Filipino labor: cheaper and harder-working is no longer the game

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Anyone who has purchased a shirt in a department store in the Philippines has probably observed how each cash register is often manned by anywhere from two to four sales personnel — one to scan the merchandise, another to ring up the purchase on the machine, another to make all sorts of notations on the machine print out, and yet another to bag the item. Considering that a vastly more complex piece of equipment like a modern tank can be manned by a crew of three, this is very inefficient indeed. In fact, entire department store floors in advanced societies can be effectively manned by a team of five sales personnel.

Labour is truly an abundant resource in the Philippines. There is no pressure to develop and implement labour saving technology, methods, and processes because there are ample takers for any job no matter how dehumanising. Even modern photocopiers — machines that engineers took great pains to design into intuitive useroperated marvels — are each manned full-time by staff in many Philippine offices. To be fair to these workers and to the managers who design labour-intensive systems, Filipinos are not known to be the self-service type. Filipinos do not have an ethic of reading signs and following written instructions. This is partly because there is also no consistent use of instructional or directional signage in Philippine society. Traffic lights have to be augmented by traffic cops at intersections and lane markings in Philippine roads do not mean anything to Filipino motorists. Fixers and “facilitators” are a necessity when transacting with government agencies because there is often no coherent and consistent system to follow and hardly any information provided to guide customers. Filipinos find no satisfaction in designing systems that run like clockwork. Chaos reigns in many Filipino undertakings and chaos is a labourintensive situation to manage.

Even Filipino politics is labour-intensive. Filipinos invest in a highly-disruptive and expensive process to select their leaders — elections. Yet when the going gets tough, they don’t really see the people they elect to office as their representatives in Government. How’s that for an irony?

Filipinos find no irony in participating in elections, and then, not seeing the people they elect to office as their representatives. In the same way they find no problem with working a system and not finding any tangible results or benefit for themselves after all their trouble. This kind of attitude is sometimes called going through the motions. Filipinos are good at going through the motions. We like to feel like a democratic society because we go through the motions of having elections or go through the motions of expressing our views in the “free” press. This is like how workers feel they are terrific employees because they go through the motions of putting in crazy hours. Worse, by virtue of having gone through the motions of suffering in poverty for most of their lives, Filipinos think they are entitled to some blessings sometime in their fuzzy futures — the old habang may pag-asa (“so long as there is hope”) approach to having a vision for the future. What those “blessings” are and what the timeframe of this fuzzy future is, nobody knows. How could we know? These hopes and visions are not hinged on any results-based action of any substance.

Which brings us to the kicker: being cheaper and hardworking is no longer the game anymore. Nick Joaquin in his essay A Heritage of Smallness wrote:

The Filipino who travels abroad gets to thinking that his is the hardest working country in the world. By six or seven in the morning we are already up on our way to work, shops and markets are open; the wheels of industry are already agrind. Abroad, especially in the West, if you go out at seven in the morning you’re in a dead-town. Everybody’s still in bed; everything’s still closed up. Activity doesn’t begin till nine or ten — and ceases promptly at five p.m. By six, the business sections are dead towns again. The entire cities go to sleep on weekends. They have a shorter working day, a shorter working week. Yet they pile up more mileage than we who work all day and all week.

I highlight the last sentence in boldface for emphasis.

Operational excellence was the first step that today’s East Asian Dragons took in their journey to national excellence. They became more productive and more efficient workers and producers. But that was then. Today China has already seized the market for cheap working and producing. This means that the Philippines, now an also-ran because it missed the operational efficiency boat back in the 60’s and 70’s needs to leapfrog China just to remain in the game. The Philippines can no longer compete with China in cheap working and producing. This means that our society is in a serious bind, because all we are good at is working hard and producing hardworking warm bodies. Our numbers have increased at an embarrassing rate relative to the value we add to humanity.

So now we have the size (i.e. population) but we do not have scale — the synergy and cohesiveness to turn size into power. Filipino undertaking consistently lacks scale and structure — both being key ingredients to world-class productivity. Large well-designed factories will always produce higher volume and quality than small mom-and-pop operations. The Japanese are well known for exhibiting extreme examples of prowess in the design of large-scale systems. Theirs go beyond the design scale of individual factories and into the design of entire production communities. Their just-in-time manufacturing systems are made possible only by tight collaboration among sellers and buyers of goods and services in these production communities. These wellcoordinated super-operations did not just happen. They were engineered on a large scale.

However, of Filipinos, Joaquin went further to write:

However far we go back in our history it’s the small we find–the nipa hut, the barangay, the petty kingship, the slight tillage, the tingi trade. All our artifacts are miniatures and so is our folk literature, which is mostly proverbs, or dogmas in miniature. About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past are the rice terraces–and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of ant hills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design. We could bring in here the nursery diota about the little drops of water that make the mighty ocean, or the peso that’s not a peso if it lacks a centavo; but creative labor, alas, has sterner standards, a stricter hierarchy of values. Many little efforts, however perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. A galleryful of even the most charming statuettes is bound to look scant beside a Pieta or Moses by Michelangelo; and you could stack up the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace.

Indeed, large scale frameworks need to encompass large scale things. The skeleton of an elephant is not made up of collections of skeletons of mice. The skeleton of an elephant is one encompassing grand design that befits the scale of the animal it supports. Just like the effort to cobble together some semblance of mass transport systems in Philippine cities using jeepneys is a dismal failure. A lack of any large scale frameworks and, at the very least, thinking in Philippine society has led to its continued languishing in the world of mediocrity and the nurturing of “national pride” that latches on to nothing more than the little individual achievements of a very tiny Elite or worse, heroes.

[Excerpt from the book Get Real Philippines Book 1 which can be downloaded for free here]
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13 Comments on “Filipino labor: cheaper and harder-working is no longer the game”

  1. isn’t it that in the philippines, supposed “movements” that aspire to bring about achange is always prefixed by “in your own SMALL way” or some sentimental sounding equivalent?

    more smallness at work in everyday pinoyness:

    “hey we’re earth hour champions, wahoo…” (big frikkin’ deal.)

    “hey i’ve got perfect attendance so elect me…” (bam! we’re stuck with you-know-who.)

    “hey filipinos work harder than every other people in the world, so i’m proud to be pinoy…” (pride in having the LOWEST EFFICIENCY? tsk tsk)

    our pinoy culture overvalues effort, even ineffective effort, which in turn breeds mediocrity and its acceptance by default. so as a society we’re too kind towards overpromise and underdelivery (pnoy helllloooooooo!!!), probably because we’d like to think the same (excessive) tolerance will be applied when it’s our turn to screw up. so we end up not taking risks and doing big frikkin’ epic things.

  2. a-men!

    while countries like Japan have perfected the art of efficiency, delegating menial tasks to machinery and having clear, intuitive systems and procedures for everyday tasks, the Phil seems to be going the opposite direction – having 10 people doing the most trivial of tasks for pennies… and yet we still have over-population deniers who still prattle on about how the Philippines is still better off than Japan because its population growth is its biggest resource.

  3. Parallax and Dr Noh, both your observations seem consistent with the all-form-no-substance style of Da Pinoy. Pinoys like to be seen to be putting in a heroic effort but are hardly conscious of or focused on results. It’s a perverse going-through-the-motions society that we are seeing year after year muddling along in mediocrity.

    1. Its my biggest pet peeve. A few jobs back, Management decided to try out something new – an office flexi-time system wherein you can time-in or out, work from home, whatever, as long as you get your assigned workload for the project done on time. Guess what? the slackers who did little actual productive work soon became *VERY* vocal about how unfair it was that they were doing overtime while others who finished their work before the deadline were only doing halfday shifts. You should have heard all their pathetic whining! It was enough to turn me hypertensive overnight. Wala daw pakisama yung iba, hindi daw team-players, some were complaining that the work wasn’t equally divided. One bible-freak even cited the Parable of the Talents, for crying out loud! According to her, the more talented people on the team were wasting their god-given talents by not pushing themselves to the limit.

      Sadly, mgmt gave in to their endless complaints and scrapped the idea altogether. Needless to say, I didnt stay long in that company.

    2. That’s a classic example of an organisation where the wrong arguments won. Sadly that is a common occurrence all over the world. It’s just that the Philippines has a disproportionate share of such case studies.

  4. This is a direct result of a certain kind of thinking. Many Pinoys grossly overestimate the Peso value of their time at work. I’ve had workmates who feel that the company owes them some kind of recognition for NOT being late or for having NO absences during annual evaluations. They tend to believe that being always present is enough to compensate for lack of productivity and value in their output then bitch about how low they are getting paid.

  5. > is often manned by anywhere from two to four sales personnel

    Stupid example really, as if these decision are made by the common filipino and not by businessmen who earns much much more than a shitty article writer. As if they’ll just put an insignificant employee there, put a negative value in their books, earn much less and call it a day.

    1. These businessmen are not “common filipino[s]” to you?

      This arrangement becomes more commonplace because society either tolerates or concurs with it.

      1. An insignificant employee is a liability, no one is stupid enough to just hire someone so that they can earn much less.

        If big retail stores made a mistake in that decision they would have been bankrupt by now, or they would have hired shitty article writers as their business consultants. Haven’t seen this writer deciding retail store business plans till now though.

  6. I thought I’d provide an example of my life in the U.S., which has been my residence in the last 20 years.

    This is what my typical working schedule:

    -Wake up at 4:15am
    -Out the door by 5:15am
    -Drive 40 miles or a commute of 45 to 60 minutes depending on traffic
    -Be at work by 6:00am
    -Work a 9 hour shift
    -I’m an energy analyst for a DoD, but I’m also required to develop & maintain our internal website via Sharepoint, construct our performance dashboard by using Excel Visual Basic Application, update & upkeep our budget projection spreadsheet (budget of $150M for our energy program), analyze our consumption trends and contact managers in other installations to figure if the signficant increase/decrease in utility usage are legit, work with the billing group to ensure we are being charge correctly, etc.
    -I’m also required to help out with other programs such as transportation, real property, sustainment, etc.
    -Commute back home by 3:30pm
    -Driving time is 60-75 minutes depending on traffic

    Of course, the cycle starts all over again the next day. During the winter, when the days are shorter, I practically leave my place in the dark and come home in the dark. The only time I see the sun is when I take my breaks (wait, I don’t take breaks) and during lunch.

    Life in the U.S. is extremely hectic. Productivity and efficiency are a priorty here. Many companies have reduced their staffing levels and expected the remaining employees to cover for 2 to 3 additional people with no increase in salaries.

    A lot of my relatives have chosen to return to the Philippines because of stress; the only remaining ones are people my age – 20s and below.

  7. What an insightful report.
    As I have noticed in the Philippines, the SM corporation as an example, have taken that leap to be bigger… We even have one of the biggest mall in the world… It just happens to be that the bigger corporations want to utilize the system of having plenty of employees and pay them little so corporate can have more…
    Would it be better to pay less people and increase accountability and productivity??? or would it be business as usual and pay plenty of pople almost nothing and deminish people’s worth??? The big corporations or maybe politicians too, I think, have decided to just be “business as usual” so most of them would keep most of the money… Maybe a key change in paying people a “fair” wage or profit sharing to increase middle class might be an option…
    I also think that great hardworking Filipino, with there skills and determination, have elected to go overseas… Self-worth and true recognition and having the ability to come back home and be well-off have driven the Philippine downturn in just going thru the motions…
    I would never blame the people that takes there skills overseas and make better of themselves… It just happen to be that those people cannot see that they can be better in the Philippines…
    The fact that Filipinos can speak english is a great asset many employers all over the world… They are the heroes!!! The little they accomplish individually overseas have greatly represented the people of the Philippines in a better light…
    Increase the middle class and I can guarantee that more and more great hardworking filipinos will stay and invest in the Philippines…
    We already have the Call Centers… We can have manufacturing here too…
    WE JUST HAVE TO LEARN TO SHARE, JUST LIKE IN KINDERGARTEN…

  8. Being efficient and effective should be our priority not busyness. Nowadays almost everyone can be or are already busy, it’s nothing special anymore. The problem is that everything here from the crazy traffic coupled with inefficient PUVs further aggravated by endless DPWH and Maynilad projects to slow and expecsive internet speeds and even your neighbor’s irritating karaoke party that goes on till 1am in the morning (ensuring you get little to no sleep); everything is so geared towards making people busy (and pissed off) without actually making them efficient nor effective (nor growing as professionals). I guess telling us to be proud of our small achievements is the phil. gov’t’s way of masking their own inadequacies towards providing the people with better roads, facilities and uhh everything else they’re supposed to be providing? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I won’t be speaking about lazy and half-assed workers as that’s already been covered by Dr. Noh. The point is the spirit of mediocrity under the guise of pakikisama has so permeated our way of life that i doubt things are going to change for the better anytime soon, even in the far future, sadly enough.

    PS. I know this article has been written in 2011 and this is a super late comment but I think it’s still relevant considering things hardly changed at all.

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