Bernardo M. Villegas
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Demographics Is Destiny (Part 3)
published: Oct 25, 2023

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OFWs As A Permanent Phenomenon (Part 1)

             Thanks to the annual remittances sent by the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) to their respective relatives, consumption spending continues to be a major engine of growth of the Philippine economy.  The 6 to 7% annual growth in GDP that can be attained by the Philippines in the next five years or so is to a great extent due to these remittances that by the end of this year may already be at the $40 billion level. The negative impact of the pandemic was short-lived, thanks to the resilience of this important source of both foreign exchange earnings and spending power of the Filipino consumer.  When many economic forecasters feared the worst in 2020 that remittances from the OFWs would decline by double-digit rates because of hundreds of thousands of OFWs being sent home, especially from the Middle East, the actual decline was less than 1 per cent.  As reported in an article of the Recent Economic Indicators of the School of Economics of the University of Asia and the Pacific, by December 2022, OFW remittances were already growing by 5.7% year-on-year.  For the whole of 2022, these remittances reached $ 36.14 billion, a 3.6% year-on-year increase from US $ 34.88 billion a year ago.  In peso terms, the total for 2022 reached Php 1.9 trillion or some 8.9% of the Gross Domestic Product.  There are indications that these remittances will grow at the annual rate of 3 to 5% for the whole of 2023, bringing the total to at least $39 billion.

            Last June 7, 2023, in his message on National Migrants Day, President BBM assured the OFWs that “this Administration will continue to foster stronger ties with countries that host our migrant workers, ensuring safety, welfare and well-being.”  In a report in this paper by Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, a certain ambivalence was noted in the views of the President about our policy towards OFWs.  On one hand, the President promised to create more jobs locally to encourage migrant workers to return home and help rebuild the Philippine economy.  On the other, he vowed to reimpose a system in which “when an OFW comes home after finishing a contract, there will be a program of retraining especially for those who are hoping to go back for a new contract.”  This ambivalence is very understandable.  It is desirable that we build an economy where every Filipino can earn a decent living for him and his family.  Unfortunately, as things stand today, we still have millions of our citizens unemployed or underemployed and are not able to earn enough to live with a minimum of material comfort.  The question, however, remains:  if and when the country attains a high-income status in the next twenty or so years and the poverty incidence is reduced to close to zero, as many of our East Asian neighbors have already achieved, will there still be millions of Filipinos migrants abroad?  We will answer this question in the last article of this series.

             The UA&P School of Economics paper cited earlier is entitled “The Ethical Dimensions of the Reliance on OFWS as a Dollar Source.”  The authors discuss extensively the social costs of OFWs working abroad, many of them separated from their families for long periods of time.  They classified these social costs into (1) broken marriages; and (2) the negative impact on children.  The recurrence of broken marriages among OFW couples is caused by loneliness or the “feeling of freedom from the long distance separating the OFW from the spouse.”  Data from the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) show that from 2008 to 2017, for example, at least 75 % of OFW couples were the ones undergoing annulment or legal separation in Baguio and Benguet.  A retired Family Court judge, Francis Buliyat Sr., remarked:  “It should be made known that while the OFW is really good for the economy of the country, I think it is not good for the families of our country.”   It is an alarming sign that the Philippine e-Legal Forum has posted an article on how to file a case for annulment in the Philippines while being abroad.  This could mean that more and more OFWs have been contemplating seeking annulment of their marriages.

            Although the phenomenon of OFWs (10 million of them today) may be considered a necessary social  and moral evil (even if good for the economy), we have to constantly remind ourselves of the statement of principle found in Article II, Section 12 of the Philippine Constitution:  “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic and autonomous social institution…The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support from the government.”  Furthermore, Article XVI, Section 2 explicitly states that “Marriage, as an inviolable social institution, is the foundation of the family and shall be protected by the State.”

            All efforts of the State and civil society must be exerted to minimize the social and moral costs of absentee parents resulting from the OFW phenomenon.  There may also be serious economic costs in the not-too-distant future if positive measures are not applied to counteract the harm done by the absences of parents in the families of OFWs.  There are enough evidences which show that the absences of parents lead to declining mental and social health among the children.  This would have obvious consequences on the quality of our human resources in the future.  Our much-vaunted demographic dividend may be seriously eroded if our labor force should deteriorate in both quantity and quality because of our youth being negatively affected by the absence of their biological parents.

            As reported in the article by Abola and Gatdula, a Social Weather Station survey in 2017 found out that one out of every 12 families in the Philippines had one or both parents working abroad.  In 2019, it was estimated in a UNESCO study of global work migration that children left behind by OFW parents range from 1.5 million to 9.0 million.  In a study by Mahilum on the impact of OFW phenomenon on the families in Region X of the Philippines, the most salient negative impact of the absence of parents is a feeling of being abandoned that cannot be compensated for by financial support and the feeling of helplessness, loneliness, pessimism, deprivation and isolation, especially as regards health and academic problems.  Another study by Arguillas and Williams highlights the need for parental control to be established in a family.  This requires the presence of the biological parents in their children’s lives.  The prolonged absence of one parent results in a deficiency in social, economic, cultural capital and educational achievement, including the proper development in physical and psychological well-being.

            The stunting of the integral human development of the child is especially felt when the mother is the one who goes abroad to work to earn a living.  Children cope better in health and in school if the mother remains and helps with all the physical, psychological and academic needs of the children.  Otherwise, if the care and attention are not given to the children, they may form attachments to “other mothers and change their perceptions of authority figures.  To be continued.