Bernardo M. Villegas
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Robots Can Never Replace Filipinos

          There is so much talk about robots taking the place of human beings in the work force.  After reading the news that remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers increased by 11.8% to $2.9 billion in March 2017, despite all the uncertainties facing the global economy, I am more than convinced that Filipinos will be permanent fixtures in the global work force, especially in the ageing countries of Europe and Northeast Asia.  The $30 billion total remittances we can expect for the whole of 2017 will continue growing at least at a very conservative estimate of 3 to 5% annually.

         After going on a factory visit of the Toyota assembly plant in Sta. Rosa, I have the impression that most of the workers who will be replaced by robots, especially in countries like Japan and the United States where wages are astronomically high, will be in manufacturing.  In fact, as I have mentioned in an article on Trumpnomics, the main reason why jobs are getting scarcer in the U.S. is not the competition from Chinese workers.  The main reason is the robotisation of manufacturing jobs.  Except for the retailing industry in which workers are being laid off in large numbers because of e-commerce, services are less prone to automation, especially if personalized care is an essential part of the work of service workers.

         A recent article in Financial Times (May 17, 1917) by Sarah O’Connor reinforced my view that Filipinos will not be replaced by robots in the service sectors in which they are employed in the ageing nations suffering from demographic winter.  To quote Ms. O’Connor, “The undramatic truth is that many of the jobs of the future are also those of the present.  Prime among them are jobs that involve humans looking after other humans.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the top 30 fastest-growing occupations for the next 10 years; more than half are some variety of nurse, therapist, healthcare worker or career…By 2030, there will be 34 ‘super-aged’ countries, where one person in five is over 65.  Robots can help workers to look after these people but they cannot replace them, or should we want them to.  As the chief executive of Adidas pointed out recently, robots cannot even lace shoes into trainers, let alone help a frail person into the shower.  They do not possess any of the qualities that make humans good at caring for each other, like compassion, patience, humor and adaptability.”

         In a recent road in which I participated in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I heard the highest praises heaped on the human qualities of the overseas Filipino workers who are omnipresent in the Middle East.  We heard adjectives like cheerful, pleasant, adaptable, patient, non-confrontational, hygienic, hardworking, and able to give tender and loving care.  I met a high official working for the Human Resource division of a large oil conglomerate who said that his company is planning to send one of their managers to live for a year in the Philippines “to discover how we Filipinos produce the types of workers that they appreciate very much.”  The Filipino brand among overseas workers in many countries in the world is so appreciated that in a hospital were the patients expressly ask for Filipino nurses, the management had to resort to double-speak in recruiting new nurses.  Since it was not possible to expressly say that only Filipinos could apply, the advertisement included among the required qualifications “the ability to speak Tagalog.”  When the non-Filipinos complained about this “mysterious” criterion, management clarified that it was a quality needed by the nurse or caregiver to “give tender and loving care.”  This may be legendary but I find it very plausible.

         It is possible that in some countries in which people are notorious for being cold and unfeeling, robots may very well replace even the service workers.  In the article entitled “Ageing nations need to value caring workers,” of Sarah O’Connor, the author describes a situation which perfectly captures the reason why the smiling, amiable and pleasant Filipino will not be replaced by robots in the caregiving industry.  She reported that on a trip she made to Japan, she met a small table-top robot designed to keep elderly people company and remind them to take their pills (in the Philippines the major role of wives who have ageing husbands).  Ms. O’Connor did not mince words:  “It was cloying and depressing.  If I had been left alone with it (the robot) for a day, I would have tossed it out of the window.”

         Whether ultra-nationalists like it or not, the Philippines will be providing  the rest of the First World with service workers in health, caregiving, tourism and entertainment for a long, long time to come.  To make sure that we will not run out of the workers for own ageing population, let us not make the mistake of introducing aggressive  population control programs as Singapore and Thailand did in the last century.  In addition, we must preserve the parenting and child rearing practices in strong and intact  families who are the major nurturers of the humane qualities appreciated in Filipino workers.  In our basic education program, let us ensure that we are continuously improving the pedagogical methods of teaching both written and spoken English, which is an important skill or tool as typing and computing for world-wide employment of Filipinos.  As I have written before, even if we are able to reduce our poverty incidence to zero, there will always be Filipino workers abroad because they will be essential to the Gross National Happiness of numerous ageing nations.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.