Unwitting Nation Builders

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I was watching a TV show where a lawyer was being interviewed and he mentioned that government had made it a program to export Filipino labor. I don’t remember ever government making that policy, though it might as well. Filipino have been going abroad to work for a long, long time, long before most Filipinos remember, or know, even before Filipinos ran their own government.

Filipinos working abroad is a historical pattern, at least from the 16th century when Spanish galleons brought Filipino natives as part of the crew to North America (United States and Mexico today). Small waves of migration have followed over four centuries before what we now call the Overseas Filipino Workers or OFW phenomenon.  And pre-Hispanic history, especially about our fabled balangay, shows how much of seafarers and travelers Filipinos have always been.

The POEA or Philippine Overseas and Employment Agency did not come to be until 1982, almost a decade after Filipinos found their way to the Middle East in answer to the great need of the newly-nationalized oil industries there. While, on paper, the POEA is supposed to promote and monitor overseas employment, reality is one-sided in favor of regulating and monitoring recruitment agencies. In other words, the Philippine government is not in the business of exporting Filipino labor, it simply adapted to Filipinos working abroad.

There are the usual commentaries about how there are no opportunities here and, consequently, millions of Filipinos seek employment abroad. There is truth to that, of course, but there are other intimately-related truths that are worth mentioning, too, because they give a more expanded and factual view.

In the world of nations, employment is part and parcel of economics. And in ranking nations by economics, either by GDP or Per Capita Income, there are interesting tidbits that show Filipinos are not all that forced to go abroad—but do for a combination of other reasons. Economics and employment may be very important, but are other tendencies that set the stage for working outside the country.

The Philippine performance by GDP shows that we may have as many as 120 countries lagging behind us. Most of those 120 countries do not experience their people seeking employment abroad in a massive scale. 10-11 million Filipinos working abroad as temporary employees and migrants cannot but be considered massive as these are adults, mostly with their own families. Including their families, those they support from their earnings abroad, the numbers could reach 40 million today.

More interestingly, and maybe in the more relevant economic statistics, per capita income, Filipinos lag behind the majority of the world. Still and all, there are about 70 other countries behind us, worse off than we are. If Filipinos are supposed to be “forced” to seek opportunities abroad, then those with greater economic difficulties than us should be more aggressive in penetrating the market of global employment. They are not. Most do not even bother.

It would be hard to conclude that the people of other countries worse off than we are simply lazy, unmotivated or simply not cognizant of opportunities elsewhere. It may be more possible that they have no historical and cultural pattern of traveling to places beyond their native lands.

Let me cite Filipino seafarers. As mentioned briefly earlier, the history of the Filipino balangay points to both constant travel by sea (natural for natives of thousands of islands) and, beyond that, applied technology for boat-building. It is no wonder that Filipino seafarers represent 25% of all seafarers in the world manning commercial and transport vessels.

I suspect that Filipinos working in households around the world are substantial as well, just as Filipinos working in oil-producing countries in the Middle East. Why would even there be a demand for Filipino workers if they do not possess certain qualities that raise their value before the eyes of importing countries?

While in reality it is not true that the Philippine government is in the business of exporting labor, I wish it were. If, truly, the Philippine were to take advantage of the sterling qualities of Filipinos, even if the poverty of many had denied the higher refinement of these qualities, then I wish the government would deliberately market Filipino labor as determinedly as it is trying to market the beauty of our people and islands through tourism.

Tourism income is nothing compared to the income from OFWs’ remittances to the Philippines. I read that tourism revenue was around $4.4 billion in 2013 and assume it could have crossed the $5 billion mark in 2014. But that is revenue, revenue that needed a lot of direct capital investment, promotions and operating expense. Remittances from overseas Filipinos reached $24 billion in 2014 with hardly any capital outlay. Yes, the cost is till steep, the emotional and social cost. Why, then, can we not mitigate it?

For one, we can truly treat OFWs are a prized possession, our number 1 earning export, the actual heroes who keep the body and soul of the motherland steady, especially among the less fortunate (although not yet the poorest of the poor), and who are emerging as the new and real middle class – by population and by income. If we as a country treat OFWs are our pride and joy, the hope of a great number of families and the whole country by extension, why can we not invest in them, promote them wisely, protect them as VIPs and not like the poor are regarded, build embassies around them, and for them?

So far, OFWs have been called heroes but not treated royally. They are heroes, they are nation builders, but they do not know it, do not believe it, because society and government do not treat them as such. It is not too late, though, for us to change the way we look at OFWs, and most especially, the way we treat them. If they are contributing so much to the nation, let them know it, let them be proud workers representing the country overseas, and let us roll out the red carpet for them.

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