By Richard Javad Heydarian
Note: This is the third part of a series of essays on OFWs and the crisis in the Middle East.
While many Filipinos tend to view the reign of Marcos as an era of supposed prosperity, they mistakenly overlook the fact that the OFW phenomenon actually started during the days of dictatorship.
Overseeing a whimpering economy for much of his reign (Dohner&Intal 1989), the Marcos regime saw large-scale labor export as a convenient remedy to a collapsing job market at home.
Simultaneously, the oil boom of the early 1970s also saw a major spike in Middle Eastern demand for foreign labor, especially in fields such as medicine, real estate and construction, and domestic work.
Overtime, what started as a supposedly short-term response to domestic economic downturn gradually morphed into a pillar of Philippine foreign policy.
Though the Middle East is a top source of remittances, it is also where countless Filipinos have been a victim of all sorts of abuse and exploitation, mainly due to lack of proper legal protection for foreign workers, particularly low-to-semi-skilled.
Opaque judicial proceedings, prejudice, and abusive practices such as confiscation of passports by employers have collectively contributed to a system of exploitation against OFWs.
Yet, one should recognize the fact that for many people, taking their chances abroad is always preferable to enduring unemployment and crushing poverty at home.
Many have just given up on their country, with little hope of any significant uptick in the Philippine labor market.
The intensified sectarian conflict in the Middle East – with Iran-friendly Qatar being the latest victim – represents an added threat to the welfare of millions of OFWs in the region.
Though low oil prices are good for the Philippine economy, it isn’t necessary a good thing for the OFWs. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which ran a budget deficit of around $100 billion last year, is deeply affected by declining oil prices. Along with countries like Bahrain, it needs oil prices to be almost twice their current levels to balance its budget.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which enjoyed a budget surplus of $600 billion half a decade ago, are expected to run a $700-billion budget deficit by 2020. Due to lack of diversification, GCC economies are vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices.
And with post-sanctions Iran expected to flood the markets with boosted oil production, the petro-states are confronting the prospect of long-term oil glut. And growing regional geopolitical tensions aren’t going to help efforts by petro-states to attract international investments to diversify their oil-dependent economies.
The economic slump in the Persian Gulf means two things: First, fewer demand for overseas workers and, more alarmingly, potential political backlash in countries where massive dole outs have precariously bought political passivity from restive populations.
From both an employment and security perspective, this isn’t the best news for the Philippines’ labor export policy, which is deeply reliant on Persian Gulf sheikdoms.
And with Saudi-Iran tensions reaching new heights, resulting in the full diplomatic siege of Tehran-friendly Qatar, there are bound to be more security risks on a regional level.
Perhaps more than ever, it is important for the Philippine government to revisit its labor export policy, and instead focus on making sure that its own newly earned robust growth at home is transformed into a more inclusive and egalitarian form of national development. It is utterly irresponsible for any state to just rely on outsourcing its employment crisis, especially when it puts millions of people at unnecessary risk.
In the meantime, the Philippine Congress should expand the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs and other related agencies to expand basic services – including repatriation costs, legal protection (Sharia-law experts are crucial), and psychological counseling – to tens of thousands of stranded, abused, and perturbed OFWs, who are in desperate need of help from their own government.
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