Thursday, March 12, 2009

Commerce in the Philippines

Second note to self: Stop asking Filipinos what they do for a living. This is standard American small talk but in the Philippines, it's down right rude. Seriously. Want to know how rude it is? I stopped at a certain spot two or three years ago where some of my wife's friends hang out. There was a guy there named Mike and as my wife talked to some other friends, I made small talk. "So what do you do for a living?" He answered politely - something in television broadcast but I cant remember. Come to find out, he was turned off by my rudeness unbeknownst to me and later told my wife. Same spot, same situation, different guy, last week I asked the same question. Oops! As soon as I asked I apologized and explained that this was normal in my culture. He says "I heard that you asked Mike about his job." That's how rude it is. This guy, who I just met, was aware of the incident that happened over 2 years ago!

The Philippine economy is distributism in action (I guess). I'm attracted to the idea of distributism but like most economic or political ideologies, it probably doesn't play out in the real world without serious draw backs. The Filipinos are loving some imported capitalism (i.e. large corporate call centers). You know... those tech support centers we always call and complain about having to endure the accent of a foreigner during our free call. While we're complaining to our friends about how they're hard to understand and they stole our jobs, that young man or woman is using their $6 a day salary to support an extended family who otherwise might not even eat.

As for the commercial endeavors of the average Filipino - it seems standard, at least in metro Manila, to own one's own business. Generally, this means a small food or merchandise stand using which, you sell items which you purchased in bulk for a marginal profit. Outside my restaurant, I spoke with a man, I'd say in his 50s. He and his family run a fabric stand and a cigarette tray. I asked him how his business was, and in broken but understandable English he replied, "Sometimes good. Sometimes bad, but its enough for my family to eat rice." We just don't have that sort of perspective here do we? I asked about his profit margin. He makes just a few cents on each pack of cigarettes. If he sells one piece of fabric, he makes 20 pesos (about 40 cents). And in case you're wondering, no it's not a high traffic business. He sent a child to Quiapo to buy two pillows to resell (sometimes customers ask about pillows he said). So he stood ready for business with two Pokemon pillows. His story is a typical one from what I can gather from surveying the streets.

My restaurant is run the same way I suppose. My wife's brother manages it. We have a few employees and they work on wages that would be criminal here. Each day around 8PM while the restaurant is still slow, someone cooks a large pot of rice and some seasoned meat (usually chicken or pork). Everyone eats, it's part of their salary. When the sun comes up, the customers leave and one of the staff will walk down to the market and buy some delicious rolls to share with the rest. Next everyone sleeps. We have a back room that can sleep 5 or 6 comfortably. Well, it might not seem comfortable to many Americans.

Poverty. I'm not even sure what this word means any more. I know one thing, this word has lost all its meaning in America - not because we don't have it; but because to us it means 'non-luxury'. The fact is that we Americans live luxuriously. For us, anyone who doesn't spend 24 hours a day in an air conditioned room (or at least have that option) is living in poverty. For us, poverty means sitting around all day and having the government take care of you. I think in other places, the last thing poverty means is sitting around. It means getting up and looking for food. So much for now.


Gretchen said...

Thank you for the post, Tim. Since I've been fasting, I've found myself thinking more and more about what Americans term 'poverty' versus what it means to the world. The sacrifice of going a day without food seems very little to me lately. I thank God for Lent.

Roy F. Moore said...

Mr. Troutman, this is Roy F. Moore of "The Distributist Voice". I was reading about how you thought the Philippines -- or at least Manila -- was somewhat Distributist.

Well, that city and country are becoming more Distributist, as far as building small businesses and cooperatives are concerned. But it still has a long way to go.

If you're interested, there are links to other Distributist sites on our web log. Please check them out and see what you think.

Many thanks for your time and attention.

George Weis said...

Fascinating brother! Yes, we here in the US of A, haven't got a real understanding of poverty. Even our homeless can collect more on a weekend than some of these dear people can in a week... maybe even a month? But, a time is coming I believe when we will go through a breakdown... and I guess we a re seeing that happening although some of us haven't felt the affects yet... praise God! But, the Lord is close to the poor. Our hearts should go out to them.. we should have a desire to come along side them. I think it is great what you do for them through the restaurant. Is there any way, we could really bless those employees in one fell swoop?

God Bless you brother Tim,

Tim A. Troutman said...

Roy, thanks for piping in. I'm still learning about Distributism. I'll check out your site.

George - well, I didn't buy the restaurant with charitable intentions but it's ended up being a good way to provide some jobs. I'm brainstorming ideas to do more. We're hopefully taking over a lease which includes some vacant property and two paying tenants.

George Weis said...

Hey, what if we did a collection and blessed them with a big old bonus?


Tim A. Troutman said...

One thing they could really use is bunk beds in the back room. They're sleeping on mats on the floor back there (no A/C either).

Maybe I can get them to find out how much that would cost.

George Weis said...

Tim, Since we don't yet have a church home, we give to various organizations and ministries. I believe you have a ministry there right underneath the hairs on your chinny chin chin.