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Stop treating workers as exports


With the recent problems confronting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) all over the world, particularly in the troubled Arab nations in the Middle East and Africa, the government must start seriously looking into phasing out labor export as an economic policy.

Thousands of Filipino workers remain trapped in Libya, where Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi has vowed to fight the protesters and rebels until “the last drop of his blood,” escalating what started as a peaceful protest into a full-blown civil war. Now, the government is in a quandary on how to evacuate the OFWs and bring them back home, where most of the repatriated workers face unemployment possibly for several months.

Tens of thousands more face the same prospect of being trapped in other Arab nations currently facing citizen upheavals, including Saudi Arabia, which hosts one of the biggest numbers of OFWs. Eventually, these workers will be repatriated to join the millions of unemployed in the homeland.

It is not only in the Middle East, which has an estimated close to two million Filipino workers, where the jobs of Filipino workers are being put in jeopardy. Taiwan has just recently threatened to send home thousands of Filipinos following a diplomatic tussle with the Aquino administration over the deportation to China of 10 Taiwanese arrested in the Philippines allegedly for fraud.

In July, Hongkong also threatened to send home Filipino workers following the mishandling by Philippine police authorities of a hostage situation where eight Hongkong tourists were killed during a bungled rescue attempt. While the issue has quieted down, Hongkong is still conducting its own probe that could reignite the problem and threaten the Filipino workers again.

Singapore, which also hosts a huge number of Filipino workers, recently announced that it plans to limit the number of foreign workers in the island nation.

Even in the United States, where almost half of the $18.76 billion remitted by overseas Filipinos last year, Filipinos are finding difficulty finding new jobs largely because of the ongoing troubles besetting the world’s biggest economy. In fact, economic experts have noted that in recent years, the remittances from Filipinos in the US have gone down by about 25%.

The drop was offset by remittances from the Middle East, but with thousands of Filipinos being or about to be repatriated from the troubled region, there is bleak prospect for the country to maintain the foreign remittance level this year.

In June last year, I wrote:

“Economists and even the World Bank have repeatedly warned developing countries, including the Philippines, not to depend on the inflow of remittances and foreign investments to sustain the growth momentum.

“In 2006, the Ibon Foundation Inc., a political and economic think tank, warned that the growing dependence of the Philippine economy on the money sent home by OFWs has become alarming. Sonny Africa, the think tank’s head researcher, said he is alarmed by the fact that the OFW remittances comprise more than 10% of the country’s GNP.

“The double-digit mark makes the Philippines the most overseas remittance-dependent economy of any significant size in the world,” he said. “This means that the economy continues to be kept afloat by the external and volatile OFW remittances, and not by a strong local economic capacity.”

“Africa added that the declines in domestic investment implied a diminishing capacity to expand production and warned of a slowdown in the near future. He pointed out a “glaring lack of decent jobs” in the country as the main factor in the exodus of Filipino workers abroad.

“Indeed, instead of gloating over the increased remittances, it should be a cause for concern because it only means that local jobs are not available and this clearly shows a declining economy instead of a growing one. What if the Middle East countries suddenly decided not to hire Filipinos because of security threats or for political reasons? Or Singapore and Hongkong suddenly decided the Sri Lankans would make better maids?

“Indeed, it is folly for the government to depend on overseas workers for economic growth, not to mention economic survival. The government must look at OFW deployment as a temporary solution to the country’s economic ills, and should have a clear program to generate local employment to at least stop the exodus.”
Obviously the repeated warnings of economic experts on the country’s alarming dependence on foreign remittances to prop up the economy have fallen on deaf ears. The country remains the world’s fourth biggest remittance-receiving country behind India, China and Mexico, and has the highest number in terms of the remittance’s ratio to GDP and exports.

Instead of vowing to produce jobs for workers that Taiwan might decide to send home because of the deportation row, President Aquino promised to find them jobs elsewhere.

Obviously, exporting labor remains a major economic policy of the Aquino government. And that is precisely the problem with the continued dependence on exported labor; it lulls both the government and the people to complacency. The government has become less serious in coming out with a more solid economic program, while the remittance-receiving families are content with receiving those monthly manna from their toiling family member and becomes passive in finding other ways to boost their income.

In addition to this over-dependence and complacency, the export of skilled labor has resulted in decreasing quality of Philippine goods and services because of the increasing lack of skilled workers. Health and education, for example, has suffered tremendously because of the exodus of doctors, nurses and teachers. Even the PAG-ASA has complained of the lack of quality weather forecasters, many of whom have left for better-paying jobs abroad. Even Philippine manufacturers are finding it difficult to produce competitive export products because of lack of skilled workers.

Because the Philippine government, like the OFWs’ families, has become dependent on the remittances of these workers, it tends to overlook the fact that both the Filipino worker abroad and their families in the homeland are suffering from this labor phenomenon.

Tens of thousands of Filipino workers, especially those deployed as domestic helpers and factory workers are exploited, and physically or even sexually abused. Those that are not abused or exploited have to overcome loneliness and other problems brought about by their prolonged separation from their families.

Similarly, the spouse and children left behind are also saddled with emotional and psychological issues spawned by the long separation. It is not uncommon in the Philippines to see children growing up without their father or mother, or sometimes both.

Even in the diplomatic front, the Philippine government often has to negotiate from a disadvantaged position because of fear that the other country might send home Filipino workers or freeze hiring of Filipinos, which could result in major problems for the economy.

The recent developments in the Middle East, the worldwide recession, the recent encounters with the law of some Filipino workers, the exploitation of oil workers in Australia, the death of Filipino workers in the New Zealand earthquake, and the other troubles that accompany Filipino workers worldwide should awaken the Philippine government to the reality that it cannot rely forever on remittances from these workers.

Something has to be done to stop treating Filipino labor as export, and the export of labor as economic policy. And it has to start now.

By Val G. Abelgas

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