The Faces Behind the Figure$

Alex Angara does volunteer work for Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph). Her interests include poverty, population and migration.This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, October 8, 2007 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Having stayed in the UK for a few years made me increasingly aware of Filipinos living and working away from home. I’d speak to the Filipinas at the tills of my nearby supermarkets, meet many a nurse, smile at my kababayan along the High Street or in church. A sense of pride (admittedly tinged with some initial amusement) would fill me when applause would echo in the cabin upon our plane touching ground at NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport). Such are our “modern-day heroes” with their tales of sweat and adaptation, their bags and balikbayan boxes with pasalubong for family and friends, their remittances of hard-earned foreign currency, and their unwavering excitement to return to their patria adorada (though it did occur to me that perhaps the clapping was from sheer relief the plane had not crashed). Amidst the animated chatter as seatbelts are unbuckled and cellphones switched on, there are the occasional few who are far more somber (and no, I am not referring to those simply displeased with the size of the seats in Economy). This is just one of their stories:

Manny and Lynn Santos (whose real names have been changed to protect their privacy) lived in the UK for three years. A foreign businessman and his Filipina wife brought them over from a town in Central Luzon to work in an Asian restaurant just outside a small city in the Midlands. The Santoses, accompanied by one of their sons, left their other children (two minors and two just over the age of majority) in hopes for a better future for all of them. Little did they know they would be working a 70-hour week for far less than the minimum wage. Housed above the restaurant in a room far too cramped for the three family members, the only available time they really had for themselves was every Sunday to attend mass at a small parish church in the city center.

It was in this parish that the Santoses found refuge. Some of the local parishioners, upon hearing of their predicament, encouraged them to leave their unscrupulous employer. Out of fear of being sent home, however, the family tolerated being exploited. As time passed, the increased interaction with members of the local community came together with the increased awareness of their rights. With their confidence boosted, the Santoses did leave their employer, but only after a year of being overworked and underpaid.

With help from members of the parish, the Santoses rented a house closer to the city center. Furniture, clothes, and other useful items were donated to the family, who had also found better jobs with other employers. They were even able to bring over three more of their children, two of whom attended (and excelled in) nearby schools. It seemed they had been given a new lease on life.

Things were beginning to look just as they had hoped it would back when Manny first accepted the offer of overseas employment. Alas, Manny’s work permit—and hence that of his dependents —was tied to his original employer. His new employer’s request for a visa was denied by the UK Home Office, which requested that the family leave the country.

And so they did. A few months ago, the Santoses returned home. Their new lease on life had lasted just two years.

There are estimated to be over 190 million migrants, comprising approximately three per cent of the global population. The Santos’ family’s story was but one of those behind the migration numbers. Some tales may have happier endings; others, worse. Each story has its own place on the spectrum of success, whichever way “success” is defined. What is more clear-cut and less likely to be disputed is the view that migration is a key element of this day and age. The question that remains is how to maximize its benefits and minimize its costs for all its stakeholders.

Though there are various reasons for migrating, labor migration in particular is of importance to our country and economy. Its basic pros and cons are fairly familiar. To begin with, the Philippines is “known for the hardships that make migrants flee” (as recently written in the International Herald Tribune). It is common knowledge that paychecks for every profession are bigger abroad, and that overseas Filipino workers’ (OFWs) remittances are keeping our economy afloat. Those who have family or friends working overseas, while  probably better able to enjoy a higher standard of living financed by money sent home, are also likely to be all-too-conscious of the difficulties of being away from loved ones for extended periods of time. There is also worry of “brain drain”, which may not have been as much of a problem years ago but looms as more of a possibility as more of our skilled workers leave.

In other circles, there are also the growth concerns. While increased consumption as a result of remittances has been a main driver of our economy, it is argued that more of these remittances could be channeled into productive investments. And while some studies may show that remittances are already channeled relatively productively—for example, towards the education of children or setting up a small business (the Santoses for one are looking towards running a small internet cafe in their hometown), it may also be argued that some investments are better than others.

The above viewpoints and debates are among the better-known but clearly do not form an exhaustive list of matters relevant to labor migration. Moreover, as the Palace continues to laud our “modern-day heroes” and high levels of remittances continue to make the headlines, society becomes more consumer-driven (and dare I say materialistic?), families are broken, and our country continues to export our unemployment and population dilemmas as well as mask our many other underlying problems which force our kababayan to migrate in the first place.

The story of the Santos family is just one of those that tell of the true state of our nation. The Santoses would much rather have tolerated exploitation from their original employer than return to our shores. One of their sons has even chosen to be an illegal immigrant, working two jobs and taking on the shifts the locals refuse to accept, in order to earn some money before reuniting with the rest of his family in a few more years. Now a better life overseas is an understandable motivator to migrate; but that some of our workers would rather be employed abroad under substandard conditions than remain here where prospects are even bleaker for but a few, truly underscores the plight of our country.

As we rejoice at increased remittances resulting in a “strong” economy, we need to remember the true stories behind the figures: the human sacrifices made and social costs endured by our OFWs to keep themselves, their families—and as a byproduct, our country—alive. Malacañang needs to do far more for our OFWs than host the annual Bagong Bayani awards. Our OFWs need something of worth to return to, or at least something in which they can invest.

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