Shikata Ga Nai

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I was walking at a mall last night when I ran into an old friend.  Her walk was more of a trudge; the look of a woman who, in her prime, was dealt a heavy blow, knocked out and defeated.  Not too long ago, my friend had a spring in her step and a smile on her face.  That afternoon, she walked as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders.  When I asked her what happened, her answer was as good as my guess.

My friend lost her job.

You hear of rumors here and there that call centers and BPOs are laying off employees, but this was the first time I heard of a story that hit so close to home.  What made a call center job so tantalizing before was that when you needed a job, any given call center out there is always hiring.  These days, it’s not necessarily true: not only do you have to contend with looking for a job at the end of the year, but you also kind of wonder if call centers and BPOs still have openings.  What makes things worse for my friend – and perhaps any random call center employee out there – is that her career plans have so far led her to three or four call centers.

The Japanese have a saying for it: shikata ga nai, or “it cannot be helped.”  For everything that has been said about outsourcing – the unsustainable, unstable, and exploitative business and economic model as it is – you can only take your hat off to employees who put up with repetitive work, low pay, job insecurity, and workers’ rights.  At the end of the day, these are things that can be compromised, and have already been compromised.

And yet… shikata ga nai.

I think shikata ga nai is a fatalism that comes not from hopelessness, but from acceptance.  Nothing can be done about things that cannot be helped.  The onslaught of the financial crisis can’t be stopped, and you can’t help it if a lot of twenty-somethings think that a call center job is a “stepping stone,” albeit the step forward takes a bit too long that the stone itself starts to sink or crumble.

I wonder what would happen if our generation fought back against labor injustices, or if we started to demand employment that puts the interest of the national polity in mind.  It’s possible, but there’s that feeling of shikata ga nai. We become increasingly individualistic, that the good of the whole is measured only by the sum of its parts.  I’m not saying that we should have a hive-like mind, but that we should, as a generation, overcome the apathy we have been known for and act for the sake of our common future.  Not for the question of how many stickers we have left to get the Starbucks planner.

I’m banking on the belief that somewhere out there, someone has started to make a sort of Magna Carta for people in the outsourcing industry.  I’m banking on the belief that somewhere out there, someone out there is an advocate for people who are bearing the brunt of a financial crisis.  I’m banking that somewhere out there, someone is making the change that could be done.

My friend then looked up to me with tears in her eyes as she told her story.  “Why don’t you do something about it, Marck?” she sobbed.

The question caught me off-guard.  At that very moment, I realized how bound I am to this very same industry that fired my friend, and countless others over the months.  In the ten or so months that I’ve been working in a BPO myself, I counted 25 – that’s right, 25 – of my friends lose their jobs in the process.  Years ago, I would have found myself in the streets, passing around signature sheets, fighting for a cause that I believed in.

Then I realized how different and how difficult it is to fight when you yourself put a premium on yourself above everything else; when you hold a job, when you do work, when you have to brace yourself for commutes and when you get paid your pittance.  It’s way more different when your pay will pay for the bills, for your daily needs, for your education, for a parent’s medical bills, and just about every reason why BPO workers and call center agents work.  Somehow, the old saying does hold true: when you’re in the picture, you really can’t see the frame.

I then said goodbye to my friend, and banked on the hope that my friend will get another job soon.  She continued to drag herself towards the mall exit, and into the train station.  It was then that I felt ten months of frustration and anger and hopelessness affect me – no matter how much I love what I do for a living – because of the context by which my being a writer takes place.

I lit up my cigarette and then muttered that phrase again.  “Shikata ga nai.”

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