Arroyo delivers blunt message to overseas workers

By Marites Sison, IPS, Asia Times 24 August 2001

MANILA—No one can fault President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for being forthright on the issue of the Philippines' labor export policy, first designed as a temporary economic measure but now entering its 27th year.

Overseas Filipino workers should stay where they are and not think of coming home, she said recently, because the country's faltering economy still cannot absorb them. She reiterated this in a dinner with Filipino overseas laborers, mostly domestic workers, who shelled out hard-earned money to hear her speak at a plush hotel during a state visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this month.

However, these were not the words that overseas workers and their families—there are some 7 million Filipinos working in all continents of the world—said they needed to hear from the president.

It's sad. It looks like there really is no hope for Filipinos to stay in their own country, said Fe Nicodemus, chairperson of Association of Relatives of Filipino Migrant Workers, known by its Filipino acronym Kakammpi and which offers support for the overseas workers' families.

Nicodemus says workers hoped the Arroyo government would veer away from the policy introduced by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s to export labor as a way to replenish the country's dwindling dollar reserves. At the time, the government saw the promotion of labor exports as a way of keeping unemployment down and earning foreign exchange. But the export of human labor continued to grow since then, becoming the country's lifeline whenever hard times hit in the last three decades.

But it looks like things are not going to change, added Nicodemus, whose husband worked in Saudi Arabia for 15 years until he was retrenched in 1999.

Alfredo Ganapin, who has worked as a veterinarian for the Saudi Ministry of Health in Riyadh since 1991, said Arroyo's statement only reinforces the government position which sees workers as nothing but commodities.

Malu Padilla of the European Union-wide Filipino migrant women's network Babaylan says that that Arroyo's statements showed once again that government is just looking at us with dollar signs; as people who will pour in the dollars but are not really partners in development.

The Philippines is the second largest labor exporting country in the world, and its 7 million overseas workers comprise 20 percent of the labor force. Some 840,000 people go overseas each year, most of them to Asian destinations and to the Middle East. This week, the labor department reported that the number of overseas workers going to Japan rose by 21 percent in the first half of the year, compared to the same period last year. That marked the largest increase in overseas deployment to one country among the top destinations for overseas workers.

Nearly half of the country's 76 million people depend on overseas workers to survive, according to the Hong Kong-based Asian Migrant Center. Remittances from overseas amount to US$9 billion yearly, making labor export the single largest dollar earner for the country.

With a budget deficit of more than 220 billion pesos ($4.4 billion) and prospects for an economic recovery dim, Arroyo was simply being realistic when she asked overseas Filipinos stay away from home. A worldwide recession and downturn in demand for exports, compounded by an unstable peace and order situation, are taking its toll on the economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects economic growth to slow down from last year's 4 percent to 3.2 percent this year. Unemployment, which stood at 13.9 percent last year, has increased to some 15 percent in the first quarter of 2001.

Preliminary results of the Family Income Expenditure Survey (FIES) in July showed that poverty incidence in the country rose from 31.8 percent in 1997 to 34.2 percent in 2000. Self-rated poverty is higher at 40 percent, says Teresita Quintos-Deles of the National Anti-Poverty Commission. This is the first time since the post-Marcos era that poverty incidence increased; all FIES surveys in 1988, 1991, 1994 and 1997 showed declines in poverty, the survey said.

The Asian financial crisis and the effects of the El Nino and La Nina weather phenomena in the rural areas were cited as major factors affecting the number of poor households in the Philippines. Last year's economic and political crises resulting from the impeachment of former president Joseph Estrada also dealt a blow on the economy. Poverty thresholds have increased: A family of six today needs around 9,000 pesos a month to meet subsistence needs, compared to about 7,000 pesos in 1997. Daily wages, however, have not increased from 220 pesos.

Still, Nicodemus says, many overseas workers hope the government would manage to get the economy back on its feet so that Filipinos will not need to go abroad for jobs. Studies have pointed to the toll exacted by migration on workers and families left behind as well as the abuse suffered by some overseas workers in the hands of employers as reasons for the government to actively design ways to cut back on labor exports.

Nicodemus says Arroyo's recent extolling of overseas Filipino workers as overseas Filipino investors was hardly a consolation. What Filipino overseas workers need, she adds, is assurance that their rights would be amply protected while they are away in a foreign land.

Padilla says that by calling overseas workers investors, Arroyo was trying unsuccessfully to dignify the position of workers. Ganapin and Padilla say the government needs to show real action by plugging the loopholes that allow their exploitation in foreign lands, especially because laws in host countries often do not cover domestic or other work held by foreign migrants.

Ganapin said that many, especially those working as janitors and maids in the Middle East, still fall victim to contract substitution. For instance, a worker signs a two-year contract in Manila to work as a janitor for a certain fee, but is forced upon his arrival in the Middle East to sign another contract, in Arabic, for half the first amount. Yet up to now, the government has no centralized data on how many workers have suffered abuses at the hands of foreign employers, Ganapin pointed out. The government is only interested in success stories, he said.

Nicodemus agrees. She says that over breakfast with overseas workers' groups at the presidential palace on August 21, Arroyo did not ask them what their problems were—and they had been instructed not to raise them in the first place.