Indeed there is widespread sympathy and empathy for the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), not for “bleeding-heart sentimentalization”, as columnist Robert Tiglao so derisively puts it in his column, Outlook, (Myths about OFWs, May 12, 2011, Philippine Daily Inquirer), but only because the most cold-hearted and callous could stay immune from their predicament. Indeed, if one were to believe Mr. Tiglao, we would all be happy becoming a nation of OFWs.
Myth? Horror stories? Caricatures? Allow us to address these points:
Fact #1: Majority of OFWs belong to the poorest and most heavily-indebted.
A 2007 survey by The Mission of Migrant Workers-Hong Kong (MFMW) stated that OFWs ‘get trapped in the cycle of debt’ because of high costs of agency and government-imposed fees. These high costs force OFWs to secure loans from lending agencies, and as a result, find themselves in worse financial situations than before. As they return home after a two-year contract, and even granting that they have paid their loans, they remain cash-strapped for the rest of their stay and even have to sell or mortgage whatever remaining possessions to survive.
Fact #2: Skilled or unskilled, OFWs suffer exploitation of cheap labor.
For years the country has provided the world market withcheap and flexible labor, skilled or unskilled. But the global economic and financial crisis that came crashing down specially on Third World Countries has made our OFWs more vulnerable to illegal recruitment, human/sex trafficking, becoming undocumented, and abused regardless of status or types of work. Sure, there are those who can claim success in terms of providing their families plush homes, cars, private education for children, state- of- the- art technology and communications but even these are muted testaments to exploitation, degradation, discrimination that one suffers as an OFW.
Fact #3: OFWs are ‘skilled, likeable and English-proficient’ because governments past and present have tailored even the country’s education and employment system to meet the demands of the global market for cheap labor.
Look at our educational system. It is meant to reinforce cheap semi-skilled labor for the global market. The government continues to encourage the proliferation of vocational-technical school geared towards OFW deployment. Even former President Arroyo had the gall to offer a course on “supermaids.” Increasingly, a growing mismatch of skills that does not meet the demands of the local market has seen unemployed college graduates making a bee-line for “3 D” jobs in the foreign market. Even the Aquino administration’s K-12 program is a step in this direction. The younger they go, the earlier they are programmed to serve global demand for cheap labor.
Fact #4: Despite dire conditions and imminent danger, OFWs would opt to return abroad not to ‘test fate’ but out of desperation and hopelessness.
OFWs who have “been there” know the perils and dangers that await them. It is not fate but “kapit sa patalim.” The government and the economy offer no incentives, opportunities and programs that would encourage them to stay put or to return home.
But instead of looking at its own failures to give its citizens gainful employment, this government is harping on the word “voluntary.” “Voluntary” migration. “Voluntray” repatriation. Nothing is voluntary when one is forced to leave his/her country for economic reasons or otherwise.
Which leaves us little wonder: Government’s neglect, betrayal and abandonment of OFWs speak legions. What better way to hide its responsibility than by blaming the problems on the OFWs themselves.
Fact #5: The surge in OFW remittances allows the government to skirt the issues of curbing poverty and creating decent jobs at home.
The “remittance bonanza” is indeed a boon to the Philippine economy as well as to a higher capita spending for OFW households, the last albeit precarious or temporary. But there is more to this than meets the eye. The impact of the labor export policy is strategic not only in terms of human and social costs but more so in the direction that the Philippine economy is heading.
For one thing, increasing remittances despite the global crisis could only mean double-triple burdens for OFWs to ensure the steady flow of remittances back home. For another thing, these remittances lull Philippine officials to sleep and leave the work of job creation on a standstill while foreign interest groups make hay on our shores, plundering our mineral resources and taking ownership over our lands.
For over three decades now, these remittances have been coming, from millions to billions of dollars but look where the Philippines is now, rating along with Bangladesh.
We thank Mr. Tiglao for the opportunity to demystify his own myths.
Chairperson, Migrante International