By PRIME SARMIENTO
The two Filipina overseas workers are separated by distance and social circumstances but share the same fear that the deepening global recession could shatter their dreams of a better life for themselves and their families.
Nelfa Segovia-Balagtas has been working as nurse in the United Kingdom for almost a decade while the other, Cleofe Cabuena, was a semiconductor factory worker in Taiwan for just half a year.
Balagtas loved her job but, like most mothers, she wanted to be with her kids. She worked extra hours to earn more, and looked forward to the day she could afford to retire and come home for good. She also wanted to pursue higher studies to give a boost to her career at the UK government’s National Health Service. But the global recession put a damper on her plans.
Cabuena, facing tougher luck, is now back in the Philippines after the Taiwanese factory she was working for shut down late last year, an early victim of the global slowdown. With neither job nor savings, she is saddled with an P80,000 debt that financed her placement fee and expenses while applying for work in Taiwan.
The two women tell a timely tale about the vulnerability of overseas Filipino workers in the current recession - an era which most economists believed can be compared to the 1930s depression. They are the first to lose their jobs, have limited options in their own countries, and have to settle for whatever they can get to survive.
“In a recession, it’s the migrant workers who get retrenched first. They either get retrenched or accept reduced wages,” says Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy.
The extended recession in rich countries, such as the United States, UK, and Japan, has dampened global demand for goods, services, and labor.
The International Labor Organization forecasts that jobless people this year will rise by 7 percent to over 200 million globally. Migrant workers are among the first to get laid off as governments and companies prefer to protect their nationals over migrants.
The Department of Labor and Employment reported that over 12,000 overseas Filipino workers were fired from their jobs since the global crisis made a turn for the worse late last year. Analysts expect more OFWs—especially those employed in export-oriented manufacturing and tourism industries - to get the pink slip in the next few months as the recession continues to slacken business operations.
This could create tremendous economic and political risks for countries like the Philippines, which relies on the export of labor to address massive unemployment, check the spread of poverty, and generate foreign exchange to cover the trade deficit and repay foreign debt. The Philippines is the world’s third biggest exporter of labor after China and India, with 10 percent of its nearly 90 million population living and working overseas.
Money sent home by construction workers in the Middle East, maids in Hong Kong and Singapore, nurses in the US, UK, and Canada, and other Filipinos working in various parts of the world make up a tenth of the $186.4-billion Philippine gross national product. Remittances help keep many families from hunger and poverty, send children to school, and finance big-ticket purchases such as appliances, motorcycles, cars, and real estate.
The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas forecasts that remittances this year will grow by 6-9 percent—a sharply lower pace of growth compared to last year’s 13.8 percent rise to $16.4 billion.
Many analysts are not as optimistic, however. HSBC believes that remittances will probably fall by a fifth this year while CLSA Ltd. forecasts the amount to contract by a tenth. Almost half of overseas Filipino workers are in the Middle East, where growth is seen to slow to only 3.9 percent from 6.1 percent last year. Already, departures for overseas jobs fell by 5.8 percent in December, although the full-year numbers still grew by 27.8 percent to
1.4 million in 2008.
Remittances previously fell by 18 percent in 1999 following the onset of the Asian financial crisis in the middle of 1997.
To prevent a surge of overseas Filipino workers returning home after being fired from jobs abroad and to keep labor exports up, the government has intensified efforts to look for job opportunities for Filipinos in other countries.
President Arroyo directed labor officials to aggressively market Filipino labor and expertise abroad in response to massive retrenchments worldwide. She stopped by Dubai after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, to appeal to countries in the Middle East to keep Filipinos in their jobs and to hire more.
The government has lifted the ban on the deployment of Filipino workers in war-torn countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and is also reviewing the ban on deployment to Iraq. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the government agency that regulates the recruitment of Filipino workers for overseas jobs, is considering suspending minimum wage provisions in standard employment contracts to boost demand for Filipino workers.
Sana is worried by Arroyo’s aggressive marketing of OFWs. She is concerned that in the government’s haste to look for job opportunities abroad, Filipino workers will be forced to accept jobs even at unfair wages or exploitative conditions. “There should be a way for the government to buoy up the economy so that jobs can be created here and give workers options,” she says.
But more worrying for Sana is the strong likelihood that Filipino workers themselves will willingly accept, if not offer, these conditions just to keep their jobs or land a new one.
“The desperate lose their sense of dignity,” she says.
Some employers are using the recession as an excuse to not comply with the conditions set in the working contracts, according to Erwin Puhawan, paralegal officer of Kanlungan Centre Foundation.
For the past three months, Kanlungan has been receiving several e-mails from workers in Saudi Arabia, complaining that their employers refused to pay them wages, citing the recession as an excuse. Puhawan also notes rising incidence of trafficking and illegal recruitment as people become desperate for work. “Many leave, but many also come home in tears,” he says.
In spite of tougher working conditions in countries going through severe slowdown or even recession, thousands of Filipinos are still desperate for overseas jobs.
“I have debts to pay,” Noemi Matabiog says when asked why she chose to apply as a saleslady in Dubai instead of going home to Davao. Noemi borrowed money just to raise the placement fee to Taiwan, and it’s impossible for her to pay her debts unless she worked abroad.
To their credit, Philippine labor officials have also introduced programs to help overseas Filipino workers who want to come home and try looking for a local job or set up a small business.
Those seeking local employment are referred to appropriate companies and are even given vocational training to upgrade or diversify their skills. Returning OFWs who want to set up a business are given business counseling and training worth around P10,000, which qualifies them to apply for a
collateral-free P50,000 loan that they can use to buy equipment or as working capital.
Arroyo allotted a P1-billion livelihood support fund this year to help OFWs displaced by the crisis. The fund – sourced from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and government lending institutions like the Development Bank of the Philippines and the Land Bank of the Philippines - will be used to capitalize small businesses to be established by the displaced Filipino workers.
It’s still early to tell if the entrepreneurship program will indeed provide the long-term solution to an expected rise in unemployment owing to the crisis. A business takes time to grow, and will not provide for a family’s immediate needs.
But Mike Bolos is one migrant rights advocate who welcomes the promotion of entrepreneurship among former OFWs.
“Setting up a business is one economic activity that has a multiplier effect. It will provide livelihood to many people,” he says.
Bolos’s optimism stems from his personal experience and advocacy. He was in Saudi Arabia for over 25 years, enjoying a cushy job as a corporate comptroller while at the same time volunteering to help abused OFW s in the Middle East. But in 2005, Bolos decided to leave Saudi Arabia.
“I wanted to seek a better reason for living,” he explains, believing that returning to the Philippines will allow him to help more people. He set
up several businesses—including a spa in Pasay and a minimall in his hometown in Guagua, Pampanga.
Despite difficulties that included prohibitive local taxes, red tape, and petty corruption, Bolos feels fulfilled. His businesses provide jobs and income not only for 50 or so direct employees but also suppliers of good and services, such as security guards, and makers of oils and cosmetics for his spa.
Fortunately for Bolos, he has his own savings, contacts, and skills to rely on toward modest success as an entrepreneur. But those with limited resources can at least tap other means to finance their dream business. They can either go to OWW A or perhaps avail themselves of livelihood grants such as those provided by Kanlungan.
One of Kanlungan’s beneficiaries is Natividad Garces, a former domestic worker. She left her abusive employers in Saudi Arabia in December last year and, thanks to a friend’s referral, found some respite in Kanlungan.
After undergoing psychological counseling, Garces participated in an entrepreneurship training workshop sponsored by Kanlungan. Garces wants to avail herself of a business grant from Kanlungan to put up a stall selling toys and plastic wares in front of her house in Malabon. “My child persuaded me to just put up a store here and not go back abroad,” she says.
But Kanlungan social workers say that she can only do that if she provides them with a business plan. She’s now busy writing one, hoping that this will be a first step to a better future for her and her family.
To be sure, entrepreneurship is not for everybody.
Most of the returning overseas Filipino workers who sought assistance from the labor department’s national reintegration center wanted to eventually leave in the future, though they are exploring local opportunities in the meantime.
“Nine out of ten displaced OFW s that we assist still want to work abroad,” says lawyer Teresita Manzala, deputy director of the center.
Indeed, departures by jobseekers rose 25 percent from a year earlier to 165,000 in January, POEA administrator Jennifer Manalili announced in February. The preliminary data surprised even government officials, who were expecting the 5.8-percent decline in overseas job placements in December to continue.
Even Cabuena, who was fired from her Taiwanese semiconductor factory job late last year and is now saddled with huge debt to repay her P80,000 placement fee, is planning to apply again for an overseas job, preferably a caregiving post in Canada.
Before leaving to work in a semiconductor factory in Taiwan, she already finished a six-month caregiver course and tried to work as a caregiver in Davao to get the experience she needs to eventually migrate to Canada - her original target destination.
“They say it’s nice in Canada and that you can become a citizen after living there for two years,” Cabuena says, wishing very hard for her dream to finally come true.
In spite of her misfortunes and travails in Taiwan - which included not just being prematurely fired but also working nights and getting used to a new,
strange diet - Cabuena is determined to leave the country.
With or without the global recession, she believes she cannot find a well-paying job here. Resigned to her fate of working abroad, she says:
“Life is very hard here!”