The emptiest boast of government is not the one about inclusive growth. With more than ten million families regularly suffering from pangs of hunger and close to ten million children of school age malnourished, we all know that claim is patently false.
The really, really empty boast is on the fate that faces returning OCWs or OFWs. They can return home, Mr. Aquino’s government said, and find either remunerative jobs that are up for their taking or income-generating business opportunities that they can engage in. That claim is false on all counts, a pie-in-the-sky state bluster. If one million of the 2.3 million OCWs or OFWs with live contracts overseas decide to return home soon, lured by the false promise of “ remunerative jobs” and “ business opportunities,” two things will face them on the short-term. Massive joblessness, non-existing business opportunities, then chaos.
Even under the most hopeful scenario, the Philippine employment picture is not an ideal environment for the smooth transitioning of returning OCWs or OFWs. The unemployment rate has been moving between six to 7.5 percent and the underemployment rate (those who can’t work full-time or who can’t log 40 hours a week) has been moving between 17 to 19 percent. The data on workers who drop out of the labor force and drop out for good is not even accurately measured and this is rising even among those with college education because of lack of opportunities.
We are assuming here that those fully employed enjoy decent pay, though the truth is that slave wages are paid across sectors nationwide.
Now, do these figures represent the ideal environment for the absorption of 1 million returning workers? No. Absolutely no.
The sector that generates most of the new employment, the service sector, is showing signs of surplus supply. Today, even the giant call center establishments start their agents at P13,000 to P14,000 a month, down from the P16 a month a few years back. While hard-to-find BPO call center talents were incentivized a few years back with decent pay and perks, the pay downgrade today is representative of the abundance of talents.
Those who work in fields such as programming, firewall, network engineering and security truly get above-average pay. The only problem is a call center with 1,000 agents require just a handful of network engineers and security people.
The retail, tourism and hospitality sectors generally underpay their workers and have the luxury of hiring contractual workers without tenure and benefits provided for under the Labor Code. Six months, six months is the slang for the contractual workers and this is the employment term of most of the young men and women (with HRM degrees) working at fast food joints and even the most established restaurant chains.
Ok, can the returning workers go back to their provinces and embark on profitable, modern farming? Still a No. The first reason is demographics.
The two regions that send the most number of OCWs or OFWs are those nearest to Metro Manila – Southern and Central Luzon. More than 30 percent of all OCWs or OFWs come from those two regions, which are, by the way, host to the more progressive provincial economies, thanks to their large concentration of OCWs or OFWs.
These two regions have been, for the past several decades, witness to rapid and relentless urbanization, from hosting those giant boxy malls to exclusive housing developments which price per square meter tops some areas in Metro Manila. This means one thing – zoning laws have been relaxed to convert farmlands into urban enclaves on a massive scale. The farms in the OCW/OFW-centric areas have been fast vanishing.
There are designated agri-business areas for every town, true, where returning OCWs or OFWs can engage in profitable farming. But a returning OCW/OFW has to have P15 million to build a single, tunnel-ventilated broiler house with a 40,000 capacity. To start a piggery of 100 sows, a returning OFW needs at least P12 million.
Do they have that kind of capital? If not, do they have access to the banks? In the press releases of the Aquino mandarins, yes. But in reality, No. An OCW looking for a P10 million capital who gets attention from the banks despite the lack of REM is as rare as a Powerball winner. Even the GFIs do not really fast-track OCW loans, unless backed by adequate collateral.
There are no small-scale farming ventures that can keep body and soul together via decent incomes. The kind of success stories you read about in agricultural magazines, the small farmers that engaged in small things, then reaped massive returns, are as untrue as the promised remunerative jobs to returning OCWs or OFWs.
A job meltdown in the Middle East would be an economic catastrophe to the country. And the government of Mr. Aquino, despite its confidence that it can handle the exodus of returning OCWs or OFWs, is ill-prepared for that kind of contingency. Ms. Baldoz is a sincere government official but she is forced to parrot the official line on the government’s preparedness. Right now she is praying for job orders to open up in the Canadian arctic and elsewhere as a shift in demand for Pinoy OCWs or OFWs is the only solution to a possible dislocation in the Middle East.
A Middle East job meltdown will bring the equivalent of a national catastrophe and the Aquino government’s blah blah is more fiction than truth.