Burma, tomatoes, and the hiring lesson that resonates globally

I admit it, I am a ‘recruiting-tragic‘.

And a symptom of this condition is that I can’t help but think about the hiring implications of almost any situation.

And so it was, travelling with my family in Myanmar (formerly Burma), one of the most isolated countries anywhere, that I was struck with a hiring lesson that resonates across the world, in any situation.

We were in the northern town of Nyaung Shwe on the road to Mandalay, when, in the back streets, we stumbled on what turned out to be a tomato processing factory. Well, to be more exact, it was a tomato-sorting warehouse really.

Being intrepid travellers, and inquisitive by nature, we trooped in. And soon we found ourselves in a giant hall surrounded by tens of thousands of green tomatoes. And there, crouching all day, were a group of young women sorting tomatoes by size and by quality.

Fascinated, I asked my guide to help me talk to the owner, a corpulent, grumpy-looking gentleman with a thin black moustache, reclining on the only comfortable chair in the building, and smoking a huge green Burmese cheroot.

He was polite, but not particularly interested in my questions, although he did tell me they work 8-hour shifts, are contract labourers and earn US$2 a day. It seems each contract is for 4 days, and on the evening of the 4th day each worker is paid her wage, and then told if she is wanted back for the next 4-day contract.

The work is back-breaking, monotonous, and of course totally insecure. This is third-world work in third-world conditions and the plight of the young women silenced my entire family. But in fact these jobs are highly prized in the community, and I learned that many of the girls had left high school in favour of securing this job, thereby supporting their impecunious families.

I could not help myself. Through my guide, I asked the owner what was it that enticed him to hire any one of the many eager applicants for the jobs available. Furthermore, what did they have to do or show, to ensure that they would keep on being contracted for future work?

For the first time in our conversation, the owner perked up, and turned his black eyes directly at me. There are 3 things, he told me firmly, that he always looks for in a potential hire, or a rehire.

  1. Above all he looks for evidence and history of hard work. In his opinion nothing is as important as effort, diligence, and perseverance.
  2. Secondly he looks at attitude. To him this means a willingness to learn, ability to follow instructions, and a desire to improve.
  3. Finally, he likes people who smile, who are cheerful while they work and in his own words, ‘are very happy to be among the tomatoes’.

And so, as we bade farewell to the tomato workers, and disappeared into the twilight of a bustling Burmese town, it struck me that maybe the tomato factory owner had identified the universal criteria upon which all good hires, and fulfilling careers, are built… work hard, keep learning, and enjoy what you do.

And as we sat down at a tiny restaurant a few minutes later, I turned to my 2 sons, who frankly were a little shell-shocked by the working conditions they had just seen, and I said to them “boys, there is a lesson there”.

And as children always do, they shrugged off what their dumb old dad had to say, but I think the message got through, because two days later my older boy said, out of nowhere. “Dad, what were those three things the tomato-guy said were important to get a good job?”

  • Work hard and never give up
  • Keep learning and always improve
  • Love what you do, and show it


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Over a career spanning thirty years, Greg Savage has established himself as a global recruitment leader. Greg is a regular keynote speaker at staffing and recruitment conferences around the world.

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29 Responses to Burma, tomatoes, and the hiring lesson that resonates globally

  1. Ros Helmot January 15, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Thanks so much Greg – great lessons – and really to think these principles are universally applicable! I’ve just shared them with my son who is competing in a semi final of the T20 Big Bash tonight!

    • Greg Savage January 15, 2013 at 10:50 am #

      Thanks Ros..is that Simon? The coach? My sons are massive cricket tragics and will be watching every ball. But they support the Sydney teams..of course…

  2. Jonathan Rice January 15, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Great post Greg, valuable lessons learned there. Must admit to being a recruiting tragic too and am always thinking of how our recruitment world applies to other everyday situaitons

  3. Michelle Ackland January 15, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Janet Vallino who employed me in my first recruitment role back in the Centacom days always said that these three things are the key, there is a job for everyone no matter how limited their skills if they have the above traits. Janet is now National Training Manager for Sarina Russo and I am sure still believes this!

  4. Sue Flanagan January 15, 2013 at 11:09 am #

    Very sage advice and very appropriate for people at all stages of their careers!! Thanks once again for your valuable insight.

  5. Alexandra Lyus January 15, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Great post Greg – fabulous insights.
    And – tomatoes aside – food for thought 🙂

  6. Daryl Daniels January 15, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    So simple. So right. Cheers Greg.

  7. Amy Clogher January 15, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Thanks Greg! This was a great article and I’ve found it to be very true. I’ll be sure to share it with my team!

  8. David Horne January 15, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    It just goes to show no matter where you are and what you do some universal rules apply in life.

  9. Jan January 15, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Unknown Author
    A successful man continues to look for work after he has found a job.

  10. Albert Kalaja January 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    I reckon those three lines are magic. They could apply to Life equally as well. Thanks Greg

  11. Sivasamy Thiagarajan January 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm #


  12. Kevin January 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    It is sometimes in the strangest places that the lessons of life (and work) emerge. In the end you are right. It’s universal from the tomato warehouses through to the boardrooms – those 3 things. In the end though, if the “hirer” doesn’t “like” you, then that’s where it ends. And again, that applies from the factory floor to the boardroom, and when either party stops “liking” the other, that’s when the relationship has broken down.

  13. Sweta January 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    Very Fundamental but effective principals

  14. Julia Briggs January 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    ‘fulfilling careers’? Greg, 5 rotten tomatoes to you for this article. These girls are being exploited – by the owner, and more importantly by those of us who insist on cheap produce, all driven by the drive for shareholder value. And you stand back and teach your boys that there are lessons to be learned – yes there are, but not the one you outline.

    ‘Boys, the most important lesson to learn is how much injustice there is in the world and how we, in the richest countries make sure we continue to get richer. And even in our own countries we exploit employees by asking them to jump through hoops grinning like idiots otherwise they will be sacked, oh and don’t even pay them because they should enjoy the free learning experience as an intern. So that rich companies can get even richer – paying the ‘minimum wage’ which has to be topped up by taxation so that Tesco can continue to increase profits. At our expense. Keeping shareholders happy – the big pension funds – so that the managers can skim off huge and undeserved profits and bonuses, which then comes out of our dwindling pension. Goldman Sachs awarding themselves massive bonuses – for work not needed and at no risk to their own personal fortunes. Bonuses that they cynically time so they can avoid paying the going tax rate. And we still have an industry of employee engagement specialists!’
    ‘My lesson to you my much loved sons is grow up and fight to change this broken world. Have integrity. Set up your own enterprises that become beacons of good employment. Work for organisations that deserve your hard work and values. Lead a life based on your own true principles and, most of all, by fair-trade sodding tomatoes’.

    • Greg Savage January 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

      Hello Julia,

      As a plain speaking blogger, I am no stranger to flawed comments on my blog. Yours is worse than that.

      It is deceitful.

      You use the phrase “fulfilling careers” as if I suggested that these women have those. Then you build your whole rant on that false premise

      I did not say that or even hint at that.

      In fact I very explicitly said, “The work is back-breaking, monotonous, and of course totally insecure.”

      Nor did I endorse their employer, their work conditions, or the fate of their tomatoes. Which just for your interest, were for LOCAL consumption.

      My blog was factual. I relayed what I saw. Its is a true story, told as best I could and I leave it up to the intelligent reader to draw some conclusions about working conditions in the third world, which would be easy to do, as I made a clear point of outlining their pay, conditions and shaky tenure.

      But mostly it was vehicle to share some hiring lessons. That’s all

      One final thing, regarding your gratuitous ‘advice’ on how I should build values in my children. Reading how you have abused my simple tale for your own political views, I certainly will not be encouraging them to take your lead.

      Rather I will look after their moral up bringing my way … by taking them to the tomato factory, and allowing them to reach their own conclusions over time

  15. Michel January 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Quite an interesting altercation there, the level if which I have not witnessed very often. If and when you blog, you run the risk of people disagreeing with you and openly voicing their discontent. In that context,I find your reaction Greg, to be of supremely poor taste and lacking in decency. If this is a restrained reaction, then save us all when you do speak your mind.

    There is one thing about the content of your blog and the claim you stake in your reaction: first you tell us how you ‘stumble upon’ a tomato processing factory. Then, in your reaction to Julua, you ‘take’ your children there and offer them the opportunity to learn… Which is it, exactly?

    • Greg Savage January 15, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

      You make a fair point in your first paragraph Michel. Usually I show far more restraint when people”flame” my blog, but this time i must say I took offence. But you are right, a far better response was called for..but there it is

      Your second paragraph i don’t fully get. My reference to “taking my kids to the tomato factory” was simply to point to the fact that I actually take my family to challenging, confronting places, as a potential learning experience I guess. Once in Burma ..we stumbled on this place, so no, I didn’t leave Sydney with the express intent of seeking out this place.

      My writing must be getting even worse if there was any confusion on that

  16. Gary January 16, 2013 at 12:11 am #


    Thanks for a profound insight and sharing the journey taken to reach it. Keep it coming!

    Not sure why people seem inclined to impose their principles on you….

  17. Jean Fagan January 16, 2013 at 12:28 am #

    And I thought that a university degree was important for my recruits! The tomato man’s selection criteria reflect timeless behaviours that can’t be beaten and apply at every level in an organisation. There is one more behaviour to add to ensure success – respect your team mates including their right to have a different opinion to yours.

  18. Veronica Phillips January 16, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Greg I read your blog with curiosity and interest and got rewarded thank you. I felt no urge to respond until the blog attack, with all due respect for people’s right to reply and opinions I just wanted to add another! Your writing was clear concise and picturesque you left out little detail including the description of the attitude of corpulent boss with the green cheroot. (In fact I read your unstated feelings through your choice of word).You painted an easily understandable picture and if people know you or your blog they would know you are very sensitive to global injustices etc, it does not mean you can’t use experiences to illustrate points, in fact you did so with factual words and tact! Well done!

    • Greg Savage January 16, 2013 at 8:30 am #

      Thank you Veronica. I very much appreciate your comments. I thought I had written a harmless and sensitive piece about an interesting cultural experience..that suddenly had relevance to my “recruiting” world. I was astounded to be attacked as a “promoter of exploiters of third world workers” and to get a lecture on how I should bring up my kids
      Thank you very much for taking the time to comment

  19. Digby Ross January 16, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Not quite your usual post, but I love this one – very poignant and so true. Henceforth I will always look for candidates who are ‘happy to be among the tomatoes’!

  20. Alvin R January 16, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    3 things in selecting right job

    1. Is the job interesting that you think you will never give up the task at hand even if you work so hard ?
    2. Are there a lot of things to learn and will it surely improve yourself?
    3. You think you’ll have time to smile once in a while when you are into this job?

  21. Brad January 20, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Fascinating story, thanks for sharing it,

    I have been a long time reader of The Savage Truth blog and i have always found it very interesting and on this occasion felt the need to respond to Julia’s post.

    Yes the working conditions in the third world may not be what we in Australia have come to expect but if we look at both Asia and South America, we see an emerging middle class with wages starting to rise, increased levels of education and large falls in the number of people living in poverty.

    This partly explains why several major recruitment agencies are looking to Asia and South America for what Julia seems to have overlooked is recruiters need wages to rise in order to increase fees for fees are pegged to wages.

  22. Emily January 22, 2013 at 8:01 am #


    I was in Nyaung Shwe recently too, and stumbled upon exactly what Greg did – it may even have been the same warehouse! So I’d second Veronica’s comment: thought-provoking, and nicely captured as far as the writing goes. It’s like I’m back there..

  23. Felicia Odumosu February 4, 2013 at 3:25 am #

    Every employee that either wants to succeed in his/her career or add value to his/her employer must have these three qualities.

  24. Deanna July 1, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Hi Greg,

    You have written an interesting article and the very fact that

    a) you travelled to Burma, b) you took time to listen to the local people’s stories and ask questions and c) share what you learnt and took from that experience with all of us

    – is more than what most armchair activists or ‘slactivists’ (as I prefer to call them) do.

    Not sure if you know this, but I am Burmese, and I too have travelled extensively through the country. I have many relatives and friends there and they are intelligent, educated, hardworking, resilient people – some of which, have had to resort to hard labour and menial work – because, put simply, that is all there is, and it’s better than no income at all. Of course, it saddens me to see people (my family) doing back breaking work, for little money and no job security – but the Burmese are incredibly resilient, and hopeful – they don’t complain, they make the best of their difficult situations and live in hope that things will get better. And, they are getting better, slowly but surely, the world is waking up to the plight of the Burmese people. And it’s important to share these stories. So thank you.

    Visiting Burma left me humbled and eternally grateful of how blessed I am. Sometimes, it is all to easy to look at the negative, But like the Burmese, often the only way forward is to focus on the positive, smile and be gracious in what we have been given.

    • Greg Savage July 1, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      Thanks Deanna… I did not know you were Burmese actually…but I greatly appreciate your comments,, very best regards


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