the Philippines is the second largest exporter of labour. On the average, 2,500 Filipinos leave the country each day to work abroad. Ten per cent of the population of the Philippines, or nearly 8 million Filipinos, are overseas workers distributed in 182 countries over the world. A large proportion of remittances come from women who are the majority of overseas Filipino workers, mostly domestic helpers and personal service workers.
Most overseas Filipino workers are skilled workers who take on unskilled work overseas, thus a brain drain on the country, particularly in the health and education sectors. There are not enough jobs in the country to employ a fast-growing work force. So, new graduates and unemployed workers choose to go abroad even if the result is underemployment, or in some cases, exploitation of labour.
A government that has failed its people should be responsible for the exodus of overseas workers. Work overseas has become the only alternative for many Filipinos to escape from the claws of poverty. Those who criticize overseas workers, such as Mr. Rodis, for subsidizing the living expenses and consumer excesses of the families they left behind fail to recognize the real root of the problem.
It’s the economy, stupid. Provide people with opportunities to work and earn a decent wage to support their families and they will all stay. There’s no place like home, but when economic conditions make life miserable, these will drive people to search for opportunities outside. Instead of faulting overseas workers for their remittances, blame the government for relying on foreign remittances to keep the economy afloat.
The World Bank has observed that the Philippines has been too distracted by the excellent performance of remittances, making the government complacent in addressing its fiscal deficits and low productivity growth. Foreign remittances were so huge, according to the World Bank, they accounted for more than twice the foreign aid the Philippines received. Remittances were also slightly larger than the country’s electronic exports, making Filipino workers the largest export commodity.
Migrante International has also recognized that the Philippines’ biggest exports are overseas Filipino workers and will continue to be for as long as the government relies on a labour export program as the centrepiece of its economic plan. Overseas employment is not the effective solution to the underemployment problem, or to the lack of jobs.
Without basic industries and with a backward agrarian economy, the Philippines will forever be unable to absorb a growing labour force. This situation drives Filipinos to migrate and work overseas, and the continuing export of cheap Filipino labour has turned these workers into modern-day slaves.
Those who criticize OFWs for turning their families into a society of mendicants should read the stories of exploitation of Filipino labour overseas, the cases of OFWs on death row and those beheaded in Saudi Arabia, the abuses and rape of Filipino nannies by their employers, and the unfair labour practices and working conditions most of these workers have to bear.
Repatriated Filipino overseas workers arrived from Lebanon conflict. Photo courtesy
of  IOM International Organization for Migration. Click link to view "Mendicant Society"
Overseas Filipino workers have been neglected by the government, yet their critics who accuse them of creating a culture of mendicancy fail to see the full impact of the government’s labour export program, not just its contribution to the Philippine economy but in helping their families survive as well. OFWs and their families have also borne the brunt of separation, which is not healthy for children who are growing up without their parents around.
Ultimately, development depends on good economic policies, not in viewing overseas employment as a substitute for economic growth. Foreign remittances from overseas workers can also be tapped for domestic investment, but the government must first have sound economic policies and create the opportunities for investment This appears to be the better thinking rather than placing the onus on OFWs for creating a society of mendicants.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The ghosts of martial law


Last year during the 39th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, Edwin Lacierda, the spokesperson of President Benigno Aquino III, was asked what changes the Aquino administration had initiated to improve the human rights situation. In his reply, Lacierda said, “We have no political prisoners.”

The Aquino government continues to deny that there are political prisoners in
the Philippines. Click link
to view "Political Prisoners in the Philippines."
Lacierda also said that the Aquino administration has no official policy on human rights violations. Pointing to the appointment of Etta Rosales as chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, who herself was a victim of torture under the Marcos regime, Lacierda said this was proof that “We frown on human rights violations.”
In denying that there are no political prisoners in the Philippines, at least under the Aquino presidency, Lacierda argued that the list under the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) bore this out. The list he was referring to contained the names of the persons supposed to be protected by JASIG, who were participants in the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). But the list contained assumed names (aliases) as agreed upon by both panels to ensure the security of the peace talk participants, including their consultants and staff.
Because Lacierda and the government could not decrypt the JASIG list (complaining that there were even no pictures), he used this as his term of reference why no political prisoners exist in the Philippines. Lacierda must have thought that the NDFP supplied in one list the names of all the political prisoners languishing in various jails and detention centres in the country. The list actually had only the names of the NDFP peace panel members and consultants. Either Lacierda, who is a lawyer, was being overly technical in asking for a clearer term of reference or simply dim-witted to deny that political prisoners in the Philippines are in fact deemed as common criminals and incarcerated along with those charged with murder, theft, robbery and other common crimes.
There is nothing novel in Lacierda’s denial. Ferdinand Marcos said the same thing when he said that there were no political prisoners during the martial law period. It has been the official practice of the Philippine government from the time of Marcos to lump all political prisoners with common criminals. From the time of martial law under Marcos, no person has ever been charged with rebellion or treason or for participation in any political activity that opposed the government, but only for crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, disturbing the peace, and other garden-variety common crimes.
Even the President’s father Ninoy Aquino was jailed by Marcos for trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion. Not because he was an outspoken critic of the Marcos administration. Ninoy Aquino was never prosecuted for his political opposition to the martial law regime.
How would President Benigno Aquino III react if told that his father was never a political prisoner, but just a common criminal? When in fact Ninoy Aquino was the foremost political detainee at the time.
Why would hundreds of other political dissenters and innocent victims of state repression continue to suffer imprisonment? Is it because there are no political prisoners? The President must have a short memory: he has already forgotten that one of the first things his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, proclaimed upon assuming the presidency after martial law was a general amnesty and to release all political prisoners.
A political prisoner is someone who is in prison because he has opposed or criticized the government of his own country. Why most political prisoners have the taken the path of most resistance is not difficult to understand.
When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, he imposed his own will outside of the limits of the Constitution. He ruled by decree and curtailed press freedom and other civil liberties. He closed down Congress and ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists, including his staunchest critics and potential contenders to the presidency, Senators Benigno Aquino, Jr., Jovito Salonga and Jose Diokno.

Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law in the Philippines on September 21, 1972.
Click  to view "Batas
Militar: Martial Law in the Philippines" by the Philippine Presidency  Project, a two-hour
 long video produced by Foundation Worldwide People Power (FWWPP).
The economy floundered under martial law because Marcos and his cronies were stealing the country’s wealth. Repression was widespread as the military establishment under Marcos became more entrenched and powerful. They could arrest anyone on mere suspicion and make them disappear.
Military historian Alfred McCoy in his book, Closer than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy, cited 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 torture victims, and 70,000 incarcerated during the Marcos martial law period.
As the people were deprived of their political and civil rights, their only viable option was to take to the hills and the path of most resistance. All revolutions are born from similar conditions. Oppressive social structures and economic inequalities often have pushed dissenters to take the road to resistance. Many of these people are poor, weak and belong to underprivileged communities. Where there is state repression, people will always be attracted to fight back.
From the martial law years until the present time, political prisoners have been arrested without the veneer of legality, where false criminal charges and manufactured evidence are used to disguise the fact that an individual is a political prisoner. This situation is most common when human rights are violated and abused, to the point of establishing a culture of impunity by the state.
The legacy of arrest and detention of political prisoners during the Marcos martial law years has never been broken. As it persisted during the Marcos time, justice became a flexible notion and depended on what was in the best interests, not of the people, but of the state and its dictator. Prosecution was used as a political tool and the presumption of innocence was just an abstract liberal legal principle. While the enemies of the Marcos regime could easily have been liquidated, which in some cases were made through enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings, the government also opted to make efficient use of the criminal justice system to destroy them. Instead of accusing them of political crimes, they would invent propped-up charges of common crimes. Depriving them of their day in court, they would languish in detention, sometimes tortured and deprived of their decency. What was lacking from the treatment of political prisoners during that time was a “show trial,” a practice that was normally staged in other repressive states where the defendant was brought before the court, a broken and hollow man, to confess his crimes.
Putting in prison those who oppose the government, or even forcing their disappearances or extra-judicially liquidating them is a legacy from the martial law years. Today, such arrest and prolonged detention of political prisoners keep lingering on. There are at present about 385 political prisoners, not identified as such but mixed with common criminals, who continue to languish in prison for exercising their right to civil society freedoms.
Since President Benigno Aquino III became president, there have been 99 victims of extrajudicial killings and 11 cases of enforced disappearances. Majority of the victims are farmers, indigenous peoples and activists advocating for land rights and environmental protection.
In its second-quarter report, the local human rights group Karapatan also documented 60 victims of frustrated killings, 67 victims of torture, 93 victims of physical assault and injury perpetrated by suspected state security forces.
We don’t need to have a better definition of terms or perhaps a clearer term of reference on human rights as Lacierda has suggested. In addition to the rule of law that the Philippines upholds, it is also a signatory to almost all international instruments on human rights. Instead of denial, Lacierda and his likes, including the President, have all the terms of reference before their disposal to inform them on why we have political prisoners in the Philippines including ongoing violations and abuse of human rights.
All those who are in a state of political denial, such as President Aquino, his spokesperson and others can start with a clear appreciation of September 21, 1972, and be ever mindful of the ghosts of martial law that continue to haunt us as a nation.

Monday, September 17, 2012

America’s arrogance


With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has remained the last one standing among the world’s superpowers. The U.S. is still in a class of its own, economically and militarily. Though more powerful than ever, the U.S. has never been more reviled however.
Majority of the people in the Middle East, for example, believe the U.S. war against Islamic terrorism is in fact meant to secure oil or even achieve world domination. The American invasion of Iraq and the consequent grand plan to promote freedom and establish democracy has long been suspected by other countries, including America’s allies, as a convenient smokescreen to control Iraq’s oil resources.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush used to say “that the terrorists hate us because of our freedom.” But that is not true. People in the world have always admired the American free society. Everyone wants to be in America as the song suggests in West Side Story. What they don’t like is American arrogance and indifference to world opinion that is inherent in so much of its foreign policy, and which some of the time is also hypocritical and unjust.
This is not just a modern-day gripe against America. Early on during the 1950s to the 1960s, it is exactly how countries in Latin America had felt when their people were treated by Gringos sent to oversee American banana plantations or other American interests. There was hostility everywhere against the Americans – not just because of the size, wealth and good fortune of the United States. D. H. Radler called this the American talent for offending people in his article in the 1961 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
“With few exceptions, they (Americans) usually manage to make enemies instead of friends,” Radler wrote. “We do this acting as if we are better than anyone else,” he added.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is one fine example of American arrogance. He wanted President Barack Obama to be more bellicose in showing outrage and condemning the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and to stop apologizing to the perpetrators of the violence that killed an American ambassador and three of his staff. The “apologizing” stuff was a misleading staple of the Romney political campaign attack for nowhere did Obama apologize for the Libyan incident or in any of his foreign policy remarks in the past.
Violent Muslim demonstrations have spread in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia over film
mocking Islam and its Prophet Mohammed. Photo by Abd Raouf/Associated Press.
Click link to view "Martin Luther King Jr.'s Speech About America's Arrogance,"
Romney like all recent Republican presidential wannabes seems to suffer from the “Tolstoy syndrome.” In the 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Scott Norton described this group of war-hungry individuals as claiming to have a vision but is in fact blind. “They think they know all the answers, so they neither see nor listen. And the consequences of their misrule have been staggering,” Norton wrote. Norton was criticizing the Bush war in Iraq at that time and the belligerent positions of the Republican presidential primary aspirants over jihadist extremism, from the hawkish John McCain to the auditioning fear monger-in-chief Rudy Giuliani.
Fareed Zakaria of Time Magazine wrote that the problem with America today is not because it is too strong. But rather the U.S. is seen as too arrogant, uncaring and insensitive. There is a popular feeling that the United States is too obsessed with its own notions of terrorism and has stopped listening to the rest of the world.
Our recollection of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq can’t be effaced from our memory during an interview of then Vice President Cheney by ABC News’s Good Morning America. Cheney was reminded that the American public, by a margin of two-to-one, opposed the war in Iraq. Showing his arrogant indifference, Cheney responded, “So?”
Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama’s response to the Libyan incident is not so much different from his friends in the Republican Party. It is perfect arrogance, plain and simple. When criticized afterwards for his inept remarks, Romney would evade very serious question and let his spinmeisters repair the obvious damage by referring to the overall weakness in Obama’s Middle East policy, a tenuous criticism as well.
There have always been extremists in the Middle East, before and after the Arab Spring revolution that toppled three long and brutal dictatorships. Through foreign aid, the United States has attached strings to countries that will embrace American values, and reward them for protecting political and religious freedom. But much of the U.S. foreign assistance was either hijacked by the ruling despots to build their personal cache or spent in strengthening their military might. This includes humanitarian aid which hardly went to the people who were direly in need of assistance such as food, water and medicine.
To most Arabs, particularly among the youth, the appeal of fundamentalist Islam was intoxicating. Religion became a powerful medium to express their anti-American sentiment. While there was love-hate relationship between these young Arabs and the United States, nevertheless they have also embraced even some American political ideals of liberty and democracy, which became hugely popular during the tumultuous Arab Spring uprising. Even the former radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has mellowed and adopted the democratic promise of parliamentary reforms over continuing their violent confrontation with the state. The ouster of Gaddafi was a boon to America for it gave the flicker of hope that democracy was possible in Libya.
Anti-American demonstrations by Muslims have caught fire after killing of
American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya. Photo by
Hatem Moussa/Associated Press.
 Writing for The Independent, Robert Fisk wrote that “With the help of our wonderful new technology, it only takes a couple of loonies to kick off a miniature war in the Muslim world within seconds.” Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his diplomat colleagues in Benghazi have paid the price for those provocateurs for choosing to raise the ire of the Muslim world through a deliberately abusive film that denigrated Islam’s prophet. That Muslims around the world are so culturally averse to criticism of their religion is not the issue. It is not the Muslim religion that is on trial, but to allow the work of some crackpot to be used by extremists to light up the flames of anti-Western sentiment just crosses the line.
Sometimes America’s arrogance in international relations has also rubbed off on the minds of a few zealots who would behave like they have been bestowed with America’s power, like its allies in Southeast Asia. The Philippine government, for one, has taken the high road in pushing its sovereignty claim over territories in the South China Sea by renaming the sea as the West Philippine Sea, delineating the waters and islands in the sea as part of Philippine territory. President Benigno Aquino III and his foreign policy advisers know full well that such a unilateral move could be taken as provocative and not in keeping with its demand for an official code of conduct between the claimant countries. For one thing, the dispute is not about who has sovereignty over the waters, but the land formations over and under the water which are still unresolved.
The Philippine government is behaving as arrogantly as the United States which has recently announced its pivot to Asia and the Pacific as the focus of its new foreign policy and military strategy. Part of the new American initiative are basing rights and rotating military presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines, which by all means is a surrender of sovereignty. Has this foreign policy pivot and military realignment by the United States strengthened the defence of the Philippines? Is this what is prompting the Philippines to be more assertive of its claims in the South China Sea (or in the West Philippine Sea as it prefers to call it), having been reassured of U.S. military support?
But as it stands, all claimant countries in the South China Sea are on equal footing. No one claim is superior or more valid than the other. If there is a window for a diplomatic solution of the impasse, the Philippines should stop behaving arrogantly like its former colonial master.

Monday, September 10, 2012

God of patronage


Which is more annoying to hear?
An athlete thanking God after every time he wins? Or a Supreme Court Chief Justice invoking her appointment as God’s will, and not a political act by anyone?
There is more than a slight difference between the two instances. The athlete thanks God for giving him the strength and ability to vanquish his opponent. He never says the uppercut that knocked out his foe in the ring was an act of God. We could grant him points for being sincere.
On the other hand, the Chief Justice who says she has a divine mandate is quite delusional. She was appointed to the high post she now enjoys by a President who was her classmate in college and for whom she has shown her loyalty; perhaps a debt of gratitude, in previous decisions the court made that supported the President’s actions. Was she being thankful to God for her appointment, maybe? Was she being sincere? Doubtful.
Last year, the Chief Justice on her second year as an associate justice after being appointed by President Benigno Aquino III, made known where her heart and mind rest when she wrote a dissenting opinion on the Hacienda Luisita case. Let’s not forget that the Hacienda belongs to the President’s family, one of the wealthiest landlord families in the country.
The newly-appointed Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes
Sereno, says her appointment was God's will. Click link to view "CJ Search: Justice
Lourdes Sereno,"
Then Associate Justice Lourdes Sereno pegged the compensation for the Cojuangco-Aquino family at the 2oo6 valuation of the Hacienda, at 2.5 million pesos per hectare. She dismissed her other colleagues’ better judgment that the 1989 fair market value be used, at 40,000 pesos per hectare.
Just to think about compensating the Cojuangco-Aquino family with billions of pesos is unconscionable. To date, there has been no distribution of land to the farmers despite the court’s order. The family continues to enjoy the wealth of the Hacienda as a new question for clarification regarding the compensation issue was brought to the High Court by its management.
Associate Justice Sereno also sided with the Aquino administration in issuing a travel ban on former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who was facing charges of corruption and election sabotage.
Where God plays in the political or judicial process is very personal matter. Every judge has his or her own set of values that may guide the intricate process of deciding cases. If religion plays a significant role in decision-making, an impartial and fair judge does not let that show or declare in clear and bold terms that the decision he or she makes is an act of God.
For the Chief Justice to say that her appointment was God’s will is very disturbing. Is she implying that her decisions would never be flawed? That they are also willed by God, therefore, beyond question or reproach. She’s not even the pope, yet she’s suggesting infallibility.
Unless of course we are to believe the much talked about results of her psychiatric test, which all the short-listed candidates were required to take, that the Chief Justice had the tendency to be “dramatic, emotional and self-righteous.” We can only wonder why such type of test is not administered to future presidents or even to all members of Congress which obviously demand personalities that are much more psychologically and emotionally stable. This reminds us of Senator Tito Sotto and his quixotic crusade against the proposed Reproductive Health Care law that he has to plagiarize someone else’s work to dramatize his wife’s personal ordeal with birth control devices.
But then we would be reducing the position of Chief Justice or President to a low level functionary or a clerical position where applicants are normally asked to take IQ or psychiatric tests. Such tests may serve their function, but for a Chief Justice wannabe to undergo a psychiatric evaluation is quite a stretch. It’s demeaning to the position which demands after all years and years of experience in judicial decision-making, where a prospective judge or Chief Justice applies an unquestionable grasp of the law when interpreting the law or deciding cases. That is what is more important to know, not whether a candidate for Chief Justice would have the tendency to be emotional or dramatic, tell-tale signs of instability.
If all that she wanted was to thank the President for appointing her, then the Chief Justice could be excused for being over dramatic for ascribing certain God-qualities to her godfather. The same “God of patronage” who shepherded his own classmates in college and appointed them to high positions in government. And despite the President’s mantra of good governance (“daang matuwid”), his classmates, who were also his close friends and drinking buddies, are all beyond the reach of law even if implicated in irregularities.
This is not to question the qualifications of the new Chief Justice, but in the future, the less she mentions God or makes any reference to some divine power the more she would be able to display a judge-like temperament which is essential when she makes up her own mind. This will also enable her to reach across the other justices who felt betrayed or bypassed, especially the five more senior justices who would never have the chance of being elevated to the highest position in the justice system. Without mentioning God, she would be standing on her own, without a crutch. That would be a great equalizer between her and her colleagues. She can keep her faith in God, as long as she doesn’t pull it out of her tool kit and use it as the reason for her being and the basis for her judgments.
Now that the brawling of the Supreme Court is over, the justices been chastised, and a new Chief Justice has been selected, was it a victory for President Aquino? Or was there any victory? That would be up to the leadership of the new Chief Justice to tame whatever lingering ill-effects of the controversial impeachment process has brought upon the justice system. It would be totally up to her to remake the highest judicial body of the land.
The more optimistic view of the court is that it is too early to judge the new Chief Justice. She has a long term ahead of her, perhaps the longest for a Chief Justice in recent years, to lead the Supreme Court. The sheer weight of the institution, its tradition, its procedure, and its observances will have an inevitable effect on how she leads. But the real test for the new Chief Justice is whether she could guard the separate existence of the judiciary from executive encroachment, a tradition that needs to be observed at least in theory, since the establishment of the Supreme Court.
But if this “God-anointed” Chief Justice flops, let’s hope she doesn’t blame her failure to force majeure or to an “Act of God.” Not again.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Illusions of prosperity


The Philippines has already surpassed India as the world’s leading provider of voice-based outsourcing services, otherwise known as call centres. Comprising 80 per cent of the booming Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, call centres have been singled out by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in his most recent state of the nation address as the principal engine of job growth during his watch as president of the country.
Growing from only 5,000 workers in 2000 to 680,000 in 2011, the BPO industry has contributed 11 billion dollars to the Philippine economy. Raving about the prospects of the BPO industry, President Aquino predicted that by the end of his term in 2016, the industry would have brought 25 billion dollars and employed over 1.3 million Filipinos.
Together with dollar remittances by Filipino overseas workers, BPOs are propping the country’s economy. According to government statistics, the Philippine economy has grown by 5.9 percent during the second quarter, exceeding earlier predictions of 5.4 to 5.8 percent. The last quarter’s growth rate however dipped from the first quarter performance of 6.1 per cent, but it remains the third highest in the region compared to China’s 7.8 percent growth and Indonesia’s 6.4 percent clip during the period.
Overall, the economy is looking good, say economic forecasters. This is helping make the Philippines an economic bright spot in Asia, while others are starting to believe the Philippine economy is “no longer a jeepney economy,” and that it can now run on a faster mode.
Future call centre workers, kids from local schools talking to technology firms in
Manila. Photo courtesy of markhillary. Click link to view "No Longer a Jeepney
But for how long can this consumption-driven growth be sustained by remittances from migrant Filipino workers and revenues of business process outsourcing companies?
There are genuine concerns that the country’s newfound prosperity has not sufficiently eradicated poverty. Unlike China and Japan, also Thailand and Vietnam, the Philippines has not successfully developed export-driven manufacturing that could bring millions of people out of poverty and increase the size of the middle class.
While the BPO sector in the Philippines has grown impressively, it only provides about one per cent of jobs in the country. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), this sector does not create jobs that are accessible to farmers or to millions of Filipinos in the rural areas who would like to get out of poverty. Rajat M. Nag, the ADB managing director, believes that the Philippines “needs to aggressively develop its manufacturing sector to create more jobs.”
Domestic spending as evidenced by consumers going to shopping malls and fast food chains or buying cellular phones from retailers and purchasing real estate assets is creating illusions of prosperity. These are soft manifestations of growth and the economy cannot rely on domestic consumption alone to fuel the economy.
The BPO industry in the Philippines is still driven by traditional low value-added services like call centre services, and has not evolved into the higher value-added types of outsourcing services such as programming, legal services, accounting and medical transcription. Most call centres in the Philippines service the U.S. market, which is the biggest for IT-enabled services and other BPOs. Being closely tied to the U.S. economy, the country’s BPO sector could be hurt by the economic downturn in the United States and the European sovereign debt crisis, and consequently, there could be cutbacks in demand for BPO services.
India, which used to be Asia’s leading outsourcer, has already turned away from call centres since U.S. companies have been driving prices down. This is one reason why many U.S. companies hard-hit by the economic slowdown have gone to the Philippines where they could negotiate for cheaper contracts with local BPO companies. To protect their profits, call centre operators can cut down on salaries and benefits for their employees, a scenario that is not farfetched. There is evidence that call centres are alternatively relocating their operations from Metro Manila to other regions in the country where there is a cheaper pool of English-proficient workers. To date, call centres are being set up in Baguio, Cebu, and Davao City.
Philippine call centres are not immune to the global economic crisis. It is therefore unwise to pin the hopes of the unemployed and new college graduates on the BPO sector that is not a sustainable source for jobs. It also highlights the fallacy in the government’s economic plan to rely on external sources for job creation, instead of building the country’s domestic economy that will generate sufficient and stable employment for Filipinos.
There are roughly more than half a million Filipinos who now spend their nights talking to mostly American consumers. Giant companies like the AT&T, JPMorgan, Chase and Expedia have hired local call centres in the Philippines, or probably they have also built their own, according to industry officials. The Philippines is now the preferred choice of the outsourcing business, primarily because American customers want American English. A former colony of the United States which introduced English as the medium of instruction in public schools, the Philippines has a large population of young people who can speak American-accented English. Unlike Indians who previously cornered the outsourcing business, these young Filipinos are also steeped in American culture.
Now, just because the outsourcing business has created this astonishing number of jobs and fueled domestic consumption, it doesn’t necessarily augur well for the health of our economy and our young labour force. The Philippines cannot over rely on the BPO sector to generate jobs because the current economic slowdown in the U.S. and Europe can affect the industry, and when this happens jobs will disappear or wages can be pushed down by competition that could lead to exploitation.
There’s also another side to the outsourcing business in the Philippines that has never been talked about. We should learn our lessons from India with their experience with call centres.
Sometime in 2004, Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from The New York Times, traveled to Bangalore, India, to make a documentary on the outsourcing of American business to India and to inform Americans who are incensed about jobs being shipped overseas may also have some hidden benefits to the U.S. economy. It was a highly creative documentary that featured Friedman’s animated interviewing style, intimate ethnographic scenes of young Indians performing their routines of work and leisure, and the range of interviews with Friedman’s selected host of respondents.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times traveled to Bangalore, India in
2004 to film a documentary of call centre workers called "Outsourcing." Click
link to view the documentary,

In the documentary, young Indian female call centre workers were portrayed as having “hot jobs” and earning more money than their parents and older workers. These “hot jobs” offered them a form of empowerment that allowed them the freedom to purchase lifestyle commodities and brand-name goods in the global marketplace. Friedman’s video suggested that call centres represented India’s encounter with progress, their embrace of globalization, when actually the video was highlighting the global economy’s migration to South Asia in search of cheap skilled labour.
Friedman’s video also described the grueling night shifts of young Indians in 24/7 call centres who work at night to accommodate U.S. customers’ daytime calls. A critic observed that this rigorous work schedule concealed the multinationals’ opportunistic manipulation of world time zones. All call centre employees work at night and spend their money on consumer goods in the daytime.
Maybe, like Philippine President Aquino and many economists who are enamoured with the BPO sector as a boom to the local economy, they share Friedman’s conclusion that the newfound disposable income, disposable time and their young age made the jobs at the call centre a “hot” prospect for Indian youth. While the call centres provided lucrative employment for hundreds of thousands of young women and men, Friedman’s documentary however failed to consider the stress of night shifts, highly repetitive work, and little or lack of opportunities for mobility. In addition, Friedman evaded the effect of assuming “American or European identities” by these call centre workers to satisfy the image their customers would require, which could possibly lead to multiple personality disorder in some workers.
Some critics of call centres in India have noted the lack of daytime social life for those who sleep during the day and the packed schedules of those who forgo sleep to maintain ties with family and friends, which have led to complaints of stress, panic attacks, depression, relationship troubles, alcoholism, and eating disorders.
Of course, that was India and not the Philippines. But Filipino call centre workers are also operating under similar circumstances, thus we could infer a similar cultural impact of outsourcing upon young Filipino workers in the BPO industry. The local BPO industry is slowly creating a “zombie workforce,” an army of workers wide-awake at night and asleep during the daytime.
The practice of forcing workers to assume American or European identities to please their customers in the United States and Europe also sustains racism. Likewise, these workers could face forms of abuse from American customers, whose tantrums are sometimes racist and often inspired by anger over outsourcing.
Although economic globalization has enabled certain sections of the Philippine labour force to gain employment and improve their purchasing power, the ideology of prosperity that it promotes has not benefited the vast majority of poor urban and rural Filipinos who continue to struggle to provide for their basic needs like food, clean water, shelter, education, and health care. BPOs should not be looked at simply from the viewpoint of job generation, without examining their harmful social and cultural impact on our young workforce.