Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When "The Demands of the Business" Go Too Far

In The Philippines BPO (business processing outsourcing) operations for companies based in other countries, especially the U.S are an important sector of the economy. These companies transfer divisions such as call centers here in order to cut expenses, especially labor.  But there is a disadvantage of such relocations to this part of the world: This region is subject to severe  weather conditions, namely severe storms including typhoons at least nine months out of the year. The Philippines sits along the geographical ring of fire.  So there's also always the risk of earthquakes and volcanoes. The country also has a weak infrastructure that has difficulty handling the demands of 21st Century commerce. Thus, it's incumbent on companies who decide to relocate partly or fully here to do their homework so they'll know what they're getting into.    

The heavy rains and resultant flooding that Metro Manila experienced from a storm in August resulted not just in the loss lives and of heavy property damage.  Conditions were so bad that President Aquino called for (what turned out to be a two day) emergency suspension of work at most private business including BPO's and non-essential government offices.  Personally, I think that all things considered, this edict was a humane and practical decision. Yet according to "Philippine Daily Inquirer"columnist  Paolo Monticello, Aquino made a bad call because for one thing it overrode the BPO industry's own (unspecified) plans to deal with the situation.  Further, he says it reflects poorly on the country's ability to respond to such events. Businesses that send their work to the Philippines demand continuity in services, natural disasters not withstanding. They expect results, come hell or high water (literally).

Monticello gives the example of how well and quickly Japan's business sector took the Fukishima disaster in stride, and I likewise admire that country's intrepid response to that devastating calamity (See my post "Why Don't They Get It?").  But he doesn't address the consequences of what might have happened if the earthquake and tsunami had struck Tokyo instead, just as the Philippine economy would be in serious peril if a similar event were to strike Metro-Manila, the business center of the nation rather than some provincial city.

In his article Monticello gives a token nod to the need for worker safety during floods but doesn't offer solutions to the transportation disruption under these conditions.  How are employees supposed to get to their jobs?  Swim? And what about their own personal disaster-related hardships and emergencies at home?  As it turns out, a contributing factor to the flood in Metro-Manila was the city's aging pumping system. How can stranded BPO employees be held accountable for that?   Yet, as it is, some companies that do stay open nevertheless penalize their staff for not showing up

Moreover, call centers are usually not vital services on which the public depends for their very lives. If a BPO is closed because of severe weather conditions or other natural disasters, this is ordinarily at most an inconvenience to customers and not worth risking the lives of the staff.  I say this from the decades-long perspective  both as a  former call center agent in the U.S. who was occasionally prevented from reporting to work by such events as natural and civil disturbances.  On the other hand as a consumer I have also had to cope with business service disruptions from the same causes. But I recognize that sometimes  emergencies happen beyond anyone's control. That's part of life, and we just have to learn to accept it.

Monticello refers to uninterrupted BPO service in the face of natural disaster  as "keeping the lights on". He stresses that the Philippines can only compete with other countries for these businesses by supporting such goals. And that's all well and good to a point. But let's face it under disastrous circumstances, most  employers here can't guarantee transportation, safe working conditions, and at least partly paid time off for workers to deal with their own losses.  If Monticello doesn't recognize this fact, then when it comes to understanding the limits of  human physical and emotional endurance, he and like-minded business analysts are really in the dark.