Still unsung heroes
THE 10 million overseas Filipino workers have always been credited for a big part of the economic-growth story under President Aquino. The fact is that the billions of dollars they send home each month have been a growth driver of the economy long before this administration, or since the 1970s when the oil boom lured tens of thousands of Filipino construction workers to the Middle East.
Last October, OFWs sent home cash worth $2.23 billion—the second highest monthly amount on record, exceeded only by the $2.32 billion remitted in December 2014. From January to October, cash remittances totaled $20.64 billion, up 3.7 percent from $19.91 billion a year ago. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas expects remittances to increase to $25.6 billion this year from $24.35 billion in 2014.
Remittances are the biggest source of foreign exchange income for the economy, insulating the Philippines from external shocks by ensuring the steady supply of dollars needed to pay for imports and service foreign debt. These cash transfers also fuel domestic consumption, which last year accounted for about two-thirds of the economy as measured by the gross domestic product.
This is the good side of the OFW phenomenon. The other side is that despite government efforts and promises to protect their welfare, many Filipinos working abroad continue to suffer physically, emotionally, mentally and even financially thousands of kilometers away from home.
As early as 2010, a group from Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Psychology running a counseling website for OFWs noted that family and marital issues topped the list of concerns commonly consulted online by Filipinos abroad. Among the problems raised were related to marital conflict, lack of communication with children left behind in the Philippines, and concerns about “long-distance parenting” and “the guilt in missing out on important events in their family’s lives.” There were also questions about work-related problems, including issues with coworkers and bosses, racial discrimination and prejudice at work, homesickness, adjustment concerns and financial issues.
Illegal recruitment has also remained a huge problem to this day despite efforts by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) to clean up the recruitment sector. The Commission for Filipinos Overseas estimated that there were some 1.34 million undocumented OFWs as of 2013—an issue that the government should really address. The tedious process required to legally work abroad has been blamed for the continued proliferation of illegal recruiters who offer speed of deployment at little initial expense through such schemes as the fly-now-pay-later program. Illegal recruitment has serious implications particularly when the migrants involved are maltreated or abused by their employers: There is no way for them to hold anyone liable for their misfortune.
A more immediate risk today even for the legally employed is the potential negative impact of falling crude oil prices. While this seems a relief to Filipino consumers in terms of lower gasoline prices, the big number of OFWs in the Middle East are at risk of losing their jobs. The economic health of Middle Eastern countries is greatly tied to their ability to profit from oil. Bigger income from oil exports means more migrants to be hired for projects in the Middle East. The reverse can happen: Prolonged cheap oil prices can trigger a wave of retrenchment that will surely affect OFWs in the oil-producing region. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are two major host countries for OFWs, accounting for 17.4 percent of all remittances last year.
It is hard to quantify if the economic benefits of having millions of Filipinos working abroad truly outweigh the social costs of this phenomenon. But given the sad plight of a number of these migrants, the government should always strive to reduce the attractiveness of overseas jobs. As it is, thousands of Filipinos continue to leave the country daily for jobs abroad; many of them are uncertain of what lies ahead. Preliminary reports from the POEA indicate that from January to October, the total job orders reached 717,182, mainly for service, production and professional, technical and related work in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The POEA noted that 1.6 million Filipinos were deployed abroad in 2014.
Making economic growth inclusive is the answer if the government is to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign jobs. Meaningful local employment programs should eventually help make migration a choice, not a necessity.
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