Monday, August 20, 2007

OFWs Are No Heroes

Heroes put on the cape and fly off to save the world. Filipino migrant workers are no heroes, they're not invincible. Bullets won't bounce off their eye balls. You shoot them and they're dead. You lock them up in your house and they're chattel. You kidnap them, and hold hostage their passports and they're slave labourers, made to work 12 hours every day. OFWs are no heroes.

As I've written elsewhere I don't like the term "Bagong Bayani." It implies self-abnegation and dying for some cause. In the ascription of heroism to their decision to migrate, sacrifice for the national well-being is implied. But Filipino migrant workers do not leave the country to be "heroes." They leave to provide for their families - to put kids or siblings to school, to finance medical upkeep of parents and grandparents, to save up for investments back home. They are, according to new development language, the world's leading agents of economic development. Agency implies initiative. It implies making impacts through concrete actions.

Remittances world-wide have now surpassed ODA (official development assistance) of rich governments and FDI (foreign direct investment) of multinationals in terms of capital transfer to the developing world. The Philippines is the third largest remitting country in the world, after India and Mexico. It is first when you take account of the percentage of remittances relative to GDP. Imagine that.

Here is an excerpt of a recent paper we wrote about the Filipino Diaspora. Pardon the boring tone. Its academic, but hopefully not moot. :)



There are at present an estimated 8.2 million Filipino migrant workers in 193 countries and territories abroad (POEA 2006: 51). In the early 70s, the government’s migration policy was meant to be a temporary measure to ease the crunch of that era of global economic depression. Due to its success, labour export has become a permanent fixture in government policy (Opiniano & Castro 2006: 74).

In recent years, there has been a trend of increasing remittances from these migrants, steadily rising from $8.5 billion in 2004, $10.6 billion in 2005, to as much as $14 billion in 2006 (POEA 2006: 21, Lucas 2007). Total remittances from January to April of this year have already surpassed that of last year’s and so the trend of increasing money capital repatriation is expected to continue. $4.68 B (26% increase from the same period last year) (PDI 2007).

With 1 in 10 Filipinos abroad today, and their growing contribution to sustainable living conditions for their families, the impact of migration is evident in the lives of Filipinos. Government policies facilitating out-migration suggest this trend will continue in the future. Indeed these workers have been touted by the government as the “Bagong Bayani” or New Heroes.

A Framework

While history and survival has seen the diffusion of human populations across the planet, Messina and Lahav point out that migration as a politically-defined issue is a relatively modern phenomenon. Migration became politicised in the 19th century, along with the rise of territorially-bounded nation-states. Those living within the territory were conferred ‘nationality’ while those outside were ‘foreigners.’ International migration came to be defined as the movement of non-nationals across borders for purposes other than travel or short-term stay (2006: 1).

Theories to explain or find causal relations pertaining to international migration are summarised by Massey and co-authors (2006). The newness of the field in the social sciences as well as their relative lack of sophistication, according to the authors, lead governments and policy-makers to frame international migration using antiquated 19th century concepts, models and assumptions (2006: 34).

Here most people feel when OFWs and migrants leave the Philippines it is a national loss. Not necessarily. Wealth-creation in the Philippines has never been national. Because we failed to sustain national industries (I'm not addressing the fact that others still think this is key to capitalist development, I haven't decided yet OK?), wealth in the Philippines has always been created transnationally. If our few multinationals such as San Miguel or Jollibee can operate globally, why should we deprive workers the same right?

Agents of Economic Development

Pearce, Douglas & Wimaladharma (2004) defined remittances as sums of money that a migrant worker sends back to a migrant worker’s country of origin. Unlike foreign direct investment (FDI) by private or public commercial entities or official development assistance from donor countries (ODA), remittances reach the poor directly and the poor make direct decisions on how the monies are spent.

In one of the most comprehensive surveys of the Filipino Diaspora in recent years, Alburo and Abella (2002) show the evolution of the pattern of migration in the last decade and set some benchmarks on the “brain drain” phenomenon from the Philippines. Brain drain is defined as the emigration of skilled workers and professions. Whereas in the 70s, most labourers who migrate are low-skilled, the proceeding decades saw the exodus of health professionals such as doctors and nurses, and later electronic engineers, computer programmers, designers and others.

An important finding of Alburo and Abella’s study was that the number of professionals who left the Philippines in the last decade exceeded the number of those who joined the local labour force. In general Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have higher educational attainment than those of the local labour force. There is also evidence that a large portion of Filipino workers abroad belong to the most productive age groups, ranging from 25 to 44, compared to those employed in the country.

Most of the Philippine literature concentrate on the impacts of remittances to the Philippine economy as well as the behaviour of remitting workers. This may be because the Philippines is the third highest net remittance recipient in the world, after India and Mexico. From 1980 to 2002, remittance to export earnings ratio rose from 4.5% to 24.2%, and remittance to GDP ratio from 0.6% to 13.5% (Tan 2006: 3-4). Remittances have also begun to overtake foreign direct investments and official development assistance as external sources of capital (Pernia 2006: 1). Pearce, Stanton and Wimaladharma (2004) now refer to remittances as the new development finance.

Remittances come from an estimated 4.5 million OFWs and more than 3.4 million permanent emigrants settled mostly in the US. A majority of the OFWs are young breadwinners. About 20% of them are single with financial obligations to parents and siblings. From 1998 to 2003, there was a much larger increase in permanent migration than for employment, however OFWs still outnumber migrant workers in number (Tan 2006: 3).

Remittances do not necessarily contribute to national development because they are not always spent on productive activities. There are three spending phases (Brinkerhoff 2006: 7):

1. family maintenance and housing improvement
2. conspicuous consumption
3. productive activities

Brain Drain to Brain Gain

The phenomenon of international migration is seen to continue as shown by a study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (Lowell & Findlay 2002). “Brain Drain” or skilled labour emigration is a concern because of its impact on the sending countries. A number of industrialised economies have liberalised their policies to admit highly skilled workers. The problem is that the demand for these workers is met by developing countries, triggering an exodus of their skilled personnel.

Kapur and McHale (2005) credit this “global hunt for talent” to three factors. First, the emerging knowledge-based industries push governments to increase their competitive advantage by hiring the right people. Second, ageing populations in industrialised countries also require more health care workers and technology-based health care systems. Third, this international competition for talent is seen to continue and increase due to the globalisation of production and trade. The five leading competitors for skilled talent in the international market are Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and the US (37).

To address the increasing out-migration of skilled professionals from developing countries, the Asian Development Bank recently published position papers on how to convert “brain drain” to “brain gain” (Westcott and Brinkerhoff 2006). The loss of skilled-labour migration is compensated by transfer of knowledge through the skills and training acquired abroad. These papers show evidence that skilled migration can prompt further investment in education.

Opiniano and Castro (2006) highlight the need for more brain gain programs. Some transfer of knowledge initiatives, such as the Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC), the Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) sponsored by the UN Development Program and the Balik Scientist Program (Scientist Return Program) have largely been unsuccessful. They conclude that this is due to lack of awareness and importance of these programs.

Findings and Recommendations

Our findings from our survey match the current studies of the Filipino Diaspora. Corresponding to the data compiled by the POEA, where 2.7 of the estimated 8.2 million overseas Filipinos are located in the United States (2006: 52), the majority of our respondents are also located in the US.

The majority are citizens, contract workers or permanent residents aged 22 to 35 years old. We marked this age grouping as the most productive years for workers. It is roughly equivalent to Alburo and Abella’s age bracket of 25 to 44 years old (2002). The second largest group are those aged 36 to 50 years old. In total, those who are active participants of the labour force in their respective host countries represent 75% of our respondents.

Also matching areas of highest labour demand in the international labour market, 37% of our respondents are employed in the health care and information technology sectors.

Over half of our respondents left the Philippines in the period 2001 to 2007. The overwhelming majority of those who left did so for economic reasons. Sixty-eight percent held stable jobs before leaving. This supports prior studies that Filipino migrant workers are not only endowed with education and training but also practical experience when they join the work force of their host country.

Those who benefit from remittances are members of the immediate family – siblings and parents. The funds are spent on daily subsistence and education. This scenario may be indicative of the worsening social and economic condition of the Philippines, where income from the local economy is no longer enough to sustain even the most basic of needs. Spending on education, most likely of younger siblings, is a strong indicator that some of the funds are being re-invested on human capital. Following Brinkerhoff’s three spending phases (2006), this survey shows part of the funds is indeed being spent on productive activities. The Filipino Diaspora continues to provide a social safety-net to the immediate family. This is reflective of the lack of public social safety-nets available.

Although surprisingly 63.3% of them would not want to change their citizenship. Their qualitative responses reveal their definition of “better living conditions” mean financially or income-wise. They are better able to help relatives through financial support but “miss out on family-milestones” or “miss home.”

Advances in telecommunications facilitate linkages of overseas Filipinos to the Philippines. Over eighty percent say they keep up with current events, mostly through the online editions of Philippine newspapers and e-mail listings and networks.

The Philippine government has indicated little long-term planning in managing the emigration of workers. The emphasis seems to be in maximizing benefits - by way of remittances. However initiatives in minimizing costs are sorely lacking. This is excellent opportunity to conduct research on long-term management of human migration, focusing on brain gain mechanisms.


The survey results reflect the findings of current literature and trends. It shows the Filipino Diaspora has maintained linkages to the homeland. They feel they are helping and want to eventually come home. Over 63 percent do not want to change citizenship, indicating their strong emotional ties to keeping their Filipino identity.

Those who have given up their Filipino passports or those who are considering it, only do so for travelling and documentation convenience. If this survey reflects the attitudes of the 8.2 million, then evidence is strong that the Diaspora’s potential of being agents of economic development extend beyond the monetary. There must be policies to harness their potential in transferring home know-how as well as social and human capital.

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