Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The migrant worker phenomenon

This is my column today.

I am sure that most of us have an idea of how the phenomenon of Filipino workers overseas is making dramatic impact on the life of the nation. Many are aware of the economic value that the Filipino diaspora provides. I have this nagging suspicion, however, that many among us simply look at the OFW phenomenon as just another source of livelihood rather than as national issue that deserve urgent and critical attention.

We know that the main reason why our country has not gone belly up despite the succession of global, regional and national crises that we’ve had to go through in the last decade is because regardless of what they have to put up with in the process, our migrants have continued to send money home to their families in the country. As long as the dollars, the dinars, the euros and the other forms of payment for our countrymen’s very hard labor abroad continue to flow into the country, and we know they will for as long as our workers have jobs—any job—abroad, our economy will continue to get by.

I know there are people out there who think that this is an oversimplification.

Quick question for those who continue to doubt just how remittances have become the lifeline of this country: Is there anyone among us who does not know at least five families that fully rely on someone who works abroad? There are barrios in this country, lots and lots of them, where farmers don’t take the planting of crops seriously anymore because they have now cast their fortunes on a family member who is abroad.

There are many towns in this country whose local economy is mainly propped up by money coming from remittances. In fact, in one forum I attended, one presenter shared results of her study conducted among high school institutions in one province in the Visayas which revealed that more than half of the students were being supported by a migrant worker. The discussion in fact pointed out that if half of our workers were to suddenly lose their jobs, many educational institutions would automatically close shop.

Many hardware and construction stores in cities and municipalities have been enjoying brisk business in the last two decades courtesy of migrants who pour all their money into building beautiful houses as some kind of physical proof to show for their sacrifices.

Thus, wherever you go in this country, you will find newly constructed beautiful houses made of concrete, sitting in the middle of a rice field or jutting out from the side of a mountain.
I was in my hometown in Leyte for All Souls’ Day and I noted that the phenomenon has also made an impact on cemeteries. I was amazed to find a number of mini mausoleums that have suddenly sprouted in our town’s cemetery. I visited with a friend inside their newly constructed family mausoleum (actually, just four walls, a tin roof, and some steel bars for windows) and she told me that an older sister who works in Dubai insisted on having the tombs of their parents enclosed inside a structure “so that it couldn’t be said that she wasn’t taking care of their dead.”

I work with a bank that’s the leader in the remittance business and one of the things that our branches have to contend with are families—parents, in-laws, children, nephews and nieces—who troop to the branches to claim remittance from abroad. Why does everyone have to join the parade to the branch? They need to divide the money among themselves right there and then, which really illustrate just how many people depend on a single migrant worker. Sob stories abound as well, such as when a whole family spends their last peso on fare coming to the city (with nothing left for the return trip) putting their hopes on a remittance that’s sadly been delayed because their relative abroad has not been paid by his or her employer either.

We know, too, that this phenomenon comes at a great social cost. With millions of parents working abroad, we’re seeing a whole generation of Filipinos who have grown up, or are growing up, without both or at least one parent around. The negative outcomes of such an arrangement have been chronicled in many studies. They’ve also been milked to bits in various soap operas and movies. We know that the price we’re paying for the phenomenon is quite steep. We also know that we really don’t have much choice either.

There are those who romanticize the situation by insisting that there is nobility in poverty; that it is okay for families to suffer hunger and misery as long as they are together. Yeah, sure, those are real choices. This is stuff for soap operas, but what kind of parents justify the fact that they are not able to send their kids to school or put decent food on the table by saying that at least they are together?

What we really need are programs that deal with the consequences of the phenomenon. I’m not really sure there’s anyone in government worrying about the problems and their potential impact. I still have to see the Education Department, for example, developing modules that help schoolchildren deal with the complications of not having their own parents to guide their growth. We don’t have counseling services in place to help parents and their children deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of separation. In fact, we still don’t seem to have a crisis management plan in place to deal with the misfortunes that some of our workers encounter abroad despite having had too many of these highly controversial and celebrated cases already.

But then again, I’m probably howling for the moon here. Heck, we don’t even have a national human resource agenda, much less a national human resource master plan. We keep on singing paeans to our migrants but we don’t really have a well thought-out strategic plan to manage how exactly we intend to position ourselves in the global market. I’ve said this many times in this space, but I will say it again now. Most of our other resources are gone and the little that is left needs to be preserved for future generations. What we do have is human resource.

Without a national human resource plan in place, we’ll continue to grope in the dark, hitting at moving targets. Our students will continue to enroll in courses that have dubious chances in global job market. We’ll continue to see underemployment as many college graduates settle for menial jobs. We’ll continue to have a wide gap between the needs of industry and the output of academe.

It’s really about time we seriously gave the matter some attention.

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