Bernardo M. Villegas
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OFW Myths

          Last March 30, 2012, the Center for Research and Communication, the think tank of the University of Asia and the Pacific, organized a summit on Overseas Filipino Workers entitled "A Second Look at the Overseas Employment Program."  Vice President Jejomar C. Binay gave the keynote address, leading other speakers in presenting hard facts about OFWs and exploding some common myths about them.  The first myth he corrected was the impression fostered by news reports that abuse is the common lot of Filipinos working abroad.  He emphatically stated that "Most often, the front page stories surrounding Global Filipinos usually announce bad news or cases of abuse.  I wish to assure you that such is not the plight of the majority of our overseas Filipinos...the unskilled and uneducated who are usually seeking jobs as domestic workers, are those that carry the greatest risk.  Skilled workers are far less susceptible to such fates and enjoy more in the way of wages, benefits and treatment in their areas of employment."    The Vice President, who is the Presidential Adviser on OFWs' Concerns, knows of what he is talking about.  He has traveled far and wide to the places where there are OFWs, including dangerous sites in the Middle East, and is totally familiar with the conditions faced by these so-called modern day heroes.

          The accent on the bad news has provoked various reactions from some sectors of civil society that have resulted in other myths.  There are those who are criticizing the Government for "encouraging" Filipinos to seek employment abroad.  They say that enough jobs should be provided in the local economy so that there would be no need for Filipinos to go abroad.  This is only a half truth.  Even if the day comes when there will be enough well-paying jobs or occupations in the Philippines, there will continue to be millions of Filipinos migrating to other countries to accept job offers that pay much more than what they can earn in the Philippines, even if they are already living comfortably in their own country.  What drives workers to go abroad is not absolute poverty or unemployment.  The majority of the workers who go abroad have skills that are remunerated at levels three to ten times (even more in the case of seafarers) what they can earn here.  In fact, the ones who become OFWs are not those who live below the poverty line ($1.50 per person per day).  They usually belong to the middle class ($2 to $20 according to ADB), having the educational background and financial ability to pay the usual pre-departure expenses which are beyond the reach of the poorest of the poor.  Research at CRC has pinpointed the main economic reason for the decision to be an OFW:  the large wage or income differential between local pay and what can be earned abroad. That is why, I have been always saying that even if we are able to eradicate poverty in the next ten to twenty years (by attaining 7 to 10% GDP growth annually and implementing policies that lead to "inclusive growth"), there will continue to be millions of Filipinos going abroad as OFWs.  What would decline is the percentage of remittances of OFWs to GDP.  Instead of 10 to 12%, it could be below 5%.

          Obviously, among those Filipinos who will still be abroad even if we reach full employment in the country will be the 300,000 or more seafarers who constitute 25% of the international maritime manpower.  As some of the speakers in the OFW Summit said, Filipinos take to the seafaring profession as fish in water because of our being surrounded by seas.  Many Filipino males will freely choose to be seafarers and we will have to respect their freedom of choice.  Other middle-class Filipinos will be attracted to work abroad because of the very high demand for Filipinos in the countries in Europe and Northeast Asia that have committed demographic suicide by controlling their population.  Fortunately, as Central Bank Governor Amando Tetangco recently stressed in an investors forum, the Philippines is still enjoying a demographic dividend  which will enable us to supply both our own manpower needs and those of the labor-short countries that are willing to pay much higher wages to Filipinos with the appropriate skills.  In fact, thanks to a growing population, by 2050 there will be some 150 million Filipinos which will make it possible for the Philippines to still supply the aging countries with manpower especially in such service-oriented sectors as health care, tourism, entertainment and other personal services where Filipinos have a competitive advantage because of their ability to give tender and loving care.

          That is why it is not exactly true that the Philippine Government is "encouraging" Filipinos to seek employment abroad.  What such agencies as the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) are doing is to promote and protect the welfare of those Filipinos who make use of their freedom of movement and freedom of abode to work in other countries to attain a higher standard of living, even if the majority of them are not dying of hunger in their own country.  It would be a violation of human rights to impose restrictions or obstacles to Filipinos who voluntarily want to seek employment abroad.  Needless to say, the Government, the business sector and civil society in the Philippines should do everything possible to create jobs in the domestic economy so that every Filipino household can attain a minimum level of comfort and decency.  But this minimum level will never guarantee that we will stop the exodus of Filipinos who want even higher incomes by working abroad.  They are among the fortunate creatures on this planet whose services are in great demand in other countries.  That cannot be said of most other populous countries whose culture and language do not make them employable in other countries.