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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Squatters and sitters

January 29, 2014 9:16 pm
As surprising as it may seem—shocking, really—that anyone could even think of an issue more important than the faulty social interactions of unremarkable entertainers this week, The Get Real Post (http://getrealphilippines.com/blog/) ventured where no one else dared to tread, and took on two somewhat more substantial issues: The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, and the chronic problem of squatters in Metro Manila.
The BPO industry bubbled to the top of the murky stew of public attention recently, with the outraged reaction from call center employees to the pilot of GMA-7’s latest drama series, The Borrowed Wife, in which one of the characters had these tart observations of the trade: “Hindi ako nag-aaral para sumagot lang ng telepono! [I did not go to school just to answer phone calls!]”, and “pang walang pinag-aralan lang ’yan [that job’s only for uneducated people].” As the Get Real Post article, authored by Fallen Angel, points out, the anger on the part of offended call center workers and their supporters was just another example of the not at all uncommon phenomenon of Filipinos taking entertainment way too personally, with an extra serving of missing the forest for the trees on the side.
The issue of squatters was, of course, brought to the fore again by yet another “violent demolition,” this time in the San Roque neighborhood along a 1-kilometer stretch of Agham Road in Quezon City Monday, which resulted in a pitched battle between residents organized by the Anakpawis and Kadamay leftist groups, and Quezon City police. Fortunately, no one was killed in the skirmish, but about two dozen people were taken to hospitals with various injuries and several arrests were made. Get Real’s benign took on this topic, focusing on how any sort of discussion on one of the country’s most troubling chronic problems glosses over the bigger social, economic, and legal issues in favor of sensationalist populism.
What these two seemingly unrelated issues have in common is that the reaction given to each of them by all concerned never rises above the micro level. The outrage over the brutality that seems to characterize the removal of squatter areas hardly even rises to that level, because it makes the conflict very one-sided. Indeed, we should be distressed that “relocations” routinely result in violence—we cannot help but think “there must be a better way”—but on the other hand, who should be blamed for it is not at all clear. In the San Roque case, as just one example of many in recent years, leftist groups arrived well ahead of the authorities to organize a defense; a defense, it should not be overlooked, of unsafe dwellings erected without authorization on property owned by someone other than the occupants (in this case, somewhat ironically, the National Housing Authority). The economic roots of the squatter problem are given lip service at best, and the proposed solutions—on both the part of activists and the government—are extremely conservative, in the true sense of the word meaning “not progressive”: Either leave the squatters where they are, or move them to some areas out of sight where they can live in the same conditions.
In the case of the “BPO slur,” the offended workers perceived that they were being belittled by the characters in a fictional TV drama, and responded by pointing out the vast contribution of the BPO industry to nation’s economy. That, too, is a very conservative point of view, as Fallen Angel (a call center veteran himself) pointed out in a question he posed in a follow-up article: “Why is there a portion of the call center/BPO community that is more concerned with its image at the micro/individual level than with the issues that its industry faces at the macro/collective level?”
The answer to that question might be that the BPO workforces is simply being guided by the shallow level of planning being employed by economic policymakers; in effect, the “image” of the Philippine BPO industry is its biggest selling point from the prevailing institutional point of view, with the same reasons—generally good English-speaking skills and familiarity with Western cultural attitudes, as well as comparatively low labor costs—being endlessly repeated as the country’s competitive advantages. Which they are not at all, for the simple reason that they can easily be duplicated—were that not the case, then countries like India and even South Korea and China would not be making serious inroads into the Philippines’ “BPO supremacy.”
In a very real sense, the inconvenient fact that one of the biggest drivers of the Philippine economy (along with the equally vapid labor export industry) is one that has no native added-value is a big reason why the economic caste structure is such that squatters and riot police are hurling rocks and teargas canisters at each other on a regular basis. Take a look at the list of the top 20 BPO companies in the Philippines: One has to get to the very bottom of the list to find one (SPi Global, formerly ePLDT-Ventus) that has any sort of significant Filipino stake, and even that one is 80-percnt foreign-owned (by London-based CVC Capital). All the added-value is going elsewhere, and all that remains here is income—it only looks like wealth.
That misinterpretation, on the part of policymakers in particular but also a handicap of Philippine society at large, limits planning and problem-solving. So rather than “relocate squatters and use them as a population base for targeted value-creating economic development to raise them above the squatter-level economic bracket,” government policy stops at “relocate squatters.” Rather than “concentrate on digital infrastructure development to meet the global standard of global VPN integration with near-100-percent service levels, and use the experience of the huge BPO workforce to create centers of development for high-end applications and expanded services,” government policy stops at “Filipinos speak English rather well.”
On both the high and low ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, this country faces unsustainable conditions; that these conditions have existed for a long time suggests the false belief in the country’s productivity can be sustained for some time to come. When that time ends, however—and it will—if the change to a kind of thinking that takes in broader horizons and longer timeframes has not occurred, life here may become very grim indeed.
benkritz@outlook.com

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