That English word was used for Chinese men who migrated to America in the 19th and 20th centuries to work on construction projects, including railroads in the United States and, in the Philippines then still under the American occupation, Kennon Road in Baguio.
Coolie comes from two Chinese words: “ku” meaning difficult, and “li” meaning labor. Hard labor then, a term that
resonates with prison labor. The Chinese “ku” can also mean bitterness and sorrow.
Of all places, I thought of coolies during a trip to Binondo, the heart of our Chinatown, last weekend as we came close to a gridlock. I was puzzled because the streets had been miraculously cleared of parked vehicles. But then I noticed that even with a go signal from the traffic lights, we continued to move at a snail’s pace because there were just so many people crossing the streets, and their numbers increased as we approached the malls. Then it hit me: All these people running back and forth were “kargador,” endless streams of men moving stuff in and out of the malls, many of them skinny guys carrying loads heavier than themselves.
I’ve always thought an indicator of how poor a country is are the numbers of people who have to do hard and dangerous manual labor. We have so many of them.
Automation comes to mind as a way to free people, but that could also mean people thrown out of work. A McKinsey study released recently estimated that some 18 million jobs in the Philippines will be impacted by automation, with either the jobs disappearing or having to be modified. I thought it would be worthwhile to give the percentages of jobs that will be affected by automation: manufacturing (61 percent), transport (55 percent), accommodation and food services (54 percent), agriculture (48 percent), retail and wholesale (48 percent), construction (41 percent), administration and support services (41 percent), health care (39 percent), finance (35 percent) and education (28 percent).
Those figures are important for educators. I’ve always worried about how hotel and restaurant management programs attract young people who do not realize their work just might disappear in a few years. Schools need to think of reorienting those programs to make them truly managerial—not as desk jobs, but as innovators responding to new niches in tourism, including, ironically, overtourism.
Automation will involve big data processing and artificial intelligence (AI), terms that all our students should learn early. But even the most developed AI cannot replace the human brain. (I’m thinking of how Hong Kong protesters have outwitted Chinese surveillance cameras simply by using face masks, which is why the government has banned the masks.)
Note how finance and education come in as the sectors that will be relatively shielded from displacement by automation. Automation, too, won’t be able to displace artisanal work involving fine manual skills and a vivid imagination. That’s why you find new degree programs and occupations that now incorporate the word “design”—from design engineering to design ethnography (the study of cultures). Incidentally, the social sciences, so derided as low-paying jobs, will probably endure, with a modification as social scientists learn to mine big data in the study of societies.
Let’s get back to the coolies.
Rightly so, we fear automation with visions of robots taking over the world, but automation has its bright side, too, in the way it can free humans from so much work that is tedious, dull and downright dehumanizing. T. R. Medina had an insightful article in BusinessWorld about the jobs that aren’t being automated when they could be. Examples are gasoline attendants, traffic enforcers, airline counter attendants, “watch your car” boys, bus conductors, tollbooth attendants. I’d add security guards, who form one of the largest sectors for male employment.
Think of what all these jobs have in common, together with our cargo transporters: They’re jobs that are dull and boring, mechanical and dehumanizing—in other words, jobs involving physical and mental coolies.
The obstacles to automation aren’t technological. We’re not just talking about robots here. Smartphones make cashless payment technologies possible, so much so that in China even street vendors use smartphones to accept payments. (Someone told me even beggars use smartphones to accept alms; I’m not sure if he was joking.)
We have to make sure our children don’t end up—to use that terrible term—redundant. Encourage them to understand that underlying the wonders of science and technology are, still, imagination and creativity.
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