More and more are leaving home ‘for the sake of the children’


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.


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  1. People migration have been going on since biblical times. It has played important role in the rise and fall of great ancient empires to the modern power brokers that now control the economy of the world.

    In the Philippines, it is important to mention that remnants of the Spanish colonizers whose ancestors decided to stay in our country at the end of colonization are now the beneficiaries of the wealth of our nation. Spain called them Philipinos because they were Spaniards born in the Philippines and were considered second class citizens in Spain that’s why they stayed. The Ayala-Zobels, the Sorianos, the Elizaldes and others and more recently the Razons. These are Spanish migrants that now control our country’s economy. Of course we all know about the Chinoys who controls a bigger portion of the country’s economy.

    So, what is left for us if these Spanish and Chinese migrants eat all our breakfast, lunch and dinner? What else is left for us after 30% is pocketed by the Ayala-Zobels, et al and 65% by the Chinoys. The 95 million Pinoys have to fight and hustle among ourselves to get that 5% leftover. I agree with the article, but it failed to articulate that the real problem in the country are these Spanish and Chinese money hoarders that have not been willing to share their gains in terms of providing small business or micro credits to Pinoys at small interest rates so our people can have the same opportunity that our country gave them.

    These money hoarders don’t want us to see the real picture so we end up blaming and fighting among ourselves while they make the profits. What a tragedy that we are migrants in our own country.

  2. The rich and powerful elite in this country, allow their lap dog politicians to stick their noses in the trough of the pork barrel and line their own pockets. Pretty simple really! The powerful elite give the crumbs from their table to the politicians who in turn continue to pander to their masters. In the meanwhile the country becomes more and more dysfunctional….. what a tragedy that the short sighted fools, fail to see that a country that cares for its people, does in fact create a bigger pie for all to share in.
    How much foreign investment comes into this country?…. the investors have got better options than to fight the oligarchs who bleed us all dry.

  3. The problem of our country, the Philippines, the political system is business-like as our elected officials did’nt fully exercise their mandate for the welfare of the nation in general and the people in particular. The reasons in political side is the uncontrolled spending of the people running for elective office that most of them are formulating ways how to recover what they have spent in the election. All rules in the COMELEC are just theories that is applicable against opposition while favorable to administration parties. The leader, the think-tank, the secretaries are only protecting & preserving their positions not formulating ways how to hold the citizenry from migrations contented only on remittances helping the economy. Why not encourage the people for SME with assistance from gov’t. dept. with some incentives. Incentives to investors that could also employ local labor. The gov’t. should find ways giving incentives to exporters. The business minded people are paralyzed in this country due to too much fees. Even gov’t. workers aside from collecting fees for the gov’t. are also collecting fees from taxpayers with reasons all prices are increasing and their salaries not enough for the living. So everybody needs the money. So most people wants to work abroad as same effort the wage is multiple in peso value and tax free. Better work abroad.

  4. Amnata Pundit on

    By itself, exporting OFWs is neither good nor bad. What will determine that is the final result we will get out of this program. So far what do we have to show for the more than $20Billion a year that the country earns from remittances ? Nothing really except for the rich who got richer by hijacking this bounty for themselves. If only we had a leadership that can utilize this manna from heaven in a more productive way that will benefit future generations like what Korea did to their own OFW earnings in the 50s and 60s. Korea today is the potential that we can be if we had the leadership that can harness these resources that our OFWs are sacrificing themselves for. That will not happen as long as these yellowturds are the ones lording it over us. What to do? Bring out the guillotines !

  5. It was about time that someone wrote about this subject, otherwise, I already appear as as a bore to many of my friends when I keep harping about the governments glee of glorifying the OFWs as bagong bayani. I felt rage and convulsion on our government’s reliance on dollar remittances, year after year, as if it had a stake in this revenue stream. OFWs were sending this money to support their families while indirectly helping our country’s economy. What is shameful is that the government do not even have a law, a policy nor even a real plan to protect the OFWs as the “geese the lay the golden eggs” to sustain this benefit. Filipinos are encouraged to become OFWs for lack of opportunity at home while the government prey on the OFWs abroad for fees, levies and tax their small hard-earned fortunes back to home. When help is needed, our embassies are conveniently busy with something else.

    I feel ashamed because most Filipinos are hard workers when abroad but our educational degrees, except for nursing, do not comply with international certifications. This leads our compatriots to accept menial jobs as servants, sales ladies, fast food clerks and busboys. Perhaps I am one of the lucky few upper end professionals who can contend with many abusive expats, but for nationality alone, I am immediately at the receiving end. It is really a burden to carry our nationality.

    I have not been to the Phils for a decade without any urge of doing so. When I was studying at UP in the late 70s-80s, my circle of friends and I pledged to fight it out in the Phils – no matter what. Many of us really tried not to leave, and few are still behind. I admire them. For me, it is history but here’s hoping, really hoping that one day I will be back and will have the chance to make a difference.

  6. Mr. Gatbonton, you hit the bull’s eye. Great article. My experience is different from most. I was lucky to join the United States Navy at the height of Vietnam war. My father who was a small time farmer can not afford to put me and one of brothers to college at about the same time frame. My first ship made a deployment to the war in Vietnam and I had a chance to come for a very short vacation. To make a long story short I planned then that after years serving the Navy when eligible to retire I will come back and live. I married but my wife stayed in the Philippines. Every so often I come home to visit my wife and children, my and her family. Every time I come home I notice that our country’s situation is getting worst. Corruption, crime and all the maladies of society. So after a two year stint of duty in the Philippines I brought my family to America. I kept track of our country through the media and, the worsening did not subside but worst. My original plan to go back and live in the Philippines after retiring from the United States Navy after my wife and I mutual decision changed. All our properties (real state, house and farm lands) we decided to let one of my brothers be the caretaker. After my wife and I retired (no more work for a salary) we went back for a month vacation. A pleasant surprise for us is that how much the Philippines developed but the corruption and most diseases of Philippine society is still thriving. Not unless our country’s government officials and high positions in the private sector way of governing changed for the better (stop corruption) to improve the living of the Filipino people. Philippine economy will keep relying from remittances of OFW workers if this does not happen. And Filipinos will keep migrating to foreign countries for all practical purposes. Well; this is just my two-cents.

  7. Kabayang Jose on

    The article home hits deeply for I am one of those OFW who left the country in 2005. My youngest daughter was just 3 years old then, and now she will be an in-coming first year high school next year. While working abroad, I attended a business school and my company paid for my tuition. This coming month, I will graduate and next year, I plan to go back home and start a family business and get to know my children again. Yes, there’s Skype and other social media but there’s no substitute for being there with you wife and children. Another thing I’d like to do when I get home is advocacy for OFW. The government calls us as “modern heroes” but a lot of this are simply lip service. Actually, remittances is more than 24 billion, (if you look at the Bangko Sentral Data, that’s just the data as of November 2014, the writer of this article should add the remittance for December, 2014 so more or less, its 27 billion which is almost 10% of the Philippine GDP…I did my paper on the “Historical Analysis of the Philippine GDP from 1964-2014” so I am familiar with the data) The Philippine Congress should pass laws that will protect migrant workers (especially the sea-based workers or seamen) and create programs that will train and assist OFW to start their own businesses. Another suggestion to the seanators and congressmen is to pass a law that will penalize companies who discriminate against OFW because of age. (Equal Opportunity Law) One of the reasons why OFW go back to foreign countries is a lot of companies don’t want to employ older but qualified OFWs. I remember Col Parcon of the AFP. He was awarded a medal of valor for his heroism in the fight against the enemy of the state. “Medalya lang ang natamo. Yong mga namatay nating mga heroes na SAF, grabe ang suporta ng halos lahat ng sangay ng gobierno sa kanilang pamilya.” Kung itinuturing natin ang OFW na bayani, patunayan ng gobierno ang kanilang pagmamalasakit sa mga OFW sa pamamagitan ng pagbibigay ng protection sa mga nalalagay sa panganib at pang-aabuso ng kanilang foreign employer at pagkakaraon ng programa upang magkaraoon ng matagumpay na pagnenegosyo o magbigay ng incentives sa mga local companies na tumatanggap at mag-employ ng former OFW! I challenge the Philippine government to start recruiting highly qualified OFW to fill up those vacancies published in the Civil Service Commission website.

  8. …and our government has the face to brag about “positive” growth of our country? If not for the remittances coming from the sacrifices and hardships of each OFW family member, what will be the real status of our country? booming? or just simply wanting?

  9. It is really a very sad situation we are in. In my youth I never wanted to migrate even though I have many relatives in California and Australia, and friends in Canada. I had a female friend who applied as a migrant to Canada and within two months she was accepted. But then during those days the peso-dollar rate was reasonable, corruption was not as rampant, government was more efficient, and new graduates accepted into the work force could expect, if they were good, to be given regular status after six months. Today most factory workers, sales clerks, construction workers, and many others either just work for five months, or their contracts are renewed every five months–these are what are now known as contractual workers. But today with corruption at its shocking levels, inefficiency of national and local governments at unbelievable dimensions, I am very dismayed at the prospects of improvement. What I would not do when I was young and that is to migrate, I would gladly do it now if I werd just young. Instead I am persuading my daughter to get out of the country with her children, and not to the USA, where the situation is very bad not in the same way as us but in a more global manner, but to some other country nearer the Philippines.

  10. A very interesting and informative article. Thank you.

    I left the Philippines in 1975 with my family for Canada because we did not want our two children, age 4 and 2 at the time, to grow up under a dictatorial and corrupt regime. It was not good for them nor for us – or for anybody. It was not an economic decision since I had a well-paying job as a research engineer and my wife was already an assistant professor at the state university. And I had a choice to put up my own business.

    After three years in Ontario, Canada, I was transferred to Pennsylvania. Working for a large multinational conglomerate, just like in the military, I moved two more times to western Massachusetts and upstate NY. These locations were small towns, less than 20,000 people at the time we move in, where my children grew up. Safe, friendly with very strong community spirit. And the public schools are excellent in these states.

    When Marcos was ousted, my wife and I entertained the idea of going back home. We went on a three-week vacation to see family and friends and more importantly to feel our country again. But it did not feel like home or what we used to know before we left. The culture and people’s behavior had changed – for the worse. And for being Filipino citizens, we were harassed at the airport before leaving for the US: Where are your labor certifications? Why did you not file income tax returns? You have to pay travel fees. The experience solidified our decision to apply for US citizenship when we returned from that vacation.

    There was a large group of Filipinos who left after Marcos declared martial law. And these are highly educated and accomplished people. Some spent some sabbatical years teaching at various state schools in the Philippines but none, except one, retired in the Philippines.

    My wife and I apologized to our children when they were already in high school for bringing them to North America and away from their grandparents and other relatives and from their birthplace. But when we took them back home, before they graduated from college, to see their grandparents and the country, for the first time as adults, my son told me that we made the right decision and he thanked us for it.

    • Nagugulat si writer Gatbonton at yuong kaibigan niya na ubod-dami OFW at paalis sa Pilipinas, lumang balita na ‘to.Akala ko, nuong 1980’s lang iyong OFW at itong ang daming migration to Canada at Australia, eh nuong 1970’s pa pala.

  11. Claro Apolinar on

    Thank you, Sir Juan Gatbonton for writing articles like this that ought to help the highest policy makers to think correctly about our country’s future. Unfortunately, sir, there are aren’t any nowadays under this HAYOP Aquino administration.
    And it does not look like there will be any in the next 50 years because these devils have the Smartmatic-PCOS machines to keep their group in power forever.
    Only a miracle will change the course of Philippine development.

  12. What else would you expect. Every month the country brags about remittances while 8% of the population works out of the country due to lack of jobs. Think of the stress on their families.
    Where is the energy policy? Cheap, reliable electricity has made the United States what it is. Great Britain and Germany are losing any edge they may have had to satisfy the Great Green Hoax. England has shut down all four of their aluminum smelting plants because they can’t afford the power Where will the jobs go? Not to the Philippines. A strong leader that solves the problem will be a Philippine hero for generations. Who will throw out the Band-Aids and develop a real policy? As I recall, a few years ago, consultants were brought in from other countries. Their advice was ignored. The poverty rate will never drop without a valid policy. The poor always suffer the most. You can blame corruption and the wealthy. I would blame the leader.The people of the Philippines deserve better.

  13. Unfortunately the Phils is still a very closed economy where the vested interests runs the way they see fit not allowing for proper competition. Our politicians from the time of independence are all subservient to these elites that not one will want to change the status quo. If we only have a Lee Kuan Yew in our midst maybe, Singapore even imports their drinking water but look at their economy. The local elites are getting richer while the majority has to enslave overseas just to provide for their families back home and their earnings in turn builds the big malls, the condos and the other things that their families spends the money on. Without these OFWs the economy will grind to a complete halt because our govt has no alternatives, the politicians are too busy lining their own pockets too. The sad thing is a majority of the population are still stuck on electing people based on popularity or in boy sisi’s case due to sympathy. Sometimes one wonders if there is still a chance for us as a people, there is nothing wrong about the country, it is the people mentality that needs changing.

  14. victor m. hernandez on

    To begin anew, brace for a long haul of sacrifices and perseverance to achieve the establishment of freedom, equality, and nationhood. Foremost of which is to focus on family, to nurture them with right values and community spirit and values. Coupled with education to nurture these values and achieve the society that nurture freedom, equality, and nationhood. Anathema to these aspirations are the brain drain movement, and OFW-ism. It will be hard and ardous, but necessary to achieve the goals. Instant gratification will not do the job.

  15. Well, as our own RESPONSIBLE ELITE will continue just loyal to their family and class only, invest in safe and same businesses like banking, malls, construction, realty, privatization of established and profitable govt utilities with sovereign guarantee of course, instead of risking in heavy industries like steel, chemical, ship-building, etc., we will not grow. Even a hammer made in PH, with quality or otherwise, our captains dont want to produce. Its better for them to be in media & showbiz (tsismis) business, its more profitable and can be useful when targeting an enemy of business, real or imagination.

  16. You have to know the power people want it this way. It serves their purpose, they can become immensely rich where if things improved for the working people here they would lose so much of their power & money.
    People here when talking of jobs will say he or she works in the office. That means very little & in no other country in the west would they say that. They would say im a secretary, or whatever job they do in the office. Why so different here. Is it laziness, im not sure. Just yesterday my wife said her sons sister inlaw was going to america & i asked for how long, i dont know i didnt ask, in the west those are questions we ask first.
    There is a mindset that needs to change in the philippines. But it wont as people like the status quo. Most familys who have ofw’s live a life here where they dont have to work & they love that. I mentioned earlier abiout lazy, well that would be classed in the uk as lazy. Here they are proud to stay home & say they are waiting for their allowance from their ofw, & with that most wont even look for a job.

  17. The opportunity path of Filipinos leads to leaving the PH and working abroad. There is no opportunity in the PH for common people. The rich elite groups control the country.

  18. For as long as graft and corruption in govt. would continue to plague our country, the desire to leave the country will continue. What kind of future would our children and grandchildren have in a country that is ruled by individuals with undesirable characters? A country where there are two standard of justice. One for the rich and the other for the poor. And up to this day, all types of discrimination continue to exist, especially in the labor market. Look at the way companies advertise when searching for workers? Requiring certain age limits, gender, and marital status are things that companies could not mention if your are advertising for workers in America. And yet, Filipino workers continue to face the same kind of discrimination. In spite of all the modern, giant malls, high-rise condos, Fast-food chains, imported luxury cars, etc., the Filipinos are stuck in the 1960’s political and social mentality.

    • apolonio reyes on

      Ed, not to mention a bank’s discrimination between ordinary card and gold card holders. Even if the lane for GOLD CARD HOLDERS IS VACANT, NO CLIENTS QUEING, THIS BANK DOES NOT SERVE THE ORDINARY CARD HOLDERS. THIS IS A VERY CLEAR EXAMPLE OF DISCRIMANTION BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR.
      DID CONGRESS ALREADY PASS THE ANTI-DISCRIMINATION BILL AND PNOY SIGNED IT INTO A LAW? Just asking before it is too late to remedy discriminations, di ba ED?

  19. Sad to say, this is one problem that our government led by the abnoy has not been able to address. I feel that if he had only focused on doing good for the country, instead of pursing a corrupt regime with his vindictive persecution of his enemies and fostering corruption, then his energies would have been well-directed and our country would have been a better place to live in.

    We have a lop-sided economy which is not conducive to comfortable living if one is not corrupt (with doubtful income). .We also have a baluktot na daan which is devoid of moral sense which can never be the right environment for raising up children. Hence, parents of growing up children would rather take chances with a foreign culture, where they stand better chances at being able to improve their economic lot and save the children from living in a culture of corruption as in the Phils.

    In all aspects of governance, the illegitimate president we have is a failure. No wonder many have already given up on this country.