A high fertility rate, coupled with a discouraging job market at home, spurs Filipino workers to seek opportunities abroad.
By Barry Mirkin*
Hailed for decades as Heroes of the Republic, Filipino migrants abroad play a crucial role in their country’s development. At least 11 million Filipinos, or 10 percent of the population, reside abroad – including more than 5 million emigrants, 4.2 million temporary migrants and at least 1.1 million unauthorized migrants. To manage high population growth, combined with chronic high unemployment and underemployment rates and low wages, Philippine administrations since the 1970s have aggressively promoted emigration of its citizens. Furthermore, the Catholic Church’s unrelenting opposition to all forms of modern contraception, supported by sympathetic lawmakers, has eviscerated government efforts at family planning, resulting in high fertility rates and a population growing by more than a million annually.
The overseas job-seeking trends are facilitated by a bureaucracy constantly searching for new employment opportunities and protecting the well-being of migrants abroad. Filipino migrant workers possess advantages over their counterparts from other countries, tending to be well-educated and fluent in English, often holding at least a high school diploma.
Between 2005 and 2015, almost 900,000 emigrants left the Philippines. The primary destination was once the United States, followed by Canada. Recently, more emigrants from the Philippines stay closer to home with an emerging middle class in Asia. Women represent 60 percent of migrants, and an estimated 25 percent of the world’s seafarers are Filipinos.
Money sent home by these Filipino workers is a mainstay and key driver of the country’s economic growth. The World Bank projects that the country’s foreign remittances will climb to a record US$33 billion for 2017, the third highest in the world after India and China. Remittances to the Philippines account for 10 percent of the country’s GDP and remain resilient despite declining inflows from some countries. For example, under a Saudi Arabian amnesty program, some 19,000 stranded and undocumented Filipinos left the kingdom after mid-2016. The dip in remittances produced a temporary drop in the Philippine stock market, demonstrating the country’s sensitivity to shortfalls in this source of revenues.
An increasing number of returnees is the consequence of economic and political crises, conflict and natural disasters abroad. The government of the Philippines has a history with mass rescues, repatriating 30,000 overseas workers from Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, 6,000 from Lebanon in 2006, and more recently 10,000 from Libya and 3,300 from Syria. For Filipinos working in the volatile Middle East, the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs has drawn up plans to respond to any contingency. In formulating a national plan to reintegrate returning workers, the Philippine government has acknowledged the enormity of the task, given the need for a sufficient number of well-paying jobs, public infrastructure and security.
The government also responds to reports of abuse of Filipino workers, especially domestic workers, by employers. About half of domestic workers in Singapore, or 72,000, are from the Philippines. A 2017 study suggests that 60 percent of domestics are exploited in the form of low pay, inadequate time off, and verbal and physical abuse. However, despite reports of hardships, exploitation and abuse, surveys have generally found that returning migrants report positive assessments of their experiences abroad. About a quarter of families in the Philippines receive remittances, and families with overseas workers unsurprisingly fare better than families without. Other studies suggest that extended family members often step in to shoulder some responsibilities of the overseas parent.
Compared with workers in the land-based sector, workers in the sea-based sector enjoy better protections because of international conventions and access to seafarer union membership. The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention benefits the world’s seafarers, including up to 400,000 Filipinos working aboard international vessels.
Some sectors of the nation’s educational system are geared to export graduates. For example, advertisements in the country tout that the fastest way to the United States is through nursing school. An estimated 20 percent of registered nurses in the state of California are from the Philippines, and the 1928 establishment of the Philippines Nursing Association of New York testifies to a long tradition of employing Filipino nurses in US cities. Nursing schools in the Philippines now produce some 80,000 graduates annually. Graduates cannot ignore that a registered nurse in the Philippines earns less than 10 percent of what he or she could earn in the United States.
More Filipino nurses are likely to seek employment abroad after former President Benigno Aquino III vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have increased the starting salary of government nurses to US$575 a month. A Philippine senator sponsoring the bill noted that the increase would have “stopped the mass exodus of our nurses.” According to the World Health Organization, about 22,000 health professionals leave the Philippines every year to work abroad, with many citing unemployment, low salaries and unjust working conditions as primary reasons for their departure.
With the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union expected in 2019, fears are that a “Brexodus” may lead to the loss of significant numbers of medical personnel. About 12 percent of the country’s National Health Service staff is non-British. This has prompted recruiters to scour for nurses beyond the European Union, including in the Philippines, to fill shortfalls.
Negotiations are underway between Philippine and Chinese officials to formalize recruitment of Filipino domestic workers. Reports suggest that some 200,000 unauthorized Filipinos already work in China, due to their knowledge of English and reluctance of some Chinese to be employed as domestics.
In a recent evaluation of international migration, the World Bank reported that the highly developed support system for migrant labor in the Philippines could serve as a model for other countries. A Philippine government priority continues to be protection of its workers. In November, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed an accord strengthening social protections and access to legal and health services for migrant workers.
The rapidly expanding domestic economy reduced poverty from 25 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2015. The International Monetary Fund expects the Philippine economy to grow 6.6 percent in 2017. However, the persistence of high fertility contributes to lingering poverty. At almost three births per woman, the nation’s fertility rate is among the highest in Southeast Asia. Contraceptive use in the country remains among the lowest in the sub-region where Catholicism is the predominant religion. Since 2012, a series of decisions by the country’s Supreme Court have temporarily blocked distribution of most contraceptives and stymied domestic family-planning programs. In late 2017, a temporary restraining order was lifted on distribution of some contraceptives, including subdermal implants, based on a decision by the country’s Food and Drug Administration that these contraceptives are not abortifacients.
According to the latest population projections issued by the UN Population Division, the country’s current population of 105 million is projected to climb to 151 million by 2050. The government is hard pressed to generate a sufficient number of well-paying jobs.
In 2017, the country’s labor leaders warned that graduates of colleges and vocational schools are likely to end up unemployed or face poor working conditions. Job-skills mismatch, short-term contractual work, underemployment, low wages and unsafe workplaces await the estimated 1 million graduates this year.
Strong economic growth and accelerated job creation, while essential, are not keeping up with the high fertility rate. Family planning programs providing safe, effective, inexpensive and widely available contraception are also required. In their absence, the Philippines will continue to praise the Heroes of the Republic for decades to come and promote the departure of future generations.
*Barry Mirkin is a former chief of the Population Policy Section of the United Nations Population Division.