||Issue Date: 6 / 2008
Overseas Filipino Workers
Nearly twenty percent of the population of the Philippines is working abroad. This drain of qualified, intelligent, hardworking people has deep social ramifications in Philippine society.
Filipinas working in Hong Kong are known to rendezvous with
each other every Sunday in Statue Square in the Central HK
area. mcyjerry / GNU Free Documentation License
"Why stay here and earn nothing?" asked Ben, one of my classmates at EMT/Paramedic school, in Manila. In the States, paramedic is not a particularly well-paid job. Most American paramedics would be shocked to find out that Ben already graduated university with a BS in nursing.
"Nursing is the most expensive major," said former paramedic Fran Aycocho whose daughter just complete the first year of her studies.
The salary for an RN in Manila is about 5,000 pesos per month. Why would anyone go into debt, and struggle through a brutal academic program only to earn less than $150 per month? The answer, quite simply, is that nursing is the number one way of getting out of the Philippines and finding a well-paid job in another country.
Eighty percent of the Philippine population earns less than two dollars per day. As a result, even jobs as caregivers, which typically pay one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars per week look attractive to families living in poverty.
In the US, Filipino nurses earn more in one day than they do for a whole month in the Philippines. Naturally there is a tremendous amount of competition for these coveted overseas jobs. To find professional employment overseas, Filipinos have to be more qualified than the other applicants. This means studying and more studying.
Of the 28 members of my paramedic class, 19 are nurses. Their hope is that when they apply for the lower position of paramedic they will be chosen over other, less-qualified applicants. Many Filipinos dream of emigrating to America, but for simple dollars and sense, the Arab world is the place to go. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, a Filipino paramedic can earn more per month than most Filipinos earn in one year. They also receive free accommodation and meals.
The OFW or overseas Filipino worker, has become such an institution, such a permanent fixture in Philippine society, that they actually have their own category on the arrival cards at the airport and pass through a separate line at immigration.
"Everyone knows when you are an OFW, so you have to watch out or they will rob you." Said Frank, remembering his own days of returning from Saudi Arabia with months worth of cash in his pockets. "The taxi driver might detour down an alley and have his friends rob you. You have to be careful!"
When I lived in Hong Kong, I would walk through the park every Sunday and see thousands of young beautiful Filipinas. Most were working as caregivers, nannies, or maids, and Sunday was their only day off. Not wanting to squander their meager salaries at the malls, they congregated in Hong Kongís many parks, eating picnic lunches and catching up with their friends. In HK I was even invited to join the Filipino workers union, who informed me that Filipinos are now one of the largest ethnic groups, comprising more than 150,000 people. In other countries, it is even more extreme. In Qatar, for example, Filipinos make up 30% of the population.
Some of the men had well-paying factory jobs or worked as drivers. Drivers earned a decent wage. But many women, working as domestic help, were underpaid and often abused both sexually and physically. When asked why they would be willing to leave their homes and suffer in isolation in a foreign country, they all said the same things. "You canít earn any money in the Philippines. And, I need to help support my younger brothers and sisters."
Surviving amid endemic poverty
The poverty in the Philippines is shocking. Even well educated, hard working people, who dress well and come to the city to study or work, face economic issues most westerners would never know.
For example, my friends all buy sachets of things. They canít afford to buy a whole bag of laundry detergent, so they purchase a small bag that is big enough for one or two loads. The same is true of tooth paste, which comes in a small foil container, for a few brushings. Cigarettes are sold individually. I sent a friend of mine to the store with 100 pesos to buy me shampoo. I expected a bottle of shampoo. Instead, she came back, handed me the 100 pesos untouched and asked "How many sachet do you want? One or two?"
I tried to buy a big bag of coffee for my room, but they only sold individual sachets.
The entire economy has adjusted to the fact that no one has enough money to get through the month, and so they shop daily. A huge percentage of the population have a sideline which earns them cash daily, and this is how they live. Their monthly salary is just too small to make it through a whole month, so they go out selling some sort of product on the street or from their home.
ATMs arenít that common in Manila. Most workers said that they donít have a bank account. "I pay the house, buy the food and pay the school for my kids. My salary is always gone before the end of the month. So, why do I need a bank account?" said one government employee.
"If you donít earn at least 20,000 pesos per month you will steal something; water, electricity, cable ÖĒ explained a friend. We stopped at a random street corner and I waited in the car while he darted into a dodgy looking building. "Pawn interest," he said, as he got back behind the wheel. "I had to pawn my bracelet again this month."
Another friend was short on rent money and asked if he could pawn his ring to me.
We saw an Indian on a bicycle, selling cookware. My friend told me "those guys make a lot of money. They go door to door and show the cookware to the ladies. If they want to buy it, the payments are only 10 pesos per day. Then, he goes around every day and collects ten pesos. In the end they pay 300 percent of the value of the cookware."
But even microfinance creates opportunities for crime.
"The gangsters follow the Indians on bikes. When they are carrying a lot of cash, they rob them."
Driving through Manila you pass through massive squatter communities. These are huge two-story ramshackle warrens of small dwellings made of scrap wood and aluminum. "Most of the police and army live in squats," explained Frank. With an average income of perhaps only 5,000 pesos per month they have no other choice.
Squatting isnít free. Someone goes around and collects rent once a month. There is no plumbing and a river of urine runs down the street inches from the front door. My friend, Alex, grew up in a squat. Eventually he made it to Japan as a singer in bars and earned a lot of money. He came back to Manila and opened a singing studio. Now he teaches singing to the movie stars. When I asked him about his days in the squat he turned white, as if it were a painful memory he didnít want to relive. I asked how they moved their bowels. He said "In a bag. Then we threw the bag out the window. We called it a flying saucer. Man! You didnít want to get hit by one of those."
My friend Jerome was complaining that KFC was too expensive, but he always asks if we can go eat there. "They offer free phone charging." He explained. There was a bank of electrical receptacles on the wall, beside the cash register where you could plug in your phone and let it charge while you eat. "A lot of people come here just for that," said Jerome. "They order fries and a Coke while they wait for their phone to charge."
Every time I hang out with him, he wants to go to KFC. I have never seen his home and wonder if he lives in a squat.
Lure of the overseas job
"What is the favorite sport in Manila?" asked a foreign tourist.
"Waiting for an overseas job," answered the Filipino.
On my first trip to Manila I was shocked at the number of people standing around on the streets. "What are they all doing?" I asked. "Queing up, waiting for the Overseas Employment Agency to open."
POEA Philippine Overseas Employment agencies have to be registered with the government. According to Ben, "They charge a fee of at least 10,000 pesos to find you a job in another country and do all your visa paperwork." For a poor family this 10,000 pesos is nearly impossible to come by. Some families go deeply into debt, hoping that when one of their members starts sending money home, they can repay the loan.
Unfortunately there are a lot of scams. Many of the companies are not registered and donít actually find jobs for anyone, they just steal the placement fees, which must be paid in advance.
Some scams are more than financial. "Girls think they are going to Malaysia to be a receptionist in a hotel, but instead they wind up working as prostitutes," said Ben.
The average Filipino family has five to six children, plus two parents. If twenty percent of Filipinos are working abroad, this means one in five is missing. That means, on average, 100% of Filipino households have at least one immediate family member living abroad.
"Not just one," said Arvin, another classmate who grew up in Qatar. "Sometimes a whole family works over there. Arvinís mother and father work in Qatar, as do his older siblings. His younger siblings are at university, training to qualify for overseas employment. Another paramedic trainee, JR, just took his nursing oath, after successfully completing his board exams. He grew up in Qatar, attending the Filipino school there."
Filipinas shopping for CDs in the Worldwide Plaza in the
Central district of Hong Kong. mcyjerry / GNU Free
Benís sister is working abroad and helped to pay for his studies. When we finish EMT school, he hopes to go abroad.
The Filipinos have a very family oriented culture. Those working abroad are expected to send money back and help those who remain. The single largest cash influx into the country is bank transfers sent by overseas workers. More money passes through Western Union than any other business in the countries. For some families, the system works well. Some Filipinos working in factories in Korea returned to the Philippines, after five years of hardship, to find that their family had invested the money, buying up farm land and rental property. In those instances, the workers found that their brief sacrifice broke the cycle of poverty for their family forever. Other workers said that they returned home only find fifth cousins living off of their hard-earned money. There were motorcycles and cell phones, but no investments were made. The family had spent all the money, and in some instances were worse off than they had been, because they had quit their jobs depending on the transfers coming from overseas.
"My wife and I both worked overseas, but we didnít manage to save very much," explained one worker. "She was an orphan and I volunteered to help educate her sisters. It was years before we had any extra to save for our house."
Mark, one of the best students in the class has already been offered positions in nursing academia. His family has a successful business in the Philippines, so his parents are still here. But, they used their success to educate their children and prepare them for well-paying jobs -- in other countries.
In US immigration circles there is an old joke: "Why is Mexico no good in the Olympics?" The response is "Because every Mexican who can run, jump, or swim is in the USA."
A similar joke will be true of the Philippines one day. People will ask, "Why canít you get anything done in the Philippines? Because all of the smart people already left."
Crippled by corruption
Last year CNN referred to the Philippines as "the most corrupt country in the world."
"Corruption is crippling our country," said an RN who, after many years of earning money in other countries, returned to the Philippines to work as an instructor and raise the level of medical training in her home country.
Although there have been many demonstrations and uprisings by common people, foreign observers always ask why Filipinos donít just demand change from their government. One possible reason for apathy is that no matter how unlivable the Philippines becomes, people can look forward to working abroad and some day immigrating to the US, UK, Canada, or Australia. Another reason may be that the would-be leaders of such an uprising are already outside the country.
The one good job people can hope for in the Philippines is working at a call center, taking complaints from US credit card customers. Call center workers can earn between $500 and $700 per month. Some of the jobs are cold-calling telemarketing positions, which include commissions, so the earnings can be even higher. My classmate JR and his wife are the Philippine equivalent of the perfect yuppy couple. He is an RN and she is a call center worker.
One of the girls in my class (there are only three) has two daughters. I asked her if little girls in Philippines liked to play with Barbie dolls. She said "Yes, but Barbie is too expensive. So, we have a Filipino copy of Barbie." The doll comes in styles appropriate to local culture. They have call center Barbie, OFW Barbie, RN Barbie, and her boyfriend is a tricycle taxi driver who lives in a squat.
Antonio Graceffo is a travel/adventure writer who has made
several contributions to World and I Online. He is the author
of four books which are available on amazon.com. See his
website, speakingadventure.com or contact him at: