The “Love Letter to Filipinos” of David H. Harwell (Inquirer, 2/17/13), describing overseas Filipino workers as those who do all the work, never complain and “make everything happen” while suffering loneliness and hardship, moved many to tears.
Earlier, during his State of the Union Address, US President Barack Obama praised a Filipino-American nurse for heroically rescuing American babies from the destructive fury of Hurricane “Sandy.” The nurse, who was seated beside US First Lady Michelle Obama, was resoundingly applauded by members of the US Congress, the world diplomatic corps and the gallery.
“We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez. When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, she wasn’t thinking about how her own home was faring. Her mind was on the 20 precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe,” Obama said.
Like most Filipinos, I was elated by this accolade for one of our own. But my memory went back to when I was five years old in the family home in Masbate. Our housemaid was cuddling my younger brother when her own son, with a snotty nose and ragged clothes, tugged at her skirt. She slapped her son’s hand and pushed him away. As he wailed, she held my brother closer.
I thought then that it was unfair for a mother to neglect and reject her own child while caring for those of others because of poverty. And that is exactly where our country is today.
We train nurses and doctors so they can care for the young, sick and elderly of other countries. We spend our hard-earned money to educate engineers, scientists, technicians and teachers and provide skills to our workers so they can use their skills to build roads, bridges, homes, schools, factories, museums and green cities in foreign countries, while our own rural and urban areas deteriorate.
At home our skilled and educated workers are jobless because there are not enough factories and offices where they can apply their skills and earn decent wages. We send fathers, mothers, siblings, sons and daughters abroad while their own families here are shattered and their children abandoned to the vile temptations of the streets and the slums.
Then there are those among our OFWs who come home in coffins after committing suicide to escape the cruelties of their employers, who are caught in foreign wars, who are driven to madness by loneliness, overwork and intolerable living conditions, and who are imprisoned or sentenced to death as the impulse for survival drives them to crime. Yes, OFWs are heroes. But they are also victims.
They are victims of a failed economy, as are those left behind who live in slums or in the streets. But the tragic thing is there is not enough concern among the “movers and shakers” of our wounded society, the ruling elite. They sleep the sleep of the smug in fortified communities guarded by private armies and attended by legions of servants, fearing any change in the status quo.
The late US President John F. Kennedy famously said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” In other words, those who are privileged have responsibilities, including lifting those below so they can rise from their knees. If our neighboring countries can emerge from the darkness of poverty to the light of progress, so can we. It is intolerable that we should accept this situation as “normal” and “inevitable.”
It is true that human exports bring in substantial amounts of foreign currency. But according to a study in 2008 by economist Ernesto Pernia, “extreme reliance on money from Filipinos overseas hasn’t helped the country get out of the poverty rut and may even hobble the poor’s income capability.”
This is backed by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas figures. According to a news report quoting the BSP (Feb. 15, 2013), fund transfers or cash remittances from overseas Filipinos (OF) transacted through bank channels amounted to $21.4 billion in 2012, accounting for only 8.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 6.5 percent of gross national income (GNI).
Hence, 91.5 percent of GDP and 93.5 percent of GNI are still contributed by 90 percent of left-behind Filipinos, proportionately more than the contributions of the 10 percent of OF. The mainstay of the local economy is still domestic labor.
Most studies by the United Nations and international groups find that the brain and brawn drain benefits the rich host-countries more than the poor countries from which the workers emanate.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) said in a paper in 1997: “Poorer countries invest an average of $50,000 of their painfully scarce resources in every university graduate—only to witness most of them emigrate to richer places. The haves-not thus end up subsidizing the haves by exporting their human capital, the prospective members of their dwindling elites, and the taxes they would have paid had they stayed put. The formation of a middle class is often irreversibly hindered by an all-pervasive brain drain.”
This is understandable because most of our OFWs are from the middle class that is able to send its members to universities. They are in demand by the rich technological societies. On the other hand, the lower class does not have the means to send its children to schools and colleges to obtain the required skills. It may send out drivers, construction workers, and housemaids, but their ability to pay the required recruitment fees is limited. They are also quickly sent back when their contracts expire. It is the educated migrants who normally remain in the host country to enjoy its higher living standards.
The ILO said that “among the countries in Asia and the Pacific, the biggest source of overseas workers is the Philippines, with 730,000 migrants [now estimated at ten million].” Of these, the great majority have a tertiary education. “The second largest stock of migrants is from China (400,000), which is split almost equally between the secondary and tertiary educational groups.” But labor migration from China has dwindled because of worker shortage at home.
Some perceptive statesmen deride labor migration as a global sickness. In a famous interview on state TV, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin described labor migrants as “a fallout of the jaded.” Added the ILO: “But in many impoverished countries, local kleptocracies welcome the brain drain as it also drains the country of potential political adversaries.”
This last sentence is significant. Labor migration became state policy in the mid-’70s when Ferdinand Marcos’ martial rule experienced a serious fiscal crisis in the wake of the global oil crisis that sent the costs of imported fuels spiraling following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war.
To pay for our fuel imports, Marcos had the bright idea of sending our workers and technicians to the oil-rich Middle East to earn the needed dollars. The policy expanded to cover America, Europe and industrially emerging Asia, and also other professionals like doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers and nurses. It also served as an exit for the dissatisfied and disgruntled, who could have swelled the ranks of the communist and secessionist insurgencies.
Diaspora is to the nation as hemorrhage is to a person. If not stopped, it can lead to death. The ancient state of Israel died of this disease. It revived only after reverse migration. We can also revive our country by keeping our manual and intellectual workers on jobs here and recalling those abroad. We can do it, as others have done, through industrialization, modernization and self-reliance.
Manuel F. Almario is a veteran journalist and freelance writer. He is also spokesperson for the Movement of Truth in History (Rizal’s Moth). E-mail email@example.com.