There are more than a million of them, the great majority working for call center firms located at Greenbelt in Makati, Global City in Taguig, Araneta Center and UP-Ayala Land Techno Hub in Quezon City The rest are employed by similar other companies in other parts of the country, notably in the business districts of Cebu and Davao, in the university town of Dumaguete, at the former US Naval Base, now SBMA, in Subic Bay.
If you happen to pass by you’ll see them, these young men and women in their 20s and early 30s, having their midnight snacks in cafes and coffee shops that remain open around the clock to cater to their needs, huddled in groups. Get close and you’ll hear them talking—in hushed tones because they are conserving their voices—in English. Of the American variety. Or something close.
Their ability to speak the language is one reason Teletech, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Accenture, Convergys, JP Morgan, and a host of other firms are in the country. Another reason is the vision of one government official.
It was 2000. Newly appointed DTI honcho, Mar Roxas faced a difficult task. The Philippines, along with the rest of the region, was still feeling the effects of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis. The flow of tourists had dwindled to a trickle. With other countries curtailing their appetite for imports, the manufacturing sector was at a standstill. The unemployment rate, already high, was climbing.
The secretary felt he just couldn’t sit idly by. Looking around, he saw the potential of the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry to create jobs. It was still in its infancy, but it held a lot of promise. One problem must be overcome first. Ireland was the destination of choice. In the Americas, it was Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and the Caribbean, which was why, he explained, the phrase off-shore gained currency, “literally off the US shore.”
He knew right off the bat the Philippines could get a piece of the action. It only needed to come up with the right strategy. He was a graduate of Wharton School of Economics. That gave him the world view to see emerging trends and the temperament to seize the opportunity, for his clients as an investment banker before, for his people as a top government executive now.
“Okay, we’ll go after this market,” he told his staff. “I know we can do it. We’ll just have to work hard.”
He persuaded the president—first Joseph Estrada then Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—to get the communications infrastructure in order. He formulated a tax incentive program for foreign investors. He insisted in a series of consultations with colleges and universities that they tailor-fit their curricula to meet the standard of the world’s trade and industry.
Now the stage was set. He proceeded to wrest the industry from the very countries that had pioneered it. He held roadshows in major cities in the US. He buttonholed former classmates, who were now occupying important positions in the finance world, and told them it was in their interest to relocate to the country..
It was more complicated than that, of course. There was bureaucratic indifference and skepticism to overcome. The government, huge and lumbering, was like a dinosaur. It would take some doing to get it to change direction and move fast. He had his way.
And so it’s been a dizzying climb since then. From $1.3 billion in 2004, the BPO industry saw its annual revenue go up to $8.9 billion in 2010 and $18.9 billion in 2014. It expects to bring in $27.billion by 2016 and $40-50 billion by 2020. By then it will have surpassed OFW remittance many times over.
Mar Roxas is not called the Father of BPO Industry for nothing.
As previously mentioned, the BPO industry, apart from the trail blazed by Mar Roxas, owes its success to the Filipinos’ English proficiency.
Outside the US, Filipinos are the only people who speak American English. The Philippines, in case you missed your history lesson in grade school, was a US colony. No other country holds that distinction or, if you prefer, suffers the stigma. They’ve been speaking the language, grammatical errors and all, since the Americans annexed the islands in 1898, soon after Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish Pacific Squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay.
Spain ruled the Philippines for four hundred years, the US for 50. The latter’s experiment in imperialism, however, was more successful. It granted the Philippines independence in 1946, but its culture and language still keep Filipinos in thrall. They do not seem to mind, however, except for the few ultra-nationalists who want them to unlearn the language. Which is stupid
The whole world is scrambling to learn English: the American, not the British variety. All countries that once made up the British Empire—India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Burma, Hong Kong—are shifting to American English.
It is said fully 85 percent of Internet traffic is in English. Science tracts are written in English or, to reach a wider audience, translated into the language. In non-English speaking but highly industrialized countries of the world, corporate boardroom meetings are conducted in English, the idiom unmistakably American.
Filipinos have a head start. Why should they give up that advantage? They do have difficulties with the language, for sure. Who does not? There is, for instance, the matter of accent, but that is hardly a problem at all. A call center firm interviewing applicants will find an occasional Miriam Defensor (before she caught the eyes of Narciso Santiago) thrown into the mix. Other than that, the harvest is generally good. A few weeks of training in elocution is all the company needs to straighten their tongues.
It helps that Americans frequently hear the patois in the streets of San Francisco (our apologies to the creators of that 70s series), of Daly City, and, indeed, of any major US cities where there is a sizable number of Filipino migrants. In short, Americans are used to it.
Or could it be that when it comes to the spoken language, Americans, their ears dulled by listening to immigrants from all over the world, are not as sensitive as the British, who can detect the slightest deviation from the standard?
“You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue,” says Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, later turned into the Broadway musical My Fair Lady. “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.”
Or as intolerant?
“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” writes Shaw in the preface to the play.
The ground was fertile for the industry to grow. Still, you needed Mar Roxas—or someone with his ability and persistence—to turn the soil over, plant the seed, water the young plant.
One study says India has 125 million English speakers. If you include those who have easy familiarity with the language and therefore could be trained to deal with a foreign clientele, the number would exceed that of Great Britain and the US combined.
That explains why India was the leader of the BPO industry, until the center of gravity shifted to the Philippines.
Another point there. First Ireland and the US offshore countries, then India. Could the BPO industry move to the Philippines on its own? Well, everything’s possible, including the belief that life sprang unaided from the primordial soup. There is only one problem there. It would take a billion years for the cosmological lottery to get that one right, granting the hypothesis was correct.
Now to go back to the concerns of everyday life. You can’t be sure something will happen until it happens.
Here’s one story to ponder over. After World War II, Leonardo Sarao started buying surplus Jeep units, the sturdy US military vehicles, and turned each into a passenger minibus. At about that time, Choi Mu-seong hit upon the same idea and did something very similar.
Today, South Korea is the fifth largest car manufacturer in the world, its products widely admired for their performance, styling, and design. The Philippines is still turning out the same contraption.
How did that happen? Choi has since faded from the scene. However, other entrepreneurs took up where he left off and guided the venture from car assembly to car manufacture. One of them was Chung Ju-yung, who established Hyundai Motors. Nobody came forward to bring Sarao’s operation to the next level. The country is thus stuck with the jeepney.
If only we had Mar Roxas then. He could have done what he did for the BPO industry 60 years later. The country could have made that economic takeoff we have always dreamed of. Who knows?