BPOs turning Pinoys into ‘glorified secretaries’?

Posted on November 30, 2011


Living in a former American colony, Filipinos upstage their Indian counterparts in the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry because they “learn US English in the first grade, eat hamburgers, follow the NBA, and watch the TV show ‘Friends’ long before they enter a call center,” said a recent New York Times report. Is this good news?

Not exactly, says Indian Ramon Magsaysay awardee Harish Hande.

In a story I wrote for GMA News Online last August, Harish warned the Philippines not to repeat the “mistake” of his country with regard to the BPO industry. India’s call center culture has produced “glorified secretaries” who have become pessimistic about their future, Harish said in an interview days before his awarding.

Here are excerpts from that interview of ours. What do you think?

HARISH: I would say through your media, to the young, I see a danger in the Philippines. What we have already gone through is the boom of the IT sector, which the Philippines is catching up to, that the youngsters – rather than building foundations of education, foundations of what their country is – are blindly leaving that and joining the call centers. You’re becoming glorified secretaries. That’s what has happened in India. You become glorified secretaries or glorified answering the phones but you are not building your basic foundations. Between 18 and 25, concentrate on your education. Build up your foundations for your life, rather than running into the lure of money and joining these BPO centers. That’s what happened in Bangalore, and I would say, something you are—, yes, that’s okay, that needs to happen, but the younger generation has to look beyond Manila, beyond America. What about the rest of the 50 percent of the population that lives on the islands, that lives in different parts of—. You just go five, 10 kilometers out of Manila, you have slum areas. How can all of the Philippines come together? Don’t make the mistake that we in India are doing, looking at growth at a single focus – 8 percent, 9 percent growth, without looking at what the other 70 percent of India is going to (inaudible). That’s why it leads to social unrest, because poverty is the biggest threat to social unrest and environmental unrest. I keep telling the young Indians, “Don’t complain. The hope is in your hands. Don’t complain that the politicians are going to stop you. Don’t be escapist.”

PATERNO: I imagine Filipinos in call centers will respond to you by saying, “But this is what we need in the short term. This is what we need now.”

HARISH: And that is what has happened in India. The short term has never ended.

PATERNO: What has happened in India?

HARISH: The moment you get frustrated over the call center and then you graduate, and you want to transfer to another job, and they come to us, they’re completely unqualified in their thinking. They’ve been just in that box of calling and calling. The innovative spirit has got completely killed. They’re no longer innovative. They’re not able to think out of the box. You tell me, if somebody comes to you and says, “I have four years of call center experience,” would you hire him? Right? It’s been answering phone calls. That’s why I challenge them. While, okay, I know there are compulsions of young Filipinos in earning more, but while you’re doing so, make sure that that is the age where your mind has learned something else finally. Just don’t—, okay, that’s your job, that’s only eight hours of your job. But that’s the age when you learn something else. So you build your career for the future. And I see in young Indians who come with four years or five years of BPO experience, they’re not able to fit into globalization.

PATERNO: What the people in the BPOs are saying is that the government doesn’t provide employment or there are few employment opportunities in the Philippines. So they tend to flock to the call centers.

HARISH: Exactly that is what has happened. But that has remained because then you have—, in India that has remained. But what has happened in India is that you have also created a bunch of frustrated young people in the future, who have become more cynical, saying that I can’t do anything else, because I have spent my valuable years in a call center. But I say that, “Okay, you are in a call center only eight hours a day. There are other 16 hours, which you actually spend the money (sic), what you earn in the call centers, by going to malls and everywhere else, rather than putting that money for a useful thing for your own future in terms of a different type of education. I will tell again to the young Filipinos who go to the call centers: By going to the call centers, don’t make the mistake of a lot of Indians by desensitivizing yourself to the rest of the country – in the sense that people went from home to the call center, back to the mall, back to the call center. There is a sensitivity towards the rest of the country that needs to be also there, right?

PATERNO: How did that happen in India?

HARISH: Because you stay in a flat, which is a gated community. You go in your car or company vehicle. You go to a center, ching-ching-ching, you’re entering. You’ll work for eight hours, come back. You actually don’t realize that there are other parts of India. You spend your money in a mall, you spend your money in a restaurant. You do not have the ecosystem to look around, what else is there. That sensitivity has gone through.

PATERNO: But in the case of a country that has a government with weak institutions and, as they say, poor efforts to increase employment—

HARISH: You are young. I will not believe that excuse. You’re equally responsible for building those institutions. It’s very easy to be cynical and get away from it. You go to America, you look at America. Somebody built it, right? Somebody built it a long time ago. It’s the young guys who built it. That’s why I said, the only way of protesting that the government is not working is actually creating solutions. You go and create solutions for the Philippines, and show it back to the government that it can be done this way.

PATERNO: So what are the little solutions that young people can make?

HARISH: I’ll come back to India. I’ll tell the answers. Okay, what are your primary interests that—, suppose I am the government. I’ll tell you the answers. “Okay, boss, I am the government. I will grant you any wish. What is the barrier that is stopping you?” You’re telling me the government is the barrier. As soon as you start asking those questions, the guy has no answer. What do you need from the government that is stopping you? What is your primary interest? You want to go there, you can go there today. It’s a democratic country. You want to get a loan from the bank? You can get a loan from the bank. Where is the government stopping you? People talk about weak institutions, right? You tell them to note down five things they want to do which the government is stopping them to do. Somebody says, “I want to improve the education of the rural poor. And the government is not allowing me to do it.” It’s an excuse. You tell me where is the government stopping you.

PATERNO: What about, “I want to feed my family”?

HARISH: What do you want to do, how do you want to feed your family?

PATERNO: By earning money.

HARISH: Yes, exactly. What’s your interest?

PATERNO: A number of Filipinos would like to do that by joining BPOs.

HARISH: No, but you said they’re doing BPOs because there’s no other job opportunities. I’m talking of that. There are no other job opportunities; there are weak institutions. What is that interest that you had that the government is stopping you from?

PATERNO: What would I like to do?


PATERNO: For example I want to be a journalist.

HARISH: So what’s stopping you?

PATERNO: No employment?

HARISH: Why do you need employment? You need to work somewhere to start. I started with less than (inaudible) rupees in my pocket. I had no government support. Three years, (three) thousand rupees in my pocket.

PATERNO: Three, three thousand rupees?

HARISH: Three thousand rupees for three years, every month.

PATERNO: And you’re saying we have pretty much exchange rate.

HARISH: Exactly.

PATERNO: That’s small.

HARISH: Exactly. If you want to, you can actually grow it from anything.

PATERNO: Common sense, as you said.

HARISH: You have a little bit of drive. Okay, it’s a barrier. The barrier should be looked at as a challenge. And a frustration should be looked at as a motivation. I cannot be motivated if I am not frustrated. I’m frustrated because it’s not been solved by the government; can I solve it?

PATERNO: So just to clarify, you’re saying we always have to look long-term.

HARISH: Absolutely.

PATERNO: Not short-term because as you said a while ago, the short-term becomes eternally short-term.

HARISH: Right. That’s what is happening.

PATERNO: It becomes a cycle.

HARISH: It does. You cannot get out of it.

PATERNO: And so we have to move?

HARISH: I’m not saying everybody. There are compulsions in the family; I agree. But there are other people who have the choice, and they are quite a bit of the population both in the Philippines and India. But they escape that.

PATERNO: Who are the people who have a choice? How would you describe them?

HARISH: How does the poor do it? How does a street vendor do it? Without anything they do it, right? You have typhoons, you have everything else. The street vendor survives for 20 years, right? “We don’t get a paycheck.” “I don’t have a job.” That’s why as we get more educated, we become more insecure. We become less risk takers. Our parents will say, “Don’t do it, you won’t get a girl.” “Don’t do it, you’ll not get married. Nobody will marry you.” That’s the Asian culture. That needs to break. You tell me, Paterno, you tell me, in the Asian region, there are a lot of smart people, right? You have the Asian Institute of Management, we have the Indian Institute of Technology – very smart people who have made good money in the US. You tell me one technological innovation that has come out of this region? (silence) In India, one billion people with a fantastic technical institute, you don’t have one innovation? That’s the problem.

PATERNO: So is it safe to assume that this challenge of yours can be particularly directed to the educated young people?

HARISH: Yes, exactly. What are you doing?

PATERNO: The educated class.

HARISH: We become—, “I’m not willing to take risks.” And why do I go to the US? Because I want to escape from here and make money there because everything is set up for me? Somebody needs to sacrifice and set up right here. Somebody needs to sacrifice. It’s very easy to go overseas. I agree, those are the population that will go (sic). But what about the educated Filipinos? They need to stay back and build the country. —The Wide Shot