Barriers to an automated future: What’s keeping these jobs manual

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A traffic enforcer along EDSA -- BW FILE PHOTO

WE SHOULD BE in the robot future by now, but persistent economic and cultural factors keep pulling us back. The availability of cheap labor discourages investment. The attractiveness of foreign labor markets leaves us content with sending away our low-skill workers instead of investing in their training. These are some of the occupations that are holding on despite the availability of alternatives that, in theory, ought to be freeing us up to do higher-value work:

1. Gasoline boys. Cheap labor means that most gasoline pumps in the Philippines are manned by attendants, who are paid for the products they put into fuel tanks and return a receipt to the driver after a brief trip to the cashier. The full-service model remains the dominant mode for most filling stations here, which suggests that the math doesn’t work out for investing in pumps that take your card and print out receipts. The addition of convenience stores to many fuel stations means that the industry has a financial incentive for drivers to linger, instead of splashing and dashing. Modernization is likely hindered by the lack of penetration of credit and debit cards. Also, when possible, Filipino customers want to be served.

2. Train ticket vendors. The notorious queues at Metro Manila’s commuter train stations might be eased if more people used prepaid cards, but apparently the investment of several hundred pesos is still out of reach for many passengers earning minimum wage, which in Metro Manila is a little over P500. One way or another it will come down to the affordability of fares (difficult if not subsidized and private contractors charge a market rate) to make prepaid and skipping the queue worthwhile. In Hong Kong, to cite an example, nearly everyone has an Octopus card, which can be loaded up at many convenience stores and used on buses as well as trains. Retail buyers of physical, single-use tickets are directed to automatic kiosks, while the few personnel at MTR stations are either there for train operations or to man the service desk, which typically dispenses small change to tourists who need to use the automated ticket kiosks. Some commuter train lines in Manila had automatic ticket kiosks at some point, but they fell into disrepair, which suggests that we don’t value our machinery even when we have it.

3. Traffic enforcers. Automated traffic lights for car drivers are thought to have been pioneered in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century, so it is a mystery why the Philippines should have lights AND traffic enforcers. The reason is that traffic lights are often ignored by drivers, who consider them suggestions. In fact, the addition of value-added items like countdown lights at intersections are considered by jeepney drivers to be an alert system prompting them to slow down so they can stop at the head of the queue when the light turns red.

4. Elevator operators. There is no reason in this day and age to employ elevator operators, except perhaps in hospitals where a person in authority is empowered to police queues and force passengers off if a high-priority patient in a wheelchair or hospital bed needs to board. Also, some very old buildings still have non-automated elevators, and if the infrastructure is that old, automation might not be top of mind for a buiding owner. You can make an argument for an operator to serve as an extra pair of eyes and ears in high-security situations, but in this application hotels have been driving innovation, with security an integral part of the elevator experience. Hotels do this by using the room key in combination with the elevator to bring a passenger to his or her floor, some common areas, and almost nowehere else.

5. Airline counter attendants. At many airports, attendants are currently being replaced by automated kiosks. The issue in the Philippines appears to be policing passengers, who appear to be serial abusers of the baggage limit policy or are utterly confused by the workings of airports, making prompt human intervention necessary. In airports elsewhere, such is the reputation of Filipinos as difficult passengers that some foreign airlines step up their staff presence at the boarding gate for flights to the Philippines, conducting random passport checks to verify that people are in the right queue. There is also much policing of cabin luggage, which many Filipino passengers believe they can get away with because the gate attendants on the Philippine side were so accommodating. Also, there is the inevitable pasalubong shopping, for cultural reasons, but also because a marked lack of trust in the baggage handlers means gifts have to be kept close at hand and stuffed into overhead compartments.

Tollgate attendant — BW FILE PHOTO

6. Manual car washes. Automated car wash lines are advertised online for about $50,000, which is beyond the reach of many small businesses here, who can nevertheless afford to take on many low-skilled workers who know how to clean cars. The pricing of automated machinery suggests that in the rich world where labor is expensive and people prefer to get their carwashes done quickly, carwash operators can make a good return on the high initial investment. The cash-heavy nature of the business makes car washes, anecdotally, in TV shows like Breaking Bad at least, an ideal business to be in when you want a cover for laundering drug money.

7. Credit analysts. Some rich-world credit decisions, including loans for big-ticket items like mortgages and auto loans, can now be made by a smatphone app. Against that, many banks here still require human analysts to go through numerous documents before they are in a position to properly evaluate loan applications. Part of the problem is the absence of reliable credit data for individuals, and in some cases, because of high-profile incidents of made-up identity and the subsequent toughening of anti-money-laundering standards. As such, banks make a big production number out of establishing that account holders are who they say they are and earn what they claim to be earning. This fundamental weakness in the system might be addressed by the National ID Law, among other measures.

8. Watch-your-car boys. The typical Filipino parking experience involves parking on the street or an empty lot, to be watched over by random people who happen to be on the scene when you park. Alternatively, the security guard of the establishment you just patronized will guide your vehicle out into traffic on the expectation of being handed some spare change (such is the salary scale of security guards that tips like this make a difference in their lives). In theory, it might be possible someday to get the people looking after your car to be paid by app or prepaid card. Before that happens, a few intermediate steps are also needed, such as professionalizing the parking business with multilevel buildings and security barriers. It might also help to enforce ordinances that require businesses to have their own parking.

9. Bus conductors. While alternate business models are available, such as ticket windows at bus terminals and an exact-change box at the bus door which eliminate the need for a conductor, bus companies persist in employing them because the industry culture is so freewheeling that many passengers are picked up on the road, between terminals. From a safety point of view, conductors are also needed to handle the money side of the operation, allowing the driver to concentrate on racing to the next passenger. Provincial bus lines are also important carriers of cargo, and often need an extra hand to assist passengers in loading sacks of farm produce into cargo compartments. It is thought that the boundary payment system motivates bus drivers and conductors to maximize their passenger load, thus leading to reckless behavior that leaves crews competing aggresively for passengers. A recent labor ruling requiring bus drivers and conductors to be paid a fixed wage regardless of their passenger load is expected to make bus companies less lawless. The card payment systems now being installed on modernized jeepneys might hint at a prepaid future though. The quest to eliminate the conductor has gone so far as to drive one company in the Philippines to experiment with an honesty system, trusting in the goodness of the passenger’s heart to pay the right amount. Predictably enough, the experiment failed.

10. Tollbooth attendants. Tollbooths should have been automated a long time ago, considering how unhealthy the job is — if you’re not dodging cars, you’re inhaling fumes. But human toll collectors persist, for some reason. Perhaps there is a need to maintain human contact through what can be a highly impersonal transaction. Some drivers appear to find the process of applying for an RFID account (and, tellingly, protesting false charges) to be highly inconvenient. Perhaps the toll structure (a different charge for varying distances, and also for small, medium and large vehicles) is currently beyond the capabilities of an AI. — T.R. Medina