THE FILIPINO DIASPORA(a closer look)
By: Manuel “Bong” Amora
Many years ago, a Filipina school teacher named Tonya worked as a chambermaid for a budget hotel in Taipei. Tonya’s husband, a technician, had a job in the more distant Nigeria, Africa. They supported three children staying with her parents and were saving up in hopes of one day operating a small business. Tonya’s unfinished house in Northern Mindanao was waiting for funds, but to her, it can wait. More important at the moment were her children, her parents and others – their subsistence assured and the kids’ school expenses taken cared of … fine!
Tonya and her husband are OFW’s or Overseas Filipino Workers, so to speak.
An Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) is a Filipino who is employed in work outside the Philippines. Some eight million of them, still citizens of the country; they left to seek work abroad, attracted by jobs with salaries that far exceed those in the Philippines. Others left simply because there are no more jobs available in the country. To survive, they had to bite hard the bullet.
Since then, the story of Tonya’s dispersed family has been replicated several times again and again as millions of Filipinos have been forced to leave the country in search of gainful employments. Fully, about 11 million Global Filipinos are working abroad today – that is already including some 3 million, the more fortunate ones, who are permanent residents or now citizens of other countries. Note that 11 million is 12 percent of the nation’s population of 91.5 million or 30.7 percent of the country’s labor force of 35.79 million.
Unemployment in the Philippines plays around eight percent or about 2.8 million, while underemployment is running at a crushing 25 percent or 8.9 million of the country’s workforce. No wonder that ‘Population below Poverty Line’ in the Philippines is 40% of the population or a whopping 36.6 million.
Typical to the big chunk of the country’s workforce, Tonya and her husband have to work somewhere else in the world, firstly – to feed hungry mouths and secondly, for a little flicker of hope of a promising future.
Just what is… diaspora?
Diaspora, according to Wikipedia means the scattering or dispersion of a group of people to anywhere else in the world. Its history dates back to the Jews when they were forcibly expelled and scattered after their captivity in Babylon. As far as one can see, some 7 million Jews outside the State of Israel are everywhere in the world today.
In terms of numbers, the Filipino Diaspora, at 11 million now outnumbers the original Jewish Diaspora. Each year, the Philippines is sending out more than a million to work abroad through its overseas employment program. Every hour, some 100 migrant workers leave the Philippines. Overseas Filipinos are typically known to be as doctors, accountants, IT professionals, engineers, technicians, entertainers, teachers, nurses, seamen, military servicemen, domestic helpers and caregivers.
Professor Belinda Aquino, Director of the Center for Philippines Studies at the University of Hawaii, points to “push & pull” as one of the many reasons that explain the Filipino Diaspora.
Sadly, ‘pushing’ Filipinos out of the country, according to Professor Aquino, is a faltering economy that cannot provide enough jobs. Another push comes from the wide disparities in a society where there are only a few rich families with world class wealth while a large majority is mired in poverty. To the global Filipino, working outside the country is ‘greener pasture’. The United States attracts most of the greener pasture seeking Filipinos but the Middle Eastern States and our South East Asian neighbors are fast catching up.
This disparity is also true if we look at ourselves with our neighbor-countries. Sorted by the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) Method, the Per Capita Income of the Philippines according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is at US$ 5,365. Malaysia on the other hand, is US$ 11,957 – that’s 2.2 times higher than the Philippines’. Just to have a taste how the neighboring city-state of Singapore performs, hold your breath; it is at US$ 33,471 and Thailand at US$ 9,193. This goes to show how poor we are compared to our neighbors. As a consolation, Vietnam has only US$ 3,393 but Vietnam’s economy is now fast propping up. By the way, ‘per capita income’ tell us how the average citizen earns per year.
Pulling’ Filipinos abroad are demands for specialists and professionals like doctors, engineers, nurses, caregivers, and medical technicians. They are the more fortunate ones who are now mostly entrenched in the Northern Americas. In United States alone, some 4 million Filipinos, about 2.5 to 2.8 million of them are now permanent residents or citizens handling responsible positions in their employments. Today, that pull has spread further to manual workers, maids, clerks, bartenders, cooks, and waitresses. For instance, in under-populated Saudi Arabia are more than one million Filipino workers – that includes me, my relatives, my friends and my town mates. Another 500,000 Filipinos are in the other Middle Eastern states – and that includes my town mates, cousins and nieces. Even Filipino entertainers go on extended tours.
ECONOMICS OF A COUNTRY
The economic well-being of a country has always been equated to exports that should far outweigh the national imports.
It’s worthwhile to mention that Philippines’ present exports are semi-conductors, electronic components, garments, copper products, sugar, coconut oil, fruits, and most importantly or most ironically, ‘labor – in warm human bodies’.
Note that timber, yes, the once mighty timber & lumber products from the Philippines are no longer included in the export list. And our coconut oil exports had dwindled significantly because of the palm oil competition whilst our sugar exports threatened by competition worldwide. Soon they will become endangered species.
What’s left as our significant exports are the semi-conductors & electronics components – not ‘finished products’ to note, but a second level ‘raw materials’. Now, take out the Philippines’ Export Processing & Special Economic Zones where the semi-conductors and electronics are manufactured and we will end up poorer than the proverbial Timbukto. And the unemployment rate, so with the poverty line soars even more! Thanks that Atlas Mining in Cebu (now called Carmen Copper Corp) will soon resurrect, if not, copper from the Philippines will join the de-listed items as a Philippine product.
Nor are improvements on the horizon. The Asian Development Bank has reported that, despite a 5.6 percent Philippines’ growth rate projected for 2007 (now reaching 7.0%), “job creation is inadequate to make a meaningful dent in unemployment and underemployment.”
What happened to the Philippines following the diaspora?
As being said earlier, pushing Filipinos out of the country in a diaspora is a faltering national economy that cannot provide enough jobs. But a lot of Filipinos may not know it – because paradoxically, the ‘faltering’ Philippine Economy has at present been saved by the OFW’s in a manner that the country is now highly dependent on the dollar remittances by the same diaspora we are talking about.
Ranking fourth in 2006, Overseas Filipino Workers sent back to the home country some US$ 14.6 Billion in remittances. Topping the list is India at US$ 24.5 billion, followed by MEXICO at US$ 24.2 billion, then CHINA at US$ 21.0 billion, the PHILIPPINES at US$ 14.6 billion and RUSSIA at US$ 13.7 billion.
The US$ 14.6 billion are official remittances in 2006 that passed through Philippine banks. A good 50% more are moneys that are hand-carried or ‘paki-padala’ or mailed in from abroad without showing up in banks or tax records, and that makes it a whopping total of US$ 22 billion! Compare that to the country’s 2006 budget of US$ 17.6 billion; the diapora’s dollar inflow exceeded that of the national budget by 25%!
Again, we may have not noticed that the Filipino Diaspora’s remittances has now logged as the largest source of foreign income, highly surpassing the annual average of US$ 2.5 billion foreign direct investment to the country. Note also that the OFW’s remittances represent a huge chunk of 13.5% to 14.5% of the Philippines’ GDP, the largest in proportion to the domestic economy among the other five countries mentioned above. WOW!
Is it worth giving big thanks to the Global Filipinos?
THE NEW HEROES
In the last forty years, the Philippine national economy has been increasingly fueled by remittances of the Filipino Diaspora. OFW’s, represent the rhetoric of the Philippines’ “bagong bayani” or “new heroes” as signified by the growing abundance of its national labor abroad. That’s in the words of our former President Fidel Ramos.
Bayani? Of course, yes…! Let us see…
As my brother Dood’s blog said, “Send them home, and the number of unemployed & under-employed Filipino workforce would balloon to some 19.7 million. Not only that! Bring the OFW’s home and the yearly US$ 22 billion remittances will be lost. It could mean the Philippine peso to be plummeting to probably PhP 80 to a US Dollar. I could not imagine anymore how much a liter of gasoline would be… and the domino effects thereafter!”
After India, Mexico and China, the Philippines is the fourth largest exporter of warm-bodied labor in the world. One out of eight Filipinos is an OFW, working in some 194 countries and territories and a good number of them plying the high seas of the globe.
Since the seventies, Filipino bodies have been the top Philippine export, and their corpses (about five or six return in coffins daily) are becoming a serious item in the import ledger. In the early 1990s, women comprised 55 percent of overseas foreign workers. Today, some 67 percent of Philippine overseas workers are women, outnumbering the men.
ISSUES & CONCERNS
At last, Tonya returned home but sadly, as a cargo wrapped in a wooden crate. Two weeks before that, she leaped from the 8th floor of her apartment building after having been brutally raped. A month before the incident, she was frantic to go home but couldn’t. Her employer withheld her passport and won’t listen to her pleas. She needed to come home, – her husband had just been released from an earlier kidnapping in Nigeria. Tortured, shocked and confused, her husband was able to return home with the help of others – but penniless, his state of mind, – troubled.
Tonya finally had come home for good. But sadly, her husband couldn’t even understand why there was a wake in his own home. Shattered future …, tales of broken dreams …
Of course, Tonya and her husband are players in a fictional story. But the story had been based on actual occurrences in the lives of OFW’s. The point is, although the dispersed Filipinos are earning far more than they would at home, life is often not easy.
Many overseas Filipino workers face many difficulties abroad. These include illegal recruitment, mysterious deaths, racial profiling and discrimination, and kidnappings. In some countries, such as in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, many OFWs have reported that their pay was withheld, while others have had their documents confiscated or hidden.
Several cases have been reported on sexual abuse by employers, while thousands of Filipinas travel abroad for domestic work only to be tricked by their foreign employers into sexual slavery. Furthermore, some of these workers are even murdered.
Other problems include the risk of involvement in a conflict, such as those in Lebanon, Iraq and Nigeria. About 30,000 Filipinos were trapped between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas in the fighting in Lebanon. Luckily, they suffered little in the Hezbollah rocket attacks. But luck will surely run out, may be next time, there could be no escape anymore.
The Philippine peso today has become one of the strongest currencies in Southeast Asia, second only to the Malaysian Ringgit. The monthly dollar inflows by the diaspora have made the peso Asia’s best performing currency this year, up nearly 33 percent against the dollar based on the 2007 vs. 2005 figures. In September of 2005 one dollar got 56 pesos, but now it buys about 42. Many remittances into the Philippines still come from the United States, but there are also significant flows from countries that have a dollar peg, such as Hong Kong, the Gulf States and other South East Asian countries.
There are good as well as bad effects of the strong peso.
In effect, at almost US$ 100 per barrel of crude, we spent less pesos for the dollars paid for the 350,000 barrels of petrol oil imported everyday. That had greatly helped dampen the gasoline price at the pump.
On the other hand, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves says that overall, the strong currency helps the economy. “The government has a large stock of debt. For every peso of appreciation, the government saves about P 4.5 to P 5 billion ($100 million) in interest payments. …. The strong peso would generally have a net favorable effect on the Philippines because by and large the stack of debt has really a tremendous effect on the Philippines’ situation.”
Per Manila Bulletin, July 5, 2007 issue, “the Department of Finance (DoF) said that because of the strong local currency, the government saved P20 Billion from interest payments in the first half of 2007.
Based on DoF documents, the National Government spent P129 Billion in interest expense for the January-June period, better than the program of P149.9 billion.
For the second quarter the government has programmed interest payments of P55.60 billion, and P12.11 billion for the month of June alone. The full-year program for interest expenses is P303.23 billion.
Note that Government’s interest expenses are the second biggest item in the national budget. The DoF said government will save about P40 billionin interest payments this year. Last year the DoF reported P30 billion as interest savings on past loans and about P18 billion from its debt exchange program. Based on Bureau of Treasury numbers, the government paid P310.1 billion in interest payments last year, way below the program of P340 billion because of lower rates and peso appreciation. DoF officials said the government will continue to pay lower interest payments in the next three years until it drops to below P200 billion by 2010. The government’s expected outstanding debt this year is P3.924 trillion, or 58.3 percent of gross domestic product.”
But the strong peso hurts the very people who help prop it up. Tonya, the chambermaid, made the equivalent of about US$ 500 a month before her ‘death’. In peso terms, she should now earn P 21,000, down from about P 28,000 two years ago. She used to send P 18,000 a month home, but the weaker dollar and higher living costs in Taipei have cut that to P 10,000.
The government acknowledges that the Global Filipinos suffer from the strong peso. But those workers are suffering because the dollars and other currencies they earn are worth less, and that means fewer pesos to help their families.
But then, the overseas Filipinos have to support families back home, and whether they like it or not; they have to remit regardless of what the level of the peso is. That, again is biting the bullet hard…
Quo vadis, Pinoy…? In the end, there is still no other way, but the Filipino Diaspora