My old friend feels he has lost his youngest son. The boy has moved to Canada with his wife and daughter.
For many Filipino families, migrating is no longer a big deal. Every day, some 3,000 of our people depart for foreign places, whether temporarily or for keeps.
In early March, 10.4 million Filipinos—roughly 1 in 10 of all our people—were away from home. Of this number, over 4.9 million are migrants; and over 4.2 million are overseas contract workers.
For Filipinos, even Toronto is now just a long commute away. Cell phones are handy, and there’s always the Internet. But even so, emotional distance is as tyrannical as ever; and, at least for old men like my friend and myself, the chances of ever seeing absent friends again are unavoidably uncertain.
So that my friend is devastated: a Catholic charismatic, he has kept his Quezon City family close-knit. The four children live nearby; and the family gathers for lunch after Mass every Sunday. His wife tells him, “We can’t tell our children how to run their lives.” But he still can’t understand why his son feels he must go.
Though barely 40, the son, a financial analyst, and his wife were two-income, two-car, art-collecting, upwardly mobile Makati professionals. They are migrating, the son tells his father, “for the sake of the child.”
And my old friend asks himself, how have we become a country that can’t assure a future for its grandchildren?
Exporting warm bodies
Labor export was a stopgap many East Asian states—including today’s South Korean powerhouse—took up in the 1970s, while moving from a strategy of import-substituting industrialization to labor intensive exports. Most of our neighbors have given it up, as their economies picked up speed and gave their workpeople more pleasant alternative occupations. In our country, by contrast, labor export has become a prime development program.
Unlike our vigorous neighbors, we simply have no alternative. Since we have few competitive goods to trade, we export warm bodies instead.
The University of the Philippines economist Ernesto Pernia points out that two policy failures forced this policy on us.
One, we had kept up import substitution in a closed economy even after our neighbors had shifted to an export strategy. Two, we have failed to sustain the population moderation policy we had been among the first East Asian states to adopt in 1969.
These policy failures resulted in weak long-term GDP growth in the context of galloping population growth. From 1970 until 2006, our individual incomes grew at no more than 1.45% net—since over the same 36 years, population growth decreased only slowly, from 3% to 2.1%.
Not just the desperate
More and more of those migrating are no longer just the desperately jobless. They now include well-established young people: middle managers, computer professionals, doctors and nurses, engineers, architects, hospital technicians.
More and more OFWs are college graduates. Yet, typically, first-generation migrants must resign themselves to lower-rank work than they did at home.
We’ve all heard of migrant-doctors who turn into ICU nurses. A newspaper editor I know became for a time an unlikely security guard.
One of my nephews—a civil engineer—rivets the wings on “Bombardier” aircraft at an assembly line off Toronto. What pains him most is the severity of the Canadian winter, and not seeing the sun for weeks on end.
Meanwhile, most every other Metro Manila college seems to be offering courses in nursing, care-giving, physical therapy, computer programming, sea-faring. Language courses—not just French or Spanish but also German, Japanese and Korean—are more and more popular.
You could even enrol in a unique course that will teach you to speak English with an American accent. And I am certain all these courses serve a practical purpose. But why are we raising our young people to become migrants?
A mobile global order?
Growing interdependence—globalization—is enforcing a world-wide redistribution of jobs, not just in traditional manufacturing but in once non-tradable sectors such as services.
And the optimists say—with Wired Magazine—that the Philippines, far from lagging behind its vigorous neighbors, is in fact the forerunner of tomorrow’s distributed economy: the herald of a “new mobile global order.”
The Central Bank says demand is rising for “skilled, professional Filipino manpower.” The Bank valued the dollar-remittance industry at $24 billion in 2014—equivalent to 8% of GDP. Our country is already the third-highest OFW income earner, after India and China and on par with Mexico.
The pessimists worry about the social problems created by families with absent parents, and the “disturbing dependency syndrome” among those these elders have left behind. Far too many of these dependents have dropped out of the job market—content with living on the manna from abroad.
Even for the economy as a whole, the success of our OFW recourse—by driving up our exchange rate—is hampering our competitiveness in other exports; and lulling our political and economic leaders into thinking our economy’s in better shape than it is.
Then there’s the problem of “brain drain.” Pernia cites research that shows labor export is indeed creaming off the finest of our blue-collar workers too fast for our education system to replenish.
And, of course, rich-country migration policies cherry-pick technologists, literates and other highly-educated people. We console ourselves with the thought that our OFWs learn skills they would eventually bring home. But the higher their skills—Pernia argues—the more likely their host-societies would assimilate them.
Assuring our young there’s hope
Whether the optimists or the pessimists are proved right on the OFW question, we can’t deny there’s a growing sense of despair about our country’s future. And it’s not just our present-day leaders who are to blame.
“Philippine policymaking,” the World Bank noted in 1993, “has historically been captive to powerful vested interests that have shaped economic policy, to protect and enhance their privileged position, often to the detriment of national well-being.”
Even the Jesuit sociologist Fr. John J. Carroll became pessimistic about the long-term viability of democratic politics in our society of great inequality, “where the powerful use the law to oppress the weak.” (Fr. Carroll’s recent death left a gap in Philippine scholarship we will not soon fill.)
The system works less and less well; and since its problems are structural, there are no prospects for short-term improvements to which people could look forward.
Stability based on stagnation may not last forever—but it can last long enough. So that for more and more of our young people, the only remedy is to start over elsewhere; and the earlier, the better.
So what are we stay-at-homes to do? We who continue to believe in this country’s capacity to renew itself must chart for it a new beginning. We must assure our young people there is hope for this country.
Until the system begins to work for everyday people—and not just for the influential and the powerful—parents and grandparents will wait endlessly for their children to return home.