Jobs back home
The sharp dive in global oil prices has left most Middle East countries foundering, the glut in supply all but drowning oil producing-countries in its wake.
Among hardest hit is Saudi Arabia, the preferred work destination of 24.7 percent of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), according to 2015 figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
This shift in fortune has left at least 9,000 Saudi-based Filipino workers jobless, as the desert kingdom has suspended construction jobs and infrastructure projects since its oil revenues started drying up. As many as 20,000 Filipino workers could be in distress, according to the labor rights group Migrante, taking into account undocumented OFWs.
Despite offers of aid and free flights home from Saudi, retrenched OFWs choose to stay, holding on to hopes that they could collect long-delayed wages and benefits. In the meantime, they live on the streets where they sift through garbage for food and survive on the kindness of strangers.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello recently led a special mission to Saudi in an effort to convince the stranded and idled OFWs to return home. He has assured jobs, livelihood loans, relief assistance of P58.66 million for affected OFWs and their families from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, technical skills training from Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda), and inclusion in the social welfare department’s conditional cash transfer program.
While such offers are welcome and reassuring, they also represent momentary relief from the festering ills of overseas employment, a policy that needs to be reviewed and revisited. Over the years, the policy has shown how our OFWs are chronically held hostage by fluctuating oil prices, religious wars, and by the drug policies and criminal justice system of host countries.
Flor Contemplacion and Mary Jane Veloso come to mind, and so do the frantic attempts of OFWs to exit Kuwait, Libya, Syria, Iraq and other countries on the verge of war.
Started during the 1970s at the height of the martial law regime, the labor export policy was President Marcos’ way of dealing with a moribund economy squeezed dry even more by the behest loans that his cronies had siphoned out of the country’s banking system. With little capital to pump prime the economy, the Marcos government turned to our biggest resource: surplus labor.
Soon enough, OFWs became the crutch propping up the country, with remittances making up 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product as of 2014. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, OFW cash remittances from January to August 2015 alone have reached $16.21 billion (P764 billion).
Despite such rosy figures, National Economic and Development Authority chief Ernesto Pernia says the Philippines should aspire to be like South Korea and Thailand, countries that no longer need to send workers overseas, a “stop gap” measure used in the early stage of their development.
The current administration, he said, would similarly strive to generate more jobs so OFWs need no longer work abroad. The push for development in the countryside in an effort to spread more inclusive growth should also mean more jobs in road construction and other government projects.
More incentives and a restructured tax system meanwhile should pour more spending money into circulation and encourage entrepreneurs to put up small businesses that offer more jobs in sales, marketing and production.
Agriculture and agri-ventures should also be encouraged, as ours is an agricultural country where cultivating idle lands is one viable alternative, and one that has yet to be fully mechanized and thus remains labor-intensive.
This being a consumerist economy, the manufacture of goods should be looked into as well, as this would again generate more jobs and find a ready domestic market.
The retraining OFWs who used to handle technical or highly-skilled jobs abroad should become a priority for Tesda, so that local jobs- and skills-matching would become a priority in schools and the workplace.
With government hospitals sorely lacking in medical staff who have become OFWs because of better pay abroad, it’s also time for government to allocate a bigger budget for our health system to entice our nurses and doctors to stay home.
The Saudi crisis should serve as a springboard for our labor department to take a second look at the skills and number of Filipinos that we lose to other countries every year. It’s a fresh start for this new government, and one that we all can use.
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