An obsolete normal
The Fiscal Incentives Review Board (FIRB) gave business process outsourcing (BPO) companies until April 1 to have 100 percent of their workforce return to their offices despite pleas from BPOs, lawmakers, and even the Philippine Economic Zone Authority itself. FIRB doesn’t seem willing to budge, despite BPOs having proven that neither their productivity nor customer satisfaction ratings were adversely affected by work-from-home (WFH) arrangements. Requests for reconsideration, given the rapid increase in fuel costs and its corresponding burden to the commuting worker, have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Is this stubbornness for the welfare and well-being for the BPO workers? No. A lot of people had adjusted their living arrangements during the pandemic — some have returned to their families to weather the pandemic together and some have chosen to live further away from cities to lessen costs of living and afford safer, WFH-ready spaces. A tight deadline to return to their offices would mean rushing to relocate for some and the rest will have to re-allot a significant portion of their expenses to commuting. Aside from the financial burden and added stress, we are also forcing workers to take on the additional risk of COVID-19 exposure. Yes, we are on alert level 1 but it does not mean that the pandemic is over. People should be able to decide what risks they are willing to take. The government shouldn’t force workers to take on more risks than is necessary. Given that BPOs have been able to prove that they can maintain productivity and even continue to grow under WFH arrangements, the reasons the government had laid out for workers’ return to offices need to be of significant benefit to the workers themselves.
So what is the reported reason for this strict deadline? The FIRB seems focused on the welfare of industries and enterprises that rely on BPO workers such as office real estate, food, and transportation. In simple terms, they want BPO workers to resume their pre-pandemic expenses. There must be a better way to jump-start the economy that’s not at the expense of workers’ well-being. It is also unlikely that we will simply return to pre-pandemic expenses. The gas price hikes should’ve merited serious consideration to allow workers and companies the flexibility to decide about report-to-work mandates. The impact of report-to-work mandates is also uneven. The workers that have been required to report to physical work also tend to be those who do not have the collective power to argue for their welfare—and are also those who can’t afford the increase in travel and fuel costs. In the two years of pandemic, our public transportation system still has not made fundamental improvements to ensure passenger safety (that allows adequate ventilation or social distancing), provided more options that can meet passenger volume, or offered diversified travel options away from gas and road. The great WFH experiment has shown us that traffic does not have to be a necessary way of life. We are forcing workers back to transportation and commuting that has neither adequately adapted to the pandemic nor been redesigned to cushion the impact of a gas price hike.
Sadly, this situation is an example of how workers’ welfare and well-being — even with all the “stress management” and “new normal” webinars — are ultimately not a significant consideration for some government agencies. We only talk about employee mental health when they are already at the point of breakdown. And even then, we only think about individual treatments and not about prevention or fostering well-being. Worker or employee mental health isn’t just about psychiatric or clinical conditions. Good mental health for employees starts with providing humane and reasonable working conditions, at minimum. Workers need to find meaning and purpose in their work and, in turn, to know that they are genuinely meaningful to the company — and to the government. They shouldn’t be treated merely as cash cows to be profited from by others. If the government insists that people’s mental health is prioritized and valued, then we should see this reflected in their policy decisions and executive orders. This holds true for the case of BPO workers, for public transport drivers struggling to make a living wage with the gas price hikes, and even for government employees who are mandated to immediately return to their offices without considering that transitions need to be carefully planned. My own brother, a public high school teacher, was mandated earlier this month to report every day for onsite work despite the school not yet even having face-to-face classes and despite being able to fulfill all his work duties remotely. The government is so desperate to show everyone that the pandemic is over that they may inadvertently cause unnecessary spikes that prevent us from reaching the desired pandemic finish line. We are told repeatedly to embrace the “new normal” when, apparently, at the end of the day, we will be forced back to a normal that’s already obsolete.