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PHILIPPINES: Belt-tightening by Migrant Workers Unfelt at Home

BATANGAS, Philippines, Dec 19 2009 (IPS) - The global financial crisis may have dealt a severe blow to Filipino migrant workers, thousands of whom lost their jobs and fell into debt. But public schoolteacher Melinda Mendoza does not see this impact at all — at least not within the four walls of her classroom.

On the contrary, Mendoza, 45, is bothered no end by her pupils’ ostentatious display of opulence in a poor rural setting, where luxury is atypical.

“They have huge allowances,” says the teacher of 21 years in the government-run Pulong Anahao Elementary School, located in the town of Mabini here in Batangas province, a two-hour drive south of Manila.

On top of that, the students own electronic gadgets like mobile phones that are no match to those of a public school teacher like Mendoza. She earns a measly few thousands of pesos a month, hardly enough to buy a high-end unit that is a status symbol in this South-east Asian country, at least 30 percent of whose 90 million people live in poverty.

Mendoza says about half of her students are children of migrant workers, a great majority of whom work in Italy as domestic helpers, caregivers, nannies or factory workers.

These children’s parents earn what they can never earn in the Philippines, which has become the world’s largest exporter of human labour after its workers began going overseas in droves in the seventies. Today, Filipino domestic workers in Italy earn 60,000 to 80,000 pesos (1,287 to 1,717 U.S. dollars), or a lot more, a month.

“There is dependence on remittances among families,” says Ricardo Casco, national officer for labour migration support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Based on 2007 data from the World Bank, the Philippines ranks fourth globally in terms of remittances received, next to India, China and Mexico. In 2007, its remittances reached a whopping 14.45 billion dollars, up from only 103 million U.S. dollars in 1975.

Like many Filipino workers abroad, those in Italy were not spared by the crisis late last year that have since forced many offshore companies either to close shop or cut production, says Estrella Dizon-Añonuevo, executive director of Atikha Overseas Workers and Communities Initiatives.

A migrant worker’s monthly take of 1,500 euros (2,150 dollars) in Italy was reduced by half as a result of the crisis. Remittances to families in the Philippines in some instances dwindled by 15 to 20 percent at the height of the downturn, she says.

Yet, many Filipino workers scrimped and saved to ensure that they maintained the same level of financial support they had been giving to their families, says Añonuevo, whose NGO conducts financial literacy among migrant workers as part of its advocacy.

“There was belt-tightening among migrants,” she points out. Some were forced to live with fellow workers to save on rent and keep money that otherwise should have gone to their own basic needs.

But Añonuevo also says the hardships these migrant workers endured hardly ever figured in discussions between migrant parents and their children in the Philippines that are often held through today’s modern technologies, including the Internet.

It was not uncommon to hear of Filipinos holding down several part-time jobs at the same time in order to continue sending remittances home. “What is the purpose of spending the best years of your life anyway?” asks IOM’s Casco.

This is why schoolteacher Mendoza hardly sees signs of migrant parents’ economic problems affecting her students’ lifestyles. Every day, in fact, she sees how the class divide plays out in her classroom.

At lunch breaks, she says, one can see who the children of overseas Filipino workers are – or OFW, as they are commonly called in the Philippines – and who are not. They have packed lunches and snacks – and money to buy more food in the school canteen – while many of the latter subsist on so little or none at all.

“I usually tell my students to share their food with those of their classmates who have no food,” she says.

Mendoza worries that her students exemplify a materialistic bent born of a culture that has become dependent on remittances sent by their migrant- worker parents.

The village of Anahao, which has a population of less than a thousand, has benefitted quite a lot from the wave of migration for labour.

This was especially so in the nineties, when a village woman, unable to land a job even if she was a college graduate, packed her bags and left for Italy to work as a domestic helper. It did not take long before others followed in her footsteps, literally, inspired by her example and the fortunes that going overseas seemed to have brought her.

Soon, Anahao itself began to change. European-style mansions replaced wooden structures typical of a rural setting, earning it the moniker ‘Little Italy’. Farming was the main source of villagers’ income until the 90s, when families became entirely dependent on remittances and gave up ploughing.

Today, 15 percent of Mabini town’s residents works overseas. Seventy-two percent of them work in Italy, 10 percent in the Middle East while the rest is in the United States, Asia and elsewhere in the world.

Within and outside the village of Anahao and other parts of Mabini, one can hardly miss the telltale signs of a rural town that has tasted progress. Many more concrete houses are being built, expensive vehicles being driven around – among others to ferry children to school such as Mendoza’s – and private schools whose total enrollment far exceeds those of state-owned schools, because migrant parents equate them with better education.

“They even go to expensive hospitals,” says Esperanza Balita, a municipal employee who was once a migrant worker herself.

Realty property taxes, an indicator of land and home ownership, have nearly doubled over the last decade, from 17 million pesos in 1998 to 31 million pesos (365,000 to 665,378 dollars) in the first quarter of this year.

Meantime, the outflow of migrant workers continues from a country that already has some 10 percent of its population working overseas in 190 countries. In 2008, at least 1.3 million Filipinos left for overseas work. Local communities worry about the continued social cost of migration, regardless of how hard times are putting great pressure on migrant parents overseas.

Village chief Raymundo Magsino, in an interview with IPS, says a number of youth in his community have dropped out of school, not for lack of resources as is often the case in many poverty-stricken areas of the country, and certainly not because of the economic crunch, but for sheer lack of interest.

Many young people here know they will be going to Italy anyway to join their parents, who, in less than a year of working there, provided they already have a working visa, are entitled to petition and have their children join them before they turn 18, explains Magsino. There, they can pursue their education or take on jobs common among Filipino migrants.

The attraction of leaving the Philippines is so strong that offers of free livelihood training –- so that they are productive while waiting to join their parents –- hardly had any takers, the former police chief rues. Yet these young people while away their time playing ‘tong-its’ –- a popular numbers game in the Philippines – or chatting on their computers or in some Internet shop.

Mabini mayor Nilo Villanueva has far bigger concerns — and they are not about the impact of the financial crisis. “The usual close relationship between parents and children” is gone, he says in a report accompanying the results of a study conducted by his office on migration in his town.

This has been manifested in an increasing number of out-of-school youth, reported cases of rape, annulment of marriage, and a host of other social concerns that, directly or directly, may be attributed to labour migration.

Mendoza, the elementary schoolteacher, shares Villanueva’s concern. One of her pupils, whose parents work in Italy, have stopped coming to school, and she knows that this has nothing to do with the financial crisis.

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

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