BPO Workers: The New Symbol of Filipino Mediocrity

The BPO industry has sounded its call for talented youth, and the youth have responded. Its appeal includes higher salaries compared to other locally available jobs and higher starting salaries for fresh graduates. People can opt to stay in the country and not have to be an OFW to have relatively comfortable lives. Of course there are compromises like having to deal with the abnormal shifts, the lack of a normal social and family life and other things, but these to some people are reasonable compromises. The BPO workers are the new OFWs what with the similarities between the two. On the bright side, like OFWs BPO workers generally earn more compared to their counterparts in local companies enabling them to improve their families’ lives. Yet like OFWs who accept the compromise of being away from their families in order to earn much, BPO workers also need to compromise because they follow an abnormal work schedule. It is even worse for them because their health and well-being are negatively affected due to the long-term effects of the night-shift.

In addition to the general difficulties of BPO work, in the company I currently belong to, people deal with a heavy workload, a complex process, involvement in process improvement projects and overtime. These are marks of being passionate for the job which graduates from the top schools in the country always prove to their colleagues. It is not uncommon to find people who stay for 16 hours in the office and come back for more the next shift. Occasionally, people are expected to bring their laptops with them during their planned vacation so they can log in to work or they are expected to extend their Friday shift to late Saturday afternoon. People do this without any overtime pay and with minimal benefits – a free lunch and taxi ride home – and there seems to be this unspoken expectation that one ought to be willing to be this passionate about work because everyone else is.

It is not for me to judge other people’s decisions. Assuming that they have really thought about their choice of a BPO career then I do not have the right to say that they have made a bad decision. It is all very well for people to be passionate about something if it gives their lives meaning which I observe for many at work. It may be normal to complain about the work load and the extra expectations but I find that some people really enjoy what they are doing and beam with pride when they are able to accomplish goals and go beyond expectations. I do not have the right to criticize someone else’s passions for each individual is different and for all I know it is the BPO which gives meaning to these people’s lives. Yet looking at it generally, we have the top graduates of Philippine schools doing BPO work passionately. These people who have studied for various degrees and have various talents pour their potentials to do work which is, at bottom, administrative work – ensuring that employee data is correct, vacation leaves, holidays, maternity benefits are correctly computed, payroll is accurate and timely, balance sheets reconcile, and logistics are executed as planned. Is this the fate of Filipino talent?

My gripe about the BPO phenomenon is how it affects Philippine society in the long run if we continually applaud it for giving our people jobs. We may say that we have jobs – a high-paying one at that for a general skill set– and we can experience a better life of Boracay and Singapore trips, of Charriol bracelets and Toyota Fortuners, and of La Salle Greenhills tuition fees; but are these all we tend to look forward to as if they are all that are desirable in the world?

There are, of course, other people who pursue other career paths and there are other venues for Filipino talent. Yet most likely those other careers will either pay less – like teaching or government service – or will require specific skills – like journalism or the medical professions – which not all college graduates may possess. Contrast this to the BPO industry, a college graduate with any kind of degree can get in and do the various jobs that are available. There are people who have studied Biology or Social Science doing the same job someone with a degree in Accounting is doing. For many people, this becomes the easier route after college (and for a few call center companies even after high school) especially if money is a practical issue. And after being in this kind of work for a while, it is easy to settle into it and think that this career path is, if nothing else, acceptable.

Yet I need to ask all the BPO workers out there: if you are given the chance to do something else, to be passionate about something else, would you still choose the BPO?

Before children started saying that they want to be call center agents or BPO workers when they grew up after seeing their older siblings get applauded for earning much, I remember my generation – those born in the 80s and 90s – say as children that when they grew up they wanted to be doctors or lawyers. They wanted to be scientists who will invent great things or astronauts who land in various planets. I remember people saying in college before the BPO boom that they wanted to be theater actors or fashion designers or writers or teachers. Yet how many of us today are in the BPO after college? And how many of us have settled for it as an acceptable career? I need to ask what happened in between, or were we just trying to impress as kids?

It is of course possible for some people to have realized in the course of their lives that BPO work is really for them and they could not have said this as an aspiration during their childhood and even during college because BPOs were not yet in existence or were not yet common. If this is the case, then they ought to remain happy with their careers and ought to maintain their passion for it. But it is a sad thing if they have merely settled because their former dream got too difficult to achieve.

I single out the BPO industry for two reasons: first, when we consider how easy it is to step into this career path, we see that there is less investment involved in becoming a BPO worker making it easy for people to fall back on this career when they fail to achieve their dreams or when there is nothing else and they need a job badly. Second, like some OFWs basing their value on the amount of money they earn and less on the work they do, it is easy for BPO workers to fall into this kind of mind-set and any other dream gets pushed back with every Boracay trip especially when people consider the effort involved in achieving their former dreams. In other words, it is easy to be satisfied with life when you have money. Thus we see people who have failed to complete their Masters degrees for a different career path or failed their bar exams after the first try settle for the BPO. We also see people who initially used their BPO jobs as a source of income while they were trying to achieve their dream only to give up midway because it got too difficult. And then there are those who only realized their dreams after some time in the BPO only to dismiss them because they consider their current career as pwede na.

This is a tragic situation because these people who give in to the pwede na could have excelled in what they really wanted to do and felt the fulfillment that accompanies such an achievement. What makes it even more tragic is when people know they can achieve their dreams but would rather not exert the effort. While those who are still economically challenged have the excuse of not being able to afford to go after their dreams because they need to put survival first, what is the excuse of the educated middle-class Filipino youth who do not go after their ambitions? Is it because ambition still has a somewhat negative connotation in Filipino culture, hence the saying “Ambisyoso ka kasi!” when people fail? Is it because we still believe in the desirability of the simpleng buhay – the less we have to think or worry about in life the better? Or is it because culturally Filipinos have low self-confidence and so are generally risk-averse? If the American dream is a chicken in every pot and a Ford in every garage, what is the Filipino dream?

Despite this trend, in the course of my stay in the BPO, I learned about people who work for their dreams despite the difficulties. Some have shared dreams of owning their own business which is, I suppose, a likely venture to go into without the need for a specific degree. Are they in the BPO to save money for their future? I certainly hope so for the sake of their happiness. There are people who continue to go to Graduate or Law school and intend to leave the BPO after to fulfill their real goals. I hope they succeed. It is certainly not easy to do this especially when colleagues can enjoy the whole of their salaries and weekends instead of paying for tuition or studying, but these people exert effort for the future.

‘Vocation’ etymologically means ‘calling.’ We are being called to do something because it is part of who we are; and if you believe in the religious aspect of it, because it is what God wishes us to do with our lives. This is why there is a higher kind of happiness felt when we do what we really want to do. Thus, those who answer their calling must keep on pushing towards it despite the strong current that sometimes pushes them downstream. Since they are able to imagine the future and their possibilities, they can say to themselves that their struggles will not be for nothing, and if – and only if! – they must admit their failure at the time of death, they can at least say that they have fought the fates for their greatness, which will always be worth fighting for.


One thought on “BPO Workers: The New Symbol of Filipino Mediocrity

  1. I work for a BPO firm here in Canada whose service employees are slowly being laid-off and replaced by talents in Manila and India. Understandably, there is an increasing sense of resentment among folks here, esp among old, tenured associates for third world workers who ‘steal’ their jobs. What no one refuses to acknowledge is that we are all just victims of the system, and ultimately its the Corporation who stands to benefit from all this. We are all on the same boat..the offshore workers, the tenured folks from the parent location. One way to shield ourselves from all the upheavals is to continue to develop ourselves more..persevere to make something bigger and better of ourselves, on our own volition.

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