Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Getting intoxicated with call centers?

THE graduation season is here again and fresh graduates—400,000 of them—are probably now wondering whether or not there’s a place for them in the country’s job market. If one is reading the newspapers, especially the weekend editions, it would appear that there are indeed fresh opportunities for them: call centers and outsourcing companies. Of course, there are always overseas jobs for skills that are in demand abroad (e.g. teachers, caregivers, pilots, mechanics, geologists, among others).

On the part of policy makers the big question should be: Would call centers and related industries that are “globalized,” overseas employment, actually solve the problem of joblessness in the country? It’s high time that policy makers ponder this because it appears that the hype created by this emerging industry and its supposed benefits to the economy seems to have lulled the government into complacency. Since the passage of the reformed VAT for instance, the government seemed to have totally lost the appetite for real reforms.

Several examples come to mind. The budget for 2006 has not been approved because, two weeks after passing it on second reading, the House has not yet passed it on third reading and transmitted it to the Senate. A lot of investors are awaiting the passage of the “rationalized” fiscal incentives law so they would have a predictable investment policy regime for their investments, yet the same measure is languishing in Congress. Also, private-sector locators in Camp John Hay and Clark are still waiting the passage of a new law providing them the fiscal incentives that were promised them when they signed up with these special economic zones—but were virtually rendered nonexistent by a Supreme Court ruling. Given the continued volatility of international crude prices, the Philippines has the chance to play catch-up on biofuels as earth-friendly and renewable alternatives to fossil fuel, yet the President’s allies in the Senate are sitting on the two-year old biofuels bill mandating the preblending of ethanol and biodiesel.

Outsourcing and overseas work, indeed, are fast transforming the Philippine economy. A decade ago, one couldn’t hear of any company or industry that pays great money before the recruit has started working. Since the last two years, customer care companies have been doing just that. Consider the recent job market announcement for call centers: P2,000 signing bonus; P15-18,000 ($353.00) basic monthly pay; training at P15,000 ($294.00) ; 20-percent night differential; P3,000 ($59.00) signing bonus; and performance bonus. (That pay levels will not make you rich in the Philippines but its attractive enough for new hires).

That means that if you are one of this year’s graduates and can speak English well, there are jobs that could actually pay real money. In fact, some call centers are so desperate for skilled workers that they institutionalized the pirating of workers as part of their human-resource strategy. One call center in Ortigas, for instance, has a “referral system” that rewards each staff with P3,000 for every call center agent that the staffer could bring to the office, and P5,000 for a recruit with supervisory experience.

Remittances of course have also been rising at double- digit rates in the last three years. And this means two things: first, job creation through overseas placement. About 3,000 persons are leaving the country each day as caregivers, nurses, doctors, pilots, mechanics, managers, household maids, engineers, technical people. And second, remittances are assumed to create jobs indirectly. High domestic demand theoretically translates to more business activities among the country’s farms, factories and offices. Supposedly, greater economic activities also sustain and even create more jobs.

Despite these gains, however, employment has remained as a problem—and this is why critics of the government continue to harp on the failure of the economy to touch the lives of ordinary people. Government officials, including Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, have been saying that ordinary citizens can only start feeling the benefits of higher economic growth if the country attains a sustained 7- percent rise in the country’s gross domestic product. So people will just have to be patient until the economy hits 7 percent for them to start feeling any improvement in their lives.

The truth is that government economic planners are entirely missing the entire point: that we are not undertaking real reforms the country needs in order to fuel an economic takeoff, contrary to the press releases of Malacañang. The continuing growth in the services sector as well as the continuing inflows of remittance money have been an important pillar of the economy yet survey after survey shows that they are not making a dent on the country’s unemployment problem. What this trend suggests is that getting back to the basic stuff of boosting the country’s “real economy”—its farms and factories—through real reforms like greater expenditure for economic and social infrastructure, more competition in port operations and shipping to enhance efficiency and cut costs, reducing the cost of power, providing a consistent and uniform investment incentive system, among many others, are still very, very important. Sad to say, it’s something that the government is actually not doing.

Maybe it’s too intoxicated reading those dozens and dozens of “wanted” ads pages, and has deluded itself into thinking everything is alright and someone else is taking care of the economy anyway.

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