By Edwin S. Estrada*
Protesters marched in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs last year demanding the lifting of a deployment ban on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to war-torn Libya. One of the protesters’ placards read, “Ibalik kami sa Libya!”, which strongly underscores the sentiments of the Filipino migrant worker. While the government insists that deployment bans serve as protection of OFWs from the harsh realities of working in a volatile foreign security environment, perceived domestic realities of unemployment and hunger still weigh far more seriously in the minds of Filipinos than the prospect of facing war, calamities, and pestilence head on. How does one make sense of this plight?
Present-day migration and issues that surround it may only be understood and addressed more clearly by similarly understanding how the wheels of globalization have fuelled migration, particularly labor migration. Indeed, a closer look at labor migration and globalization reveals an intriguing connection that may offer insights on the persistence of Filipinos’ interest in looking for jobs abroad, and may even shed some light on what some analysts term as the Filipinos’ culture of migration.
The emergence of globalization has changed the dynamics of world economy. The economies of states have become interconnected and interdependent, reflecting a borderless world where interstate and interregional trade are important factors to a country’s economic development.
A consequence of this process of globalization is the increasing spatial mobility of people, which manifests in the growing number of migrant workers from developing countries, particularly the Philippines. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) estimates that, as of 2011, more than 10 million Filipinos reside or work abroad, and they significantly contribute to the Philippine economy by way of foreign remittances. This vital role of overseas Filipinos makes them Mga Bagong Bayani (new heroes), according to Filipino officials. In fact, a new five-peso coin was minted last year as a tribute to the apparent heroism of OFWs, with the words Bagong Bayani prominently displayed under visual representations of cooks, engineers and domestic workers, among other professions. It is as if the government needs to constantly remind the Filipino consumer the value of OFWs to the country’s economy. To lionize OFWs as bagong bayani is to promote labor migration as something noble and heroic, and this may only make working abroad all the more enticing to Filipinos staying in the homeland.
The increasing number of OFWs and Filipinos who reside abroad is said to be a manifestation of a culture of migration, aided by the government’s facilitation of migration. Maruja M.B. Asis of the Migration Policy Institute succinctly describes the culture of migration in the Philippines as a phenomenon that began in the mid-1970s due to factors such as: political instability, a growing population, unemployment and low wages. In the book Cultures of Migration: The Global Nature of Contemporary Mobility by Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci, culture of migration pertains to cultural beliefs and social patterns that influence people to move.
This culture of migration carries with it a number of social and economic concerns. An increase in the number of Filipino migrant workers puts much pressure on the government to protect them particularly in receiving countries where there are physical risks, such as armed conflicts in the Middle East, and from physical abuse and exploitation. In 2011, a total of 26,273 OFWs were repatriated from high-risk countries such as Libya, Madagascar, and Saudi Arabia, where domestic workers have been particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their employers. In Syria, 5,174 OFWs were repatriated while almost 3,000 still remain as of January 2014.
Brain drain, another persistent labor migration issue, refers to the exodus of skilled human resources mainly to search for better economic conditions. According to Dr. Florian Alburo of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, brain drain shamelessly prevents the originating country from utilizing local talents for its own progress and development.*
While brain drain is a cause for concern among some migration policy analysts and policymakers, it does not seem to be taken seriously enough in the Philippines, if one were to look more deeply into the country’s migration policies. The country, being one of the major exporters of workers in the world, has established agencies that protect and empower OFWs, and is even party to international agreements promoting freer movement of migrant workers. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which the Philippines is a member, both want to liberalize interstate mobility of workers. Ironically the government is hesitant to admit it promotes labor migration as a policy for development. RA 8042, or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, is illustrative of this point. It recognizes “the significant contribution of Filipino migrant workers to the national economy through their foreign exchange remittances,” but the State “does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development.” However, the creation of institutional mechanisms such as the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), which offers guidelines and services such as How to Hire Filipino Workers (for the foreign employer) and Online Pre-Employment Orientation Seminar (for Filipino job seekers), somehow belies the assertion that the country does not promote labor migration.
The Filipinos’ culture of migration can be described by the French idiom mi figue, mi raisin (half fig, half grape), which refers to something that is neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Its value dependent on how problems connected to it are addressed to facilitate national growth and development in a borderless world. Whether we like it or not, globalization is here to stay, and with it a culture of migration, whose lasting impact to the trajectory of the nation’s fate is undeniable.
Accepting this reality is important in forging labor migration policies that could adapt to the ever evolving interstate dynamics in the modern era. It could lead to a strategic national development policy that fully acknowledges the potential of OFWs to contribute beyond their remittances. This national strategy could include the institutionalization of a national technology-transfer program that empowers returning OFWs to build capacities of Filipinos back home through skills-sharing and, in a bolder policy stroke, exploration of the possibility of diaspora diplomacy, giving OFWs and Filipinos residing abroad a sense of accountability in nation-building.
In the midst of much discussion on globalization and the culture of migration that it cultivates, it is hoped that the Philippines would recognize the writing on the wall, maximize opportunities that could come with this culture of migration, minimize its costs and eventually realize the powerful possibilities it could bring.
*Although popular opinion asserts the reality of brain drain, the lack of any convincing statistics that clarify the supposed ill-effects of this phenomenon makes the issue open to debate.
*Edwin S. Estrada is a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Estrada can be reached at [email protected].
The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.