Social Climate

Overseas workers’ families are less poor

/ 05:14 AM September 30, 2017

I’ve had the good fortune of working abroad three times—in 1970/71 for nine months, in 1977/78 for a year and a half, and in 1981 for four months. I did it, of course, to take advantage of wages far greater than my pay from my regular employer, the University of the Philippines, which allowed me temporary leave. The UP has been kind to many faculty members in the same way.

Like so many returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), I invested mainly in the family dwelling. Upon acquiring decent housing, I felt no personal need to work abroad anymore. But our family continued to benefit from the overseas job market. My wife, a civil servant, got posted abroad by an international agency. One son recently got a teaching job in Hong Kong.


Current national Social Weather Surveys show that one of every twelve families has at least one member absent due to work overseas. The OFW families in the country number about 1.9 million, out of the current official estimate of 22.9 million families. The number of individual OFWs is more than that, since some families have more than one OFW abroad; in the SWS June 2017 survey, the average per family is 1.2.

To the extent that their motive for going abroad is to secure a better economic life for their families left at home, aside from for themselves personally, OFWs have been outstandingly successful. The bigger social question, however, is to what extent the uplift is being shared by the truly needy.


OFW families are relatively free from want. The economic focus of the SWS surveys is deliberately on the less fortunate, rather than on the average members of society. Hence, SWS emphasizes monitoring of poverty and hunger. Deprivation of minimum needs is more critical than the average living condition, which is the implied focus of those fixated on Gross National Product.

Every Social Weather Survey that has identified OFW families in its sample has shown that these families suffer much less from economic deprivation. Happily, the surveys show that OFW families are from all walks of life, and not limited to those relatively well-off to start with.

In the June 2017 SWS survey, 10 percent of OFW family heads—versus 14 percent nationally—had not completed elementary school; 31 percent of them had not completed high school—versus 27 percent nationally; 41 percent had finished high school but not college—versus 47 percent nationally; and 18 percent were college graduates—versus 12 percent nationally.

Thus, the educational backgrounds of OFW families is only slightly above average. I think this is because half of the OFWs themselves are located in the Middle East, where job opportunities abound even for the relatively unschooled.

The first two SWS quarterly surveys of 2017, combined, have Self-Rated Poverty (SRP) at 35 percent among OFW families, versus 48 percent among non-OFW families. This 13-point difference is much more than can be credited to their slight advantage in education over non-OFW families. It is due, no doubt, to the big premium of wages abroad over what would be their normal wages at home.

Another finding is that Self-Rated Food Poverty is 20 percent among OFW families, versus 35 percent among other families. Hunger among OFW families is 6.0 percent, versus 11.2 percent among others. These are very significant differentials.

It’s nice that Filipino academics and civil servants can get jobs overseas. But the true social value of such jobs lies in their accessibility to those who are most deprived.


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TAGS: Abroad, families, Inquirer Opinion, OFW, Social Climate
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