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LABOUR-PHILIPPINES: Bleak New Year For Migrant Workers

Prime Sarmiento

MANILA, Dec 28 2008 (IPS) - Diovie Arcilla is happy to be home for Christmas. This Singapore-based computer programmer values being with her family and friends in the holiday season. But news that some of her colleagues have been retrenched is making Arcilla anxious.

The 25-year-old professional has plans for herself and her family. However, with the uncertainty brought on by the economic crisis, Arcilla has decided that this is not the time to make major changes in her life.

"I have to think twice before making any decision," she said. Arcilla is watching her budget carefully and she has postponed plans to pursue further studies next year. Her dream of graduating in psychology and managing a small business with her parents will have to be shelved.

Arcilla’s concerns reflect those of millions of Filipino migrant workers who are nervous that they may lose their jobs owing to the global recession.

The Philippines is among the world’s biggest labour exporting countries, with around nine million Filipinos now working overseas. Most of them left their homeland hoping to get a job and provide a better life for their families.

Migration has helped most Filipino families to rise from poverty and remittances have buoyed the country’s economy.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has appealed to labour receiving countries to recognise the positive contributions of migrant workers and not stop hiring them even if the global economy slackens.

"Let’s not make a migrant crisis out of an economic crisis. Keeping sight of the fact that migrants are part of the solution for both countries of origin and destination can help in coming out of this crisis sooner rather than later," IOM director general William Lacy Swing said in a press statement last week.

Swing said that migrant workers fill up the labour shortages – especially in the crucial healthcare sector – in host countries. Most of the labour receiving countries in Europe and the Americas have aging working populations and they import nurses and caregivers from developing countries like the Philippines to fill the gap.

"Although the economic crisis is still unfolding and its full impact remains unclear, it would be counter-productive for governments in developed countries to close their doors to migrants. Many of them are still needed in jobs that citizens in industrialised countries are unable or unwilling to take," Swing said.

It remains unclear, however, if labour receiving countries such as the United States, Britain, Japan and Taiwan will heed the advice. Not only are companies cautious of hiring new employees, but they are also retrenching workers as business slackens.

The world’s biggest economy, the U.S., is reeling from a credit crunch which saw companies retrenching two million workers this year and drove the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent, the highest since 1993.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) forecast as early as October that the global economic crisis will result in the loss of some 20 million jobs. ILO director general Juan Somavia also warned that millions of migrant workers are not only vulnerable to layoffs but also to worsening employment conditions.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said Filipino migrant workers in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Macau might be retrenched as these countries are among the most vulnerable.

The POEA said that, as of November, over 2,000 Filipino factory workers in Taiwan have been retrenched. Taiwan’s manufacturing firms are among those hit hard by the crisis as they export products to the U.S.

Philippine labour secretary Marianito D. Roque forecast that 50,000 Filipino migrant workers – especially those working in factories and on cruise ships -– may lose their jobs as the recession worsens.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has directed the POEA to identify locations that offer job opportunities to overseas Filipino workers in response to these massive layoffs. Arroyo said Guam, the United Arab Emirates and Canada are some of the countries which are still looking for new employees.

Arroyo has also instructed the labour department to allocate P 250 million (about five million US dollars) for the Filipino expatriate livelihood support fund to cushion the impact of the global economic meltdown.

But even if there are jobs available, some aspiring migrant workers from the Philippines may not have the required skills.

In a press briefing held last week, IOM regional representative for East Asia, Charles Harns, said the demand for healthcare professionals will remain strong with or without the crisis. "There is a structural need for migrants. Developed countries have an aging population but no one’s taking care of them," he said.

Teresita I. Barcelo, governor of the Philippine Nurses Association, told IPS in an interview that this presents a lot of opportunities for the Philippines, which is the world’s leading supplier of nurses. However, most nursing graduates are not qualified to work overseas and lack the required experience.

The global economic crisis has slowed the inflow of remittances from migrant Filipino workers. Remittances peak during the fourth quarter of the year as migrant workers send money to their families for the Christmas spending.

But in October, remittances from Filipinos based overseas dropped to 1.43 billion dollars. This represents a 3.3 percent growth rate, its weakest pace in over a year, according to data presented by the Central Bank of the Philippines.

The remittances have buoyed the Philippine economy for the past few years. Overseas-based Filipinos remit over 12 billion dollars each year. Remittances account for 10 percent of the country’s domestic product and fuel local consumption.

Ildefonso Bagasao, president of the Economic Resource Centre for Overseas Filipinos, believes that the government should harness these remittances to build infrastructure and develop an economy that is strong enough to provide jobs. Migration could then be a matter of choice, not necessity, for Filipinos, he said.

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