Nine Years Under Arroyo
By Migrante International
It was 2001 and riding on the crest of People Power II that ousted President Joseph Estrada, then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo inherited the presidency. Reforms seemed in the offing but nine years later, the Pinoy migrants along with the rest of the country, could not wait for Arroyo whose term ends in 2010 to leave Malacanang.
When Arroyo assumed power, government’s labor export policy was already in place. Which means that labor export was treated no longer as a temporary measure to address unemployment but as a means to keep the sinking economy afloat.
Arroyo cannot be happier. Under her regime, labor export remained the country’s no.1 foreign exchange earner, earning at least $16 billion by end 2008, and projected to reach $17 billion in 2009. According to the Bangko Sentral, for 2008, remittances even surpassed the $1.52 billion foreign direct investment of $1.52 billion, and far outstripped net exports of goods and services which registered a $11.1 billion deficit.
Also, the National Economic and Development Authority confirmed that the remittances were higher than foreign aid disbursed ($1.05 billion) and were way beyond the increase in government foreign debt stock of $1.78 billlion, according to the Bureau of Treasury.
With enough foreign exchange earnings in its hands, the Arroyo regime is able to meet the country’s foreign debt obligations, makes the country a good credit risk, and remains confident even with deficits in the balance of payments.
The increase in remittances mirrored the increase in overseas deployment which under the Arroyo regime breached the million mark (1.24 million) by 2007. This means that 3,700 Filipinos are now leaving for work abroad daily, excluding the undocumented. The years under the Arroyo regime saw the largest number of Filipinos forced to find jobs abroad. The destinations remained the same but with the markets ever expanding and new ones being opened especially with the advent of the global financial crisis.
In 2008, OFW deployments by region were concentrated in the Middle East (51.1% of deployments), Asia (17.8%) and Europe (4.2%). The top ten destinations of OFWs accounting for 82.6% of deployed OFWs were Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, Taiwan, Italy, Canada and Bahrain. Up until 2008, said the NSO, 8 out of 10 OFWs are laborers and unskilled workers.
To date, the Philippines now ranks as the fourth largest remittance-receiving country next to India, China and Mexico, whose economies are much larger than the Philippines. Hence, in terms of the remittances’ significance to the economy, the Arroyo regime has succeeded in making the Philippines the largest and most-remittance dependent country in the world.
True, OFW remittances have added significantly to family or household income, purchasing power and consumption, at least while they are being received. Remittances normally go to food, education, and medical expenses. According to the NSO’s Family Income and Expenditure Survey in 2006, about 4.1 million families receive assistance from abroad, and assuming that the average family size is 5, this could mean 21 million Filipinos are relying on OFW incomes.
However, figures from the NSO reveal that most remittances on a monthly basis sent to the Philippines are either a little less or a little more than the NCR minimum wage of P11,620 (from a daily wage of P360), whether the OFW is working as a laborer or an associate professional. In this case, if jobs were really available and the minimum wage is met, migration may not be an option for the majority of OFWs at all.
Also, whatever benefits are derived by households are offset by the social costs of migration. The long and physical separation of families has wrecked the relationship of spouses and damaged the upbringing of children, causing trauma to family life nearing national proportions. Colonial mentality is reinforced as migration glorifies working and living abroad, hence producing generations of migrants. Dependence on OFW remittances tends to diminsh the value of hard work and the importance of developing local jobs, too.
Worse, for all the increase in remittances and deployment, the country remains poor and economically backward. According to the National Statistic and Coordination Board, three years into the Arroyo regime, poverty incidence in population increased from 30% in 2003 to 32.9% in 2006.
The sadder fact is that even if remittances shoot up as is happening now despite the world economic crisis, poverty is still going to get worse. Whoever thought of migration or remittance as a tool for national development is a charlatan.
For one, there is not much capital left from remittance spending for investments as the remittance goes first to payment of household debts and consumption spending. Whatever investment there is remains small-scale, such as sari-sari stores, tricycles, jeepneys, taxis that generate few jobs and minimal domestic capital formation. For another, much of the consumption goes to imported goods, hence, the multiplier effect of local spending is limited.
Protection, a myth
For all these, and at best, the labor export program has served the Arroyo regime as a counter-insurgency or counter-revoutionary strategy to stop a social volcano from fully erupting. Even as the country does not have much to gain from forced migration, the strategy saves the economy from total collapse, feeding food to millions of families, albeit temporary, to keep these millions away from talks of revolt, revolution, or social change.
Yet, even while serving its purpose and recognizing the role of the bagong bayani, the Arroyo regime is ill-prepared to provide millions of OFWs with protection, from the time they apply for job permits to actually working and living abroad. Compounding this is the fact that government does not spend a single centavo for OFW welfare; this is borne by OFWs themselves through forced contributions.
By 2007, a quarter (8.7 million) of 34 million employed Filipinos are abroad, representing a tenth of the population of 88.7 million then. The figures could go higher with the number of undocumented or irregular workers, said to be almost half of the documented ones. While the majority are still male, the female OFWs have outranked the males in deployment for the last couple of years.
The second Global Forum on Migration and Development held in the Philippines last year had hailed Arroyo’s labor export program as a model for other labor-sending countries to emulate. Apparently so. The impression was that with overbearing institutions such as the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), the government has created safe migration channels to manage and control OFW deployment at all levels.
Fact is that Arroyo’s labor export program has become so unimaginably huge that it simply has no control over it. Think 197 countries where Pinoys are spread out. Think 8 to 10 million Filipinos. Yet the POEA does not even maintain offices abroad, nor has it supervision over labor attaches that are under the Department of Foreign Affairs called POLOS (Philippine Labor Offices). There are only 34 POLO offices with 230 staff to serve millions of OFWs.
It is small wonder then why thousands of stranded workers are camping in embassy premises or outside of it waiting for assistance and that numerous abuses remain unmonitored or unattended. Or why OFWS continue to fall under the mercy of unscrupulous recruiters, traffickers, sexual abusers, or violators of contracts despite exposes and prosecution.
Even if protection is rendered this is mostly due to pressures from migrant organizations such as Migrante International that of last has organized chapters in 23 countries and has a partylist bearing its name.
The lack of protection is unacceptable; unjust state exactions is even more unforgivable. Migrante International has estimated that a potential migrant will be paying the government some P18,000 just to complete the basic documentary requirements. At 1.24 million OFWs deployed in 2008, the P18,000 per migrant could potentially be equivalent to some P22.3 billion pesos a year collected mostly from migrants who come from poor households and with limited options.
Then there is the trust fund by OFWs run by OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration). that comes from a 25 dollar contribution of migrants with counterpart funds from their employers. Earmarked for repatriation, health and life insurance, legal assistance, scholarships and trainings, and loans for migrant families, the fund had averaged 38 million dollars annually for the last five years.
But more often, the migrants have to plead for the release of their own funds from OWWA. Worse, they had discovered that their funds were being diverted to unnecessary investments and electoral fraud, and with no consultation from members.
As 2010 draws closer and migrants say good riddance to Arroyo, the prospect of another anti-migrant regime emerging after the 2010 elections could still be looming.
Nine years under Arroyo has brought even more harrowing tales of migrant abuse than previous decades. Many more may opt to go underground or undocumented for lack of better prospects in the Philippines or even abroad with the intensifying crisis.
What is clear is that the labor export policy may yet be another safety net for a ruling regime that refuses to confront the economic roots resulting to forced migration.
Be that as it may, Migrante International promises to stay the course as it has been doing since 1994.