Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reflections on Overseas Employment*

“Wala na naman si Papa,” my youngest sister whined a couple of days before her college graduation. I almost retorted “What’s new?” but my better judgment decided against saying so. The last and the only graduation my father has attended was my eldest sister’s. That was the first in our family, when she finished primary school in 1992. Eleven other graduations followed in the course of fifteen years, all of which my father never saw, add to that the countless recognition days he has also missed.
 

Not that my dad neglected us or something. His absence meant exactly the opposite. He is one of the millions of Filipinos breaking their backs in foreign lands to give their families a better future. I know that if he had a choice he wouldn’t leave. But that has not kept me from wishing that we had a normal family set up -– that he had an eight-to-five job, that he fixed the broken whatever at home, that he greeted us personally on our birthdays and other occasions instead of sending cards, that he gave my brother tips on courting, and that he subjected my sisters’ suitors to interrogation. My mother did all these quite satisfactorily but I still think things would have turned out differently if my dad was around. It really is difficult to have spent half of our lives with our father physically absent but I reckon it’s a lot harder on his part. Imagine leaving your family to live in a strange land with strange people. He gets to spend a month or two with us every two years but that isn’t enough to keep him from casting awed glances at us, betraying his amazement at how fast the years wore on. And his “Dalaga/Binata na ang anak ko” remarks always make me feel like we have virtually excluded him from our lives despite the letters and pictures and overseas calls.
 
Image taken from this site

As a child of an overseas worker, reading the three articles on overseas employment struck a sensitive chord in me. The articles are commendable for their attempts to explain the implications of the OFW phenomenon.  They are, however, guilty of reducing the question into statistics and cost-benefit analysis as if what they are dealing with are inanimate tools in a science laboratory. Dr. Licuanan’s  article delivers what its title promises, “a closer look” into the overseas workers’ experience, providing a comprehensive review of the positive and negative effects of overseas employment not only on the individual worker and his/her family but on the Philippine society as well. She likewise poses a question which the government apparently chooses to ignore -- Do Filipino workers really have a choice?

The answer is pretty obvious. Given the deplorable state of labor and economy at home, Filipinos are driven to take jobs abroad. Often, this is not even a move to greener pastures but some sort of a forced relocation to somewhere just a little better than the barren tract that is our country. Indeed, the uncertainty of working abroad is a better choice than the uncertainty of where the next meal would come from. Kapit sa patalim, so we say. Yes, OFWs have a choice, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On the “national obsession” as Licuanan puts it, about working abroad. I agree that the material equivalent of having an OFW in the family is overrated. The obsession, I think, applies more to OFWs who are fortunate to have a choice, and to the neighbors and distant relatives of the individual working abroad. The first group is composed of those with well-paying jobs here but chooses to go abroad anyway for various reasons. The second are those outside looking in, those who don’t feel the emotional strain of leaving or being left behind. I have a friend working in Singapore who, when asked if it is ok to be a second-class citizen smugly replied, “Nationalist pretensions will not keep food on the table.” This is why I am not so keen on OFWs being called “bagong bayani”. The word bayani has its roots from the term “bayan” or nation. True, OFW remittances help keep the economy afloat but this is merely incidental to the primary force that drive them from home, which is personal/familial. But then again, this terminology just may be the government’s marketing strategy to lure more workers to go overseas, have more remittances sent home and consequently shift the burden of saving the economy on them -- a fancy phrase to mask the ugly realities of it. Aside from this glorification, what else has the government done?
 
Well, there’s Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, a lame concession to appease public indignation over Flor Contemplacion’s fate. Section 2(c) of said law provides: 
“While recognizing the significant contribution of Filipino migrant workers to the national economy through their foreign exchange remittances, the State does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development. The existence of the overseas employment program rests solely on the assurance that the dignity and fundamental human rights and freedoms of the Filipino citizen shall not, at any time, be compromised or violated. The State, therefore, shall continuously create local employment opportunities and promote the equitable distribution of wealth and the benefits of development.” 
This and a couple more laws aimed at protecting migrant workers and establishing agencies to ensure the same. No, it is not promotion but institutionalization. A futile exercise in doublethink.
 
The issue of overseas employment should not be limited to questions of cause and effect nor should it be bound by the law on supply and demand. Call it elementary, but I believe there is a remedy to stop pushing our country’s best and brightest abroad. While we are in search of it, there are Christmases, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations missed.

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*Reflection paper for Labor Law 1 on the following articles:
1) Soriano, Ma. Teresa M., Implications of International Migration: A Focus on the Philippine Experience, Philippine Labor Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1996) 
2) King, Amelia M., Social and Economic Benefits and Costs, Philippine Labor Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1985) 
3) Licuanan, Patricia B. Katas ng Saudi: A closer look. Philippine Labor Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1985).

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