Silver linings, dark clouds

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs Robert E.A. Borje meets OFWs in UAE | FILE PHOTO via Wikimedia Commons

Bonifacio Day is more than enough to give content to countless stories and articles. Indeed, celebrating Bonifacio Day can be a soul-searching stimulus for a social, political, and economic structure characterized by extreme disparities. This is more true of the Philippine leadership involved. It is they that Bonifacio challenged, it is they that Bonifacio wanted to be dismantled, and it is they who are deemed responsible for killing Bonifacio. Yet, it is they who celebrate Bonifacio Day.

I have long stopped listening to the officials giving speeches on Bonifacio Day, extolling the hero and his character. While they do so, they point to their own failure to emulate Bonifacio and what he stood for – for as long as that extreme inequality persists without a painful and transformative effort to dismantle it. Commemorative action on Bonifacio Day rightfully belongs to those who share in the vision and pain of what Bonifacio fought and died for. That means the poor, the marginalized, and most Filipinos remain depressed because of a lingering feudal setup.

So, it was with surprise, and a very pleasant one, that greeted me early morning on Bonifacio Day. I was having coffee and watching a morning show on cable TV where the Secretary of the Department of Migrant Workers was being interviewed. Covid-19 and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine have been providing a stream of bad news for over two years. I understood that OFWs had suffered so much from these global-impacting events. Hearing Secretary Ople then share developments that strongly favor the fate of OFWs made my coffee break happy.

In the first place, I had long dreamed of and written articles on it, a special niche in government commensurate in importance to the phenomenon of overseas Filipino workers. The phenomenon has economic solid returns that have kept the Philippine economic and political structures stable even in critical times. The tens of billions of dollars in remittances need no explanation to millions of Filipinos benefiting directly and the government that continues to be saved from worse crises because of these. The Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) is a giant solid step in honoring the value of overseas Filipino workers.

What I heard from the DMW Secretary was the equivalent of silver linings because recent developments are seeing restrictions and obstacles on overseas hiring being removed or eased. The impact must be so significant that Secretary Ople felt confident enough to say that a sharp increase in remittances can be expected starting the first quarter of 2023. That is the money side, of course, which must stem from a significant increase of Filipinos finding contracts abroad.

More overseas workers also translate to more families domestically, and their financial security is bolstered. Their fears which began at the onset of the pandemic, can now be assuaged, and a heavy burden will be lifted from a government facing severe challenges on many fronts. Most of these challenges require financial resources because the government still wants to sustain the existing subsidies. That is the politics of economics. With more Filipinos sending home money to their families, the political pressure to subsidize at present levels will decrease.

The phenomenon of overseas workers, however, is not all bright. After more than 40 years, as remittances rose, special domestic problems erupted. With one or sometimes two parents absent in the home for extended periods, there is a severe negative impact on the development of the children. The myriad of familial and community challenges result from one or two parents earning abroad, and the children left to alternative care merit their own focused attention. Too complicated to tackle now.

“The phenomenon of overseas workers, however, is not all bright. After more than 40 years, as remittances rose, special domestic problems erupted. With one or sometimes two parents absent in the home for extended periods, there is a severe negative impact on the development of the children.”

I can say, though, that the rise of mental health problems leading to depression and suicide, also as illegal drug use and petty crimes, cannot be disconnected from a lack of parenting in the home. Their absence or minimal presence in the home may not be the only cause, but it is significant. That is one social cost that offsets the monetary and political advantages of the overseas workers’ phenomenon. Just one but heavy, frequently tragic.

From the macro view of global history and development in different countries, no people mired under colonial rule, violent internal conflict, and enduring poverty did not improve their status without extreme sacrifice. Story after story from the colonial period to the present highlights radical sacrifice, combinations of war, and hard work under unfriendly environments.

I see our overseas Filipino workers as like the pioneers from the West who settled in many lands around the world. The settlers of America were the primary builders of their eventual nation. Many must have died in percentages higher than what Filipinos experience today when they work overseas. That is why we must go out of our way to rescue the hungry and save the victims of disasters and calamities. We should not pay the cost of suffering, deaths, and social problems at home. There have been many lessons along the way.

History must make one day honor in the most meaningful way the heroism of those who sacrificed their presence in the family and carried the deep emotional burden of going from poverty to the middle class. The DMW is now there to envision how this heroism can be rewarded in concrete terms and how OFW families and communities may be aggressively assisted in building their domestic capacity and dreams. The DMW is new, but that is no excuse for not exercising its resources, imagination, and mentorship over a whole sector of Filipinos.

All things considered, especially the continuing lines of Filipinos seeking decent work abroad, I will accept as net good news or silver linings the positive outlook of DMW Secretary Ople. May her words be prophetic.

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