By Richard Javad Heydarian
Note: This is the second part of a series of essays on OFWs and the crisis in the Middle East.
All countries claim to be unique in their own ways. As far as the Philippines’ uniqueness is concerned, one must note how its whole political economy is shaped by a decades-long phenomenon of manpower export.
About 10 percent of the country’s population resides outside its national territories, spread across more than 190 countries and mostly as overseas workers, who serve as the backbone of the national economy by contributing to more than 10 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Hard-earned remittances by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) serve as both a cushion in period of crisis, as was the case during the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, as well as an engine of robust growth, as has been the case in the past few years. Remittances fund the education, welfare, and investment and consumption behavior of the bulk of the Filipino population. Almost in every Filipino family, one can find a parent, sibling, and/or relative who is an OFW.
Economic desperation is clearly a major, if not sole, factor that undergirds the decision of many to leave their loved ones and motherland for far-flung lands. Beyond a narrow economistic view, however, it is clear that the OFW phenomenon carries some significant costs.
First and foremost, the feminization of Philippine labor export means that many children will be deprived of an important pillar in their family. In some families, both parents are working as OFWs, thus leaving their children behind for years if not decades with relatives or grandparents.
Then there is the culture of dependence. It isn’t difficult to find (extended) families, who end up relying on the remittances of one of their kin for much of their lifetime. As Randy David, a leading Filipino sociologist reflected on some communities he closely observed: “The remittances doubled, but the family savings never increased. Only their needs multiplied. Families became addicted to a way of life where they traded the intangible values of family life for the nonessential acquisitions made possible by remittances.”
Meanwhile, however, it is difficult to foster a sense of nationalism when a huge section of the society is always oriented towards relocating abroad in search of greener pastures — thus, creating a lopsided sense of cosmopolitanism with tenuous attachment to the motherland.
Moreover, since many OFWs tend to work in relatively low-skilled or dangerous professions, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. This is particularly the case when it comes to Filipino domestic helpers, who tend to lack legal protection in many (autocratic) countries.
Not to mention, the worrying proliferation of illegal recruiters cruelly exploiting the desperation of would-be-OFWs, who end up in dangerous places with no employment certainty.
The Middle East, where millions of Filipinos work whether legally or otherwise, is a particular area of concern. It is a region racked by conflict, political instability, and autocratic regimes with often medieval and non-transparent judicial systems.
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