Labor migration: Is it worth it?

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Atty. Dodo Dulay

Atty. Dodo Dulay

FILIPINOS are no strangers to labor migration. As far back as the Galleon Trade in the late 18th century when Filipino seafarers worked as deckhands, cooks and cabin boys on Spanish vessels traveling from Manila to Acapulco, our countrymen have always looked to working abroad as a means of improving their lives.

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During the first half of the twentieth century, labor migration became more organized with the deployment of Filipino workers to the then American colony of Hawaii. To sustain the constant demand for labor, Hawaii’s plantation owners conducted a systematic recruitment of Filipino laborers through recruitment centers in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, and Cebu. So many Filipino laborers went to Hawaii that by the 1930s, Filipinos had replaced the Japanese as the largest ethnic group of workers in the plantations.

At the time, it was easy to bring Filipinos to Hawaii because the Philippines was a US colony and Filipinos were technically US nationals. As US nationals, Filipinos were not covered by the immigration laws barring the “importation” of other “oriental” workers from China and Japan.

Meanwhile, the 1970s saw the start of the government program promoting labor migration and export. Referred to as a “development policy” by the Marcos administration, it was an overseas employment program to export the country’s surplus labor to the Middle East.

Since then, millions of Filipino men and women, have left the country to work as migrant laborers in the Middle East, America, Europe, and Asia. In fact, I believe there is no place on this planet where no overseas Filipino worker (OFW) can be found. Even in the sub-zero wasteland of Antarctica, we have countrymen working in various capacities.

Today, temporary labor migration has become a way of life for many Filipinos. This is mainly due to the widespread belief that labor migration, albeit temporary, is the best and fastest way for Filipino families to achieve a better life. There is some truth to this view. Studies show that remittances do help improve the quality of life of OFWs and their families, with a huge percentage going to the education of children.

Despite the gains from remittances, however, studies also reveal that the economic status of OFW families has not improved significantly as they continue to remain poor. Oftentimes, the money being sent is just enough or sometimes hardly meets the demands and needs of the families left behind.

But these studies focus only on the economic impact of remittances. Little attention, if any, is being given to the social cost of labor migration. What is the impact of the absence of one or both spouses on marriages, families, and parent-child relationships? I’ve seen firsthand both the positive and negative effects of labor migration.

One success story is that of the Arellano family. The head of the family, Pedro, worked as a stuffing machine operator in Saudi Arabia for almost seven years. In spite of the distance and the physical absence of a father, both Pedro and his wife Marciana worked hard to make sure that they took care not only of their material needs but their three children’s psychological and emotional well-being as well.

So, it is not from luck that all their kids finished college. The couple also managed to establish businesses from the money Pedro earned abroad. They also shared their blessings with their community and donated a substantial sum to the scholarship program of their religious group. Because of this feat, they were given the regional Model OFW Family of the Year Award (MOFYA)—a recognition given by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to exceptional families who have successfully hurdled the challenges of being an OFW family while helping improve the lives of people in their community.

But for every happy ending, there are many more stories ending on a sour note.

I came across “Marcelo” in one of our mediation hearings at OWWA. Marcelo said that he ran away (or abandoned) his employer in the Middle East just a little over a year into a two-year contract because his Arab boss wouldn’t allow him to take a leave for a visit to the Philippines. When I asked him why he was so desperate to go home, Marcelo said that he received news from his relatives that his wife had left him for another man and had abandoned their daughter at his mother’s house.

The experience of Marcelo is not unique. I’ve seen my fair share of migrant workers returning home only to find their husbands or wives gone, or their children no longer going to school, or remittances gone to naught.

OWWA welfare officer Josephine S. Tobia, who has been posted to different countries, gives her take on this issue: “In my experience, one of the major social costs of migration is family disintegration. It is heartbreaking for families to gain financially but end up being torn apart.”

She says the usual tendency of the OFW parent to compensate for their absence is to shower the family with money and other material things. But this only breeds the materialistic attitude of the children of migrants because they are only taught the see the “money equivalent” of their parent’s overseas work, Tobia added.

To mitigate the adverse impact of temporary labor migration, government welfare agencies like OWWA conduct capacity-building seminars for the children and spouses left behind with the help of NGOs and religious groups, and create support groups among migrant worker families.

But at the end of the day, migrant workers will always pay a price for leaving to work abroad. How it will impact the family largely depends on the OFWs themselves. The success stories of many OFW families show that overcoming the challenges of labor migration may be hard but it is not impossible.

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