Laments on the Filipino Diaspora
My older sister, a retired doctor, recently passed away unexpectedly in Cardiff, Wales, in the United Kingdom where she had resided for the past 25 years. She was 67 years old. Her sudden demise happened two weeks after our youngest sister, a registered nurse, was run over by a car whose driver was texting in Sydney, Australia. The saying must really be true that “when it rains, it pours.” Our family was devastated by the tragedy.
Fortunately, our “baby” sister survived the auto accident, although she was badly injured. It will take months before her spine heals. In the meantime, she cannot work and will therefore not receive any compensation from her employer. My older brother, who petitioned my sister’s migration “Down Under” more than two decades ago, took two weeks off from work to take care of her. She is a widow.
The tragedy that struck our family in a span of two weeks reminded me of what happened 40 years ago in the early 1970s. Our eldest sister, who was working in Manhattan and at the same time taking her master’s degree in Columbia University, nearly died when she was run over by a car in New York City. While she received some compensation from the insurance of the driver who nearly killed her, she was never the same again. Now at almost 70 years old, her limp has become worse over time, and she can be classified as “physically handicapped.”
Tragedy and reflection
All of the above made me look at the situation from a larger national perspective: the Filipino Diaspora. Over the past four decades since the seventies, millions of Filipinos have left the homeland in search of better opportunities abroad. There are now an estimated 10 million Filipinos who are either immigrants to their adopted countries or overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). In the ’70s and ’80s, they used to be called “OCWs” for “overseas contract workers.” It now seems that the only improvement in our country in the past 40 years is the change from the not-so-nice-sounding OCWs to the better-sounding OFWs.
10% have gone
The more than 10 million Filipinos overseas represent an estimated 10 percent of our total population of 100 million people. India is No. 1 in the absolute number of émigrés around the globe with more than 20 million. But this represents only around 2 percent of its total estimated population of 1.25 billion people. The huge percentage of Filipinos abroad shows how badly our country has been mismanaged by the government since the mid-1960s.
The story of the deployment of Filipinos overseas began in the mid-1970s after the price of oil soared and gave instant wealth to Middle Eastern countries. Hence, Filipino engineers and skilled workers started working in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries. At the height of the construction boom in the 1980s, there were more than one million Filipinos working in the Middle East that already included Filipino nurses and doctors. My late sister, who was a doctor, worked in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.
Overseas labor eventually became a permanent policy of the Marcos regime and succeeding administrations. To institutionalize the policy of deployment of Filipino workers abroad, the Philippine government established the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (Poea) in 1982 (Executive Order No. 797) under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). It was later reorganized in 1987 (EO 247) under President Corazon C. Aquino.
Due to the increased deployment of Filipinos overseas and the abuses committed against them in their host countries, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 was passed into law to institute state policies for overseas employment and establish standards to protect and promote Filipinos working abroad. The law has been amended several times since then.
The Philippines is probably the only country in the world that has institutionalized the deployment of its people to work overseas, from professionals and skilled workers to domestic help. Other countries do not have an equivalent of our Poea. The closest is the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs of India whose main mission is to connect Indians abroad to their homeland. Their emigration abroad for employment is only one aspect of their emigration services, together with their diaspora services and financial services to attract Indians overseas to invest back in their homeland.
However, the social cost of family separation—parents from their children—is all too real and lamentable.
The greatest tragedy that struck an OFW was when a father working in the United States returned home to find his entire family—wife and children— killed in a gruesome murder that happened in the 1990s in BF Homes in Parañaque. The father, Lauro Vizconde, was working in America as a cook in a restaurant to support his family in a middle-class housing subdivision. Only to return to his house where his family members were slaughtered.
Who’s to blame?
The national economic situation has deteriorated within a span of three generations. Almost all the Filipinos who were born in the first decades of the 20th century (1900s-1920s) did not have to migrate to find work. (Those who did were mostly the Ilocanos in northern Luzon who worked in the plantation fields in Hawaii and California.) In the generation of our parents, there were no relatives who migrated except for an uncle, a cousin of my father, who went to Australia. However, he was a doctor and rather welloff living in Greenhills Village.
The situation changed with our generation, born in the 1940s to 1960s. Based on my siblings and first cousins, 50 percent of my relatives migrated to Europe, North America and Australia. The same is true with second cousins and friends. Half of them have gone and we have reconnected via Facebook. Then with the third generation of my nieces and nephews, the situation further worsened. Now, 75 percent or three out of four younger relatives are working abroad, mostly as immigrants, while a few are OFWs. Even among our neighbors in the village, there are children working overseas at times with one or both of their parents, and their houses for sale.
There is something terribly wrong when more than 10 percent of a country’s population is toiling abroad as immigrants and OFWs.
Today, there is already a second generation of OFWs who were sent to school by parents who worked overseas in the mid-’70s and ’80s. There are also some five million Filipinos who have migrated abroad over the past 40 years (1970-2010). Many Filipino immigrants started as OFWs and later migrated to their adopted countries after being OFWs for the past decades.
The more than 10-million-strong Filipino Diaspora is the real backbone of the Philippine economy. In 2012, our total exports of $50.96 billion and revenues from the measly 4.272 million tourists (half of whom are Filipinos) amounted to only $2.7 billion. Without the foreign remittances of more than $20 billion annually, which comprises 5 percent of our gross domestic product of $430 billion, there would not be much of a Philippine economy to speak of. The reason we have a current account surplus of more than $12 billion is the remittances from Filipinos working overseas as OFWs and immigrants. Indeed, our greatest export is our own people.
The reason we already have two generations of OFWs is poor governance. Our country has been left behind in getting the needed direct foreign investments (FDIs) that would provide jobs and business opportunities to millions of Filipinos.
Unless and until FDIs—not “hot money”—come in to help build the plants, factories, infrastructure, and hotels and resorts to provide jobs for millions of Filipinos, as they have in Thailand and Malaysia and now in Indonesia and Vietnam, then we can only expect more and more Filipinos to leave the Philippines in search of a better future for themselves and their families.
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