Jobs at computer terminals link Philippines and US

Each workday morning Marian Tabjan, a fresh-faced woman in her late 20s, leaves her parents' plywood-walled home, which like others in the northern Manila suburb of Malabon has no telephone. During the next hour, she travels in the sidecar of a motorized tricycle, then in a brightly colored Filipino van called a jeepney, by inner-city train, and on a bus to get to her job on the other side of Manila.

There she is plugged into the information revolution that is accentuating ties between the United States and developing countries such as the Philippines.

Ms. Tabjan holds a management position at SAZTEC International, a US-based data-entry company. Its ``key-entry operators'' sit at terminals, converting information on paper into computer files.

On a given day, SAZTEC's staff can be found typing consumer-credit reports on British citizens, American names and addresses of Stride Rite shoe clients, US telephone directories, court transcripts, American hospital patient records, or the catalog of the Helsinki National Library.

On some days, more than 1,500 pounds of documents from the US arrive at the Manila airport bound for SAZTEC's offices. Similar scenes occur daily in countries as far apart as India and Barbados. SAZTEC itself has a data-entry facility in Ardrossan, Scotland, as well as in Kansas City, Mo.

By going offshore, information companies create a global work force that performs services once considered strictly local.

Data entry is only one part of this high-technology revolution, which to many people is as profound as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

In addition to data entry, for example, SAZTEC provides the computer programming needed to use data. Its Filipino staff calculates corporate financial statements.

Augusto Lagman, a Filipino entrepreneur, owns 20 computer companies, including Systems Resources Inc., which makes customized software.

One of his company's biggest jobs, Mr. Lagman says, was a $2 million contract with the Boeing Company to produce an air-base inventory-management system and to train Americans in its use.

``There are [offshore information] capabilities out there people just don't realize,'' says W.Patrick Griffith, president of AMR Caribbean Data Services, which has data-entry operations in Barbados and the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Griffith hopes soon to do medical transcription. US physicians will dictate remarks about American patients into a microphone; the comments will be beamed to Barbados, where they will be typed and beamed back to the US. The whole process can be done in four to six hours.

As one sign of the growth in information services, the membership of the Information Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C., has tripled in the last five years, to 700.

``We get two or three new members a week,'' says David Peyton, director of government relations at the association. ``It is all we can do to remember the new names.''

Some observers predict the information-technology industry will be the planet's largest by 1990.

Speed and mobility are behind this boom. Information, unlike steel and bags of grain, travels quickly and cheaply. There's little difference between calling Tulsa, Okla., or Barbados from New York City, because of improved telecommunications, says Joseph Pelton of Intelsat's strategic-planning department.

SAZTEC can move quickly offshore when opportunities arise. One of its motives for starting the Scottish facility was to enhance the chances of winning a contract to computerize the British Library General Catalogue. Within six months of being awarded the 1.8 million ($3 million) job, SAZTEC hired and trained 100 employees and was fully operational.

SAZTEC must do some jobs in its Kansas City facility - for example, those requiring sophisticated data processing or physical contact with American clients. But it is far cheaper to use offshore workers.

Filipino data-entry operators with four years' experience average just over $2,400 a year, including free dental and medical care. These wages are excellent by industry standards and well above the Philippines' $600 annual per capita gross national product. Even so, SAZTEC's Filipino staff earns about one-fifth as much as those in the Kansas City facility.

American jobs are lost when SAZTEC moves jobs offshore, but SAZTEC is also more competitive.

The use of information has also made it easier for manufacturing industries to operate globally. Texas Instruments Inc., for example, has 50 facilities worldwide, including one in the Philippines. To weave them together, it leases channels on eight satellites and has 43,500 computer terminals for its 77,000 employees.

The emergence of global information industries and the accompanying spread of more-sophisticated technologies have given developing countries hope of leaping forward economically.

SAZTEC gives Filipinos badly needed work and a chance to learn new skills. Tabjan, who began as a data-entry operator, has moved into more senior jobs, including statistical analysis. She is considered one of the employees most likely to rise to a senior-management position.

But new opportunities have also created new problems. The greater mobility of information companies means they can move out of a country as quickly as they moved in, leaving workers without jobs.

Although motivated, college-educated people like Tabjan are an attraction for foreign businesses, keeping those investors in the Philippines rests on other factors, including social and political stability. Although SAZTEC employees came to work during the tumultuous period in which President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power, the company has lost contracts because of client concerns over unrest.

A good technological base helps attract foreign investment. Although more advanced than many developing countries, the Philippines does not have a direct-dial telephone system throughout the country, and many of its lines in Manila are not well suited for data transmission. Upgrading communication networks, however, can be expensive, especially for the Philippines, which must husband resources to service its $26 billion external debt.

Investments to enhance international communications do not always consider internal needs. The government-run Technobank is computerizing an index of information to help small-business people and farmers increase production and marketing capacity. The problem is delivering the information to people in the provinces.

``Considering our economic situation, we have to start somewhere,'' says Imelda Abella Lastrilla, in charge of Technobank marketing.

Filipinos often seek high-tech information skills, which are in demand in the US, to make themselves mobile. In 1983, the number of Filipinos enrolling at the SGV Institute of Advanced Computer Training jumped 300 percent over 1980. The reason, says Fides Alviar, the institute's education manager, was the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino. The students saw a period of turmoil coming and wanted to leave the country.

Understanding the consequences of interdependence is complicated by the difficulty in measuring the dimensions of new global businesses. Services like data entry are not as easy to see as goods in the hold of a ship and thus cannot be counted by customs officials at ports.

The best that the US Commerce Department can do is after-the-fact surveys of businesses likely to have engaged in such trade. The Commerce Department did not conduct a survey on data-entry trade until 1987, and the results are not yet available.

Keeping up with change in the information economy is no easier for Filipinos. When asked about the importance to the economy of SAZTEC and its 240 employees, a senior official at the National Economic and Development Authority expressed surprise that Manila had such large data-entry operations.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, set up after World War II to facilitate open-trading systems, does not cover services. This, and reaching agreement on international standards for privacy, will be major issues in the future.

Meanwhile, plans for additional information connections continue. One activity just beginning to go offshore is telemarketing. And with telecommunications costs continuing to decline, the day may not be far off when Filipinos in this balmy city sell storm windows to residents of frosty American climes.

Mr. Hamilton, a former foreign corespondent and a World Bank staff member, has written frequently on interdependence for the Monitor. This article draws from a forthcoming book, part of a Panos Institute project on US-third-world relations.

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