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September 18, 2020 - 19:01
by Niklas Reese
Close to eleven million Filipin@s across more than a hundred countries around the globe—that was the picture of Philippine outmigration at the end of 2009. This figure represents more than ten percent of the total Philippine population and a little more than one fifth of the working-age segment. Each passing day, more than three thousand Filipin@s leave the country to seek greener pastures elsewhere, registering a 42 percent increase in the span of just ten years. Of this eleven million, three million have settled overseas, having married nationals of the host country and/or those who have taken on foreign citizenship. Since they continue to nurture their ties to the Philippines, they are included in the statistics as overseas Filipin@s. However, with a headcount of 8.5 million, Overseas Filipino Workers (or OFWs for short) represent majority of these migrants.
There is a steady demand for Philippine labor at the international level, given Filipin@s’ high levels of education and excellent English language skills. However, there is a two-class system in place. There are those who make it to “Western” countries in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand and mostly work as nurses, caregivers or special education professionals. Also included here are Filipino priests who fill in the gap of declining numbers of Catholic priests at the global level. And then, there are those sixty percent “second class” migrants who work in the Middle East and other parts of Asia. These include domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, construction workers in the Gulf states and so-called Japayukis or “entertainers” in Japan whose daily grind sometimes borders on prostitution. It is also a fact that Filipin@s represent 20 to 30 percent of seafaring staff on high seas. About one to two million OFWs do not enjoy legal migrant status in their host countries and lead a life of “TNT” or tago nang tago, meaning that they are always hiding and on the run from authorities. A more recent phenomenon are Filipin@s’ deployment as drug mules.
While Mexico boasts of the highest number of migrants in terms of absolute numbers and El Salvador and Tadzhikistan carry the distinction of having up to 40 percent of their population living and working outside their respective national borders, Filipin@s are the most highly dispersed workforce across the globe. Filipin@s are thus the most globalized working population of the world. Taking a closer look at remittances reveals another interesting pattern. While remittances sent back home to India, China and Mexico are higher in terms of absolute numbers, what is remarkable about the Philippine economy is that total remittances represent more than ten percent of the Gross National Product (GNP), which is not the case for the other three countries above.
The important point to be made here is that given the massive extent by which the Philippines is shaped by outmigration, it is almost impossible to understand Philippine realities outside the context of this phenomenon.
History and Contemporary Context of Outmigration
During the time of the American colonial administration, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Filipin@s were deployed to the pineapple and sugarcane plantations of Hawaii.
Mass migration began in the 1960s and 1970s due to employment opportunities in the industrial countries of Europe and North America as well the booming oil economies in the Middle East. This created a big demand for manual labor and domestic helpers. Former president Ferdinand Marcos recognized that supporting labor migration was a way of getting hold of foreign currency to repay the country’s debt without having to initiate long overdue structural and economic reforms. This meant that the selective opening up to the world market as witnessed in the neighboring tiger economies was not forthcoming. While the Philippines and Japan were considered the most economically promising and developed in 1950, a number of Asian economies overtook the Philippines by the 1980s. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan sought more and more cheap labor from overseas, including from the Philippines.
The effects of migration are found everywhere. Overseas employment agencies and brokers are found everywhere, offering jobs for construction workers and domestic helpers in Dubai or Hong Kong. It is not uncommon to find plaques attached to school buildings, village plazas and churches indicating the generous financial donations of their native sons and daughters who have made their fortune abroad in the renovation of public spaces and development of their hometowns. In the provinces, only landowning elites used to live in houses made of concrete. Nowadays, however, many a nipa hut has been replaced by a modern abode. These new houses have become status symbols that reflect the success of their owners overseas. In the provinces of Batangas and Laguna, just south of Manila, there are several villages built in Italian style (see box). In the big cities, gated communities and subdivisions have mushroomed all over, accompanied by the construction of shopping malls—all made possible by the spending power fueled by overseas remittances.
These remittances have become the most significant source of foreign currency for the Philippines. In 2010 alone, government figures indicate that OFWs sent home 20 billion dollars through banks and other financial institutions. This figure represents one tenth of the GNP. According to the estimate of journalist Rodel Rodis (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 09 September 2009), however, the actual figure could be closer to 40 billion dollars. This includes the value of all goods and services that reach the country through informal channels, whether in the form of cash (padala), souvenirs (pasalubong) or mailed packages (balikbayan boxes) and even voluntary services rendered by OFWs. This amount not only surpasses any foreign direct investment or development aid package. It is, in fact, the equivalent of the Philippine government’s national budget. No wonder then that politicians hail OFWs as the “new heroes” and rally support behind labor migration. Sadly, this outpouring of support is not matched by the level of official commitment and government initiative when it comes to the protection of migrant workers’ rights abroad.
In 2009, one in five Filipin@s agreed in a survey that they would emigrate to another country, if given the opportunity to do so. Many observers, such as the journalist Marlen Ronquillo (Manila Times, 27 August 2008), feel that the actual number is much higher, reaching as much as 99 percent of the population. A student of medicine, Kris Mangunay (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 25 August 2011) puts it this way: “…most people believe that going abroad is the only way to a better life. Who would not know about the overseas worker who just built a house in the town proper, or the young woman who at a relatively early age already provides for her family? It is a story known to the tambays [the ones hanging around – the Ed.] at the sari-sari store.”
The push abroad is not just a result of economic factors, even if these are important reasons. The Philippine economy has been undergoing a prolonged period of stagnation and job opportunities are far from bright. The local labor market is unable to absorb highly qualified Filipin@s. Seeking for employment overseas is often seen as the only chance to find a decent job if at all. Plus there is the added prospect of sky-high salaries compared to the local rates. Migration has become a standard response to this bleak outlook that goes largely unquestioned. Indeed, those who have the necessary qualifications must often justify to friends and family why they do not wish to migrate.
Moreover, migration has become a way of “voting with your feet” or giving expression to one’s dissatisfaction with conditions at home. The seemingly hopeless state of affairs in politics and public service, corruption and criminality and the lack of opportunity have resulted in a “let’s just get out of here” attitude. Given the seeming bankruptcy of the state and the rudimentary features of the present social security system, the decision to send a family member abroad seems like the only feasible solution to these problems. It is often the only way to sustain one’s family, to finance the education of one’s children and siblings, and support one’s parents in old age. Working abroad also presents a way of saving up some capital to be able to start one’s own business upon returning home.
For all intents and purposes, remittances assume an important socio-economic function, representing a de facto pillar of social policy. In the year 2006, based on figures of Asian Development Bank (ADB), 23.3 percent of households received direct remittances from abroad—compared to only 18 percent in the year 2000. For nine percent of families, these remittances are their main source of livelihood, while 60 percent of the population belong to the wider network of beneficiaries (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 February 2010).
Even if it is difficult to ascertain the internal breakdown of household expenses (Weninger cited in Reese/Welkmann, 2010), only 44 percent of those who receive remittances are able to put aside some money in the form of savings, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines. For the rest, all money is spent, mostly on food (93 percent of households), paying off debt (46 percent), education (72 percent) and for “out of pocket” health expenses (63 percent). Nevertheless, 29 percent were able to buy household appliances and 7.7 percent a car. Only six percent were able to make investments (The Philippine Star, 14 December 2010).
Only those whose family members work as professionals in the West or in the booming economies of Asia have the spending capacity to go beyond the bare essentials (about 15 percent of all migrants). Seafarers are also included in this count. Seafarers may only make up 3.3 percent of all OFWs, yet their earnings account for 15.3 percent of all remittances (Camroux 2008). It is also interesting to note that although only about 13 percent of overseas Filipin@s live in the USA, a whopping 40 to 50 percent of total remittances originate from there.
How much a single household receives is determined by the amount the relative abroad is able to earn and how much thereof he/she is able to send back home. This may range from to 300 to 350 US dollars from domestic workers in Hong Kong or the Middle East to several thousand dollars earned by highly qualified medical professionals in the West. According to ADB estimates in early 2011, there would be two to three million more Filipin@s below the poverty line if it were not for the dependable flow of remittances. For “second class” migrants, remittances compensate, at least partially, for the lack of livelihood opportunities and social security at home. However, once destiny deals them a blow, such as sickness in the family, any savings generated by migration are quickly wiped out.
The class background of migrants also merits closer examination. Internal migrants who move from poor provinces to urban centers are largely from very poor families. Overseas labor migration abroad, by contrast, is a phenomenon of the “not so poor” of the so-called D class. These migrants originate from urban centers. Almost half are from Metro Manila and neighboring provinces. The poorest of the poor who belong to the so-called E class and rural populations are largely outside the loop of remittance flows because they do not have family members who work abroad. While the richest 20 percent of the population received 44 percent of the remittance share, the poorest 20 percent received just seven percent, based on ADB figures from the year 2006 (Manila Times, 03 May 2011). This is because this segment lacks the formal educational requirements or else, because they are unable to cough up the funding for the pre-departure expenses. These “non-migrants” live in nipa huts, often without electricity, subsisting as peasants and upland farmers. In the cities, the poorest populations live in marginal settlements, scraping by in the informal sector. The luckier ones among them work minimum wage jobs where they earn about 250 to 400 pesos a day or equivalent to 5 to 6 euros. They are employed for example as casual sales personnel at shopping malls, where they provide services to migrants and their families. As early as 2001, columnist Belinda Aquino already warned of the gaping social divide between those who can depend on remittances from abroad and those who are left to fend for themselves (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 06 June 2001).
Contrary to the commonly held assumption that migrants from the global south are less qualified and educated than their counterparts in the north, majority of Filipin@ migrants have had at least some college education. Majority of them have also reached higher levels of job competence, labor productivity and quality as a result of years of job experience. The economic and social development of the Philippines is thus severely affected by this brain drain and the resulting lack of well-trained professionals and experienced workers. This lack of assurance of higher levels of labor productivity makes it unattractive for more foreign as well as local investors in search of new production sites to consider the Philippines. And as these skilled professionals and workers leave, it is instead the economies of the richer countries which benefit from all these years of accumulated working experience. A jarring example from the health sector: in the time period from 2005 to 2007, five thousand medical doctors left the Philippines to seek employment overseas and another six thousand took additional nursing courses to qualify as nurses in other countries. While the United States and other Western countries actively recruit nurses from the Philippines, there are many obstacles for doctors who wish to practice their profession elsewhere. This is because there is still no shortage of doctors and so the job market is protected from outsiders.
While more and more students from countries such as India, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia come to the Philippines to enroll in medical school, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that no other country in the world exports as many medical professionals as the Philippines. While the demand for nursing graduates has been declining for a long time, new nursing colleges mushroomed all over place at the beginning of the new millennium. And while the number of new students of medicine declined by 40 percent from 2006 to 2009 (Manila Times, 26 August 2009), more and more made nursing their course of choice. Nursing students readily admit that their motivation for their choice is to be able to work abroad. According to the Department of Labor (DOLE), the number of new nursing students increased from 28,000 in the year 2000 to 454,000 in 2006. At present levels, Philippine nursing schools train more than 90,000 applicants a year, out of which 50,000 to 70,000 later become licensed registered nurses. There are more nursing board examinees per capita in the Philippines than in any other country in the world. Yet the reality is that year by year, only about 10,000 nurses clinch contracts abroad. Consequently, there are now about 300,000 registered nurses who are unable to put their training into practice. Since working experience is an important criteria in applying for a nursing job abroad, many local hospitals take advantage of this surplus. They expect inexperienced nurses to first undergo a fulltime practicum (meaning they are asked to work for free) or even pay the hospital for training them.
“It’s time to serve myself!” These were the words of a highly qualified doctor when he trained to become a nurse in 2004. At the level of the individual, such a choice may be understandable and in full accordance with the neoliberal notion of the enterprising self. Yet at the societal level, this single decision represents a painful loss. Mass outmigration of nurses has weakened the Philippine healthcare system– not because there are not enough nurses, but because there are not enough experienced nurses. They are the ones who are in high demand abroad and where they can earn about twenty times as much as they would receive in a government hospital at home.
Better working conditions for medical professionals are found only in the private hospitals in the big cities. These are those which cater to the small upper class and family members of migrants who can pay for services that remain beyond the reach of ordinary Filipin@s. These hospitals then are the only ones who are in a position to pay better salaries to prevent their employees from looking for greener pastures elsewhere—at least for the time being. Save for some idealists, Philippine hospitals are therefore staffed with nurses with less training (who do not yet qualify for employment overseas) or with those who do not want to be separated from their families. This results in a situation where novice nurses are deployed in operating rooms. The few experienced ones have to work more by doing double shifts.
These trends in the health sector are mirrored in the education and other fields. Students enroll in special education, hotel and restaurant management or information technology courses with eyes firmly fixed on lucrative opportunities at the international level. They enter university with one foot already outside the door. This means that numerous local positions for specialists and professionals in various fields are not filled.
To make matters worse, returning overseas Filipin@s do not find outlets for the skills and talents honed elsewhere because there is a lack of opportunity at home to make the potential brain gain a reality. The lack of positions and inadequate working conditions prevent this from happening. The government actively supports outmigration, but is less interested in creating an enabling environment so that returnees can apply their knowledge and experience for the good of the home country.
While women represented only twelve percent of Philippine OFWs in 1975, their number increased to 47 percent in 1987. By 2002, the percentage of women shot up to 69. Although the construction boom in the Middle East has since somewhat offset this trend (at present women account for about 55 percent of OFWs), the feminization of labor migration is undeniable. The reason for this is the big demand for “caregivers”, which is considered to be a “female” domain. Nurses, domestic helpers, nannies, caregivers and sex workers are much sought after. In Taiwanese factories, Filipinas’ renowned dexterity and nimble fingers likewise gained a good reputation.
The demand for female labor from the Philippines must be seen in the light of the dominant social relations wherein women shoulder a large financial responsibility in supporting the immediate, as well as, their extended family. The international labor market thus provides much needed opportunity for them. According to the Philippine sociologist Belinda Medina, female migrant breadwinners show greater commitment to their family compared to their male counterparts, i.e. females send a proportionally greater allotment back home than males.
Labor migration can also become an attractive option for women because it allows them to break free from conservative, discriminatory gender relations. This is especially true for women who do not fit the traditional mold, such as those who have gone through marriage break up or an experience of prostitution. This re-positioning, however, is only partially successful since migration re-casts them into specific gendered relations of labor and reproduction. They may earn more money abroad, but it is at the expense of a diminished social status. Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, Singapore or the Middle East often become victims of verbal, physical and sexual violence. A study in October 2004 revealed that every fifth Filipina returning from work abroad was subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of her employer.
The feminization of migration profoundly changes the order of the traditional patriarchal gender relations. Because of their relatively high incomes abroad, women (mothers, daughters, sisters) take on the role of providers and de facto decision-makers of the family. In cases where the mother, not the father, leaves for abroad, the family unit undergoes more extensive adjustments than if it were the other way around. Women are still seen as the primary caregiver and homemaker and men are supposed to work outside the home. Although some fathers do step up and take on the responsibilities of care work, most often, other female relatives are tapped to take on the mothering role in absentia.
The general consensus in the public discourse is that children suffer psychologically if left behind by their mother. Women migrants are blamed for causing families to break up, for driving their husbands into alcoholism and the youth into delinquency. Given these bleak scenarios, a mother forced into the role of breadwinner is plagued by guilt. Yet this doomsaying may not be entirely reflected in real life. Interviews of children with absentee parents show that they are indeed capable of coping with the situation, even without their mothers around (Rhacel Parreñas in Reese/Welkmann 2010).
Filipin@s seem to have internalized their position in the international division of labor, that it is their part to supply the rich countries of this world with cheap and compliant labor with a compassionate touch. Numerous children and young people probably identify with a sixth grader who, when asked about her future ambition, declared, she wants to work as a domestic worker in the United States.
The government is a beneficiary of migration. The billions of dollars remitted by OFWs each year decrease the deficit in the balance of payment and thus lessen the pressure to institute sustainable reforms. It is in the interest of those pushing these shortsighted policies that there is no ebb in the stream of migrants to the West. The dependable flow of remittances ensures that families of migrants are able to afford private education and health care and therefore pose less of a burden on the state and mute calls for improving public service in the country.
Putting an abrupt end to labor migration would not just be unrealistic but would also most likely trigger a revolt in the country. “Migration remains a necessary strategy in the short and medium term,” writes Fernando Aldaba. His suggestion for the short term is to ensure that the gains of migration are used to effectively protect OFWs in foreign countries. In the medium term, the government should refrain from its intention of expanding migration as a policy. “In particular, the government must find ways to channel remittances into productive investments to create more jobs locally. Education and training must be linked to the building of a dynamic economy that produces goods for local and international consumption and is not just geared towards overseas markets.”
These proposals would mean furthering structural reforms, increasing labor productivity and the base for wealth creation, expanding infrastructure, supporting local medium enterprise (to complement ecological re-tooling in the global north), increasing tax collection and strengthening consumer spending—premised on the democratization of Philippine politics. What is needed is the fundamental transformation of the status quo and a renunciation of neoliberal economic policy. Only the assurance of a decent existence is able to stop mass migration, population growth and rural exodus.
Removing migration as an option would not be a welcome development. Forced migration may have its downside, but the Philippines would surely be less culturally exciting without migration. The country’s history is profoundly shaped by movements of people and various colonial and cultural imprints from all over the globe. At present times, OFWs are the conduits of cultural impulses from all the corners of the world. These are transmitted back home and amplified to the world in a colorful cultural mélange. What would the world be without Pin@ys?
Niklas Reese is a social scientist and researcher in the University of Bonn (Germany) as well as lecturer for South East Asian Studies at the University of Passau (also in Germany).
This article is an advance publication taken from Niklas Reese/ Rainer Werning (Ed.): Handbuch Philippinen. The German edition will be published in September 2012 (Horlemann Verlag: Berlin); the English edition will be published later this year in the Philippines.
Katrin Bennhold: From afar, moneymaker and mother: Women who left families behind have become a global force, in: International Herald Tribune, 08.3.2011 – available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/world/europe/08iht-ffhelp08.html?ref=thefemalefactor
David Camroux (2008): Nationalizing Transnationalism? The Philippine State and the Filipino Diaspora – available online: www.ceri-sciencespo.com/publica/etude/etude152.pdf
Mary Lou U. Hardillo-Werning (2000) (ed.): TransEuroExpress – Filipinas in Europe. Bad Honnef.
Niklas Reese/Judith Welkmann (Hg.) (2010): Das Echo der Migration. Wie Auslandsmigration die Länder des globalen Südens verändert. Bad Honnef.
IBON Facts and Figures, Special Release (15.5.2008): OFWs, Remittances and Underdevelopment.
 The social costs of migration described above are not fabricated. Yet Parreñas finds that exaggerated typecasting can be traced to stubborn patriarchal notions essentializing women as mothers and nurturers.
 A nagging question remains. Does the steady flow of remittances breed false dependencies and laziness among recipients or do these impressions reflect the middle class biases of social commentators? The appraisal of Belinda Aquino (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 6 June 2001) illustrates this kind of thinking: “Spoiled by the regular “pension,” members of families, usually the males, quit school, treat out their “barkadas” to endless rounds of drinks, and just slum around. Meanwhile, their poor sisters, aunts, mothers are working their heads off earning the money that just goes up in smoke and drink back home..”