The Province of OFWs
A Contrarian View
By Godofredo U. Stuart Jr.

Mga bagong bayani--"new heroes"--we have been hearing it a lot lately from politicians, economists, and media folk paying tribute to OFWs—Overseas Filipino Workers—as economic saviors, infusing the nation's coffers with more than 30 billion dollars of legal remittances annually, not including the 10 or 15 billion dollars more slipping through underground transfers and remittances and countless balikbayan boxes. While the Philippines is the fourth largest recipient of official remittances, after China, India, and Mexico, OFW remittances represent 13.5% of the country's GDP, the largest in proportion to the domestic economy of the four countries. These remittances are the country's second largest source of foreign reserves, more than the GDP contribution of foreign direct investments.

It has been a long and continuing exodus. In the 60s it was referred to as the "brain drain"—mostly, the educated middle class of doctors, nurses, engineers, and many college-graduate adventurists. In the past two decades, "brain waste" became the familiar term, OFWs seeking employment in endeavors rather than their graduate skills—doctors becoming nurses, nurses becoming care givers, many others reinventing their lives for whatever opportunities that present. The exodus continues to swell, a desperate diaspora of the masa, millions seeking that greener pasture—someplace, somewhere, anywhere—that can restore some dignity into their lives, some hope in a future.

I have always taken the time to listen to their stories 'why.' Many leave because of hopelessness and helplessness, their lives lived in the dreadful poor man's mantra of isang-kahig-isang-tuka. Who would dare blame them? Some speak of an inexplicable lament and disillusionment—that there is nothing this country can give them, nothing that could hold them to stay, nothing that inspires them. I have borrowed that hackneyed phrase so often: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I try to talk of passion, but my metaphors fail; still, I try, almost imploring: Don't lose the passion. Come back. . . . sometime.

Sadly, many lose the passion for country, like many of those in the early brain-drain era who left, never to return, embracing the alien cultures of their greener pastures, replete with petitioned families; or if they do return, only to visit, to satisfy residual or recurrent yearning for country, or to enjoy the material rewards of their sacrifices.

The exodus that has been going on for six decades has evolved into a desperate diaspora—10 million or more OFWs, and every day adding another 5,000 to 6,000 departing for OFW deployment. These are numbers that challenge the President's wishful political assertion that the number of OFWs has been reduced due to improved local job generation.

The math is mind boggling: 5,000 to 6,000 new OFWs a day, over 150,000 a month, an estimated 1.8 to 2 million a year added to the 10-12 million OFWs on record. The numbers boggle, indeed, not only in estimated $30 billion infused (an average of $2,500 per OFW), but in what the12 million OFWs represent in the country's population of 100 million—over 10% of the population, or about 30% of the 40 million young and middle-aged employable population, aged 25-54. (1)

This on-going exodus translates into 30 billion plus dollars in remittances—in the minds of many, billions that shore up the economy to the great delight and undeserved hubris of government —that buoys up the industry of condominiums and demands of consumerism, together with trickle-down contributions to countless small town businesses and underground economies, without which the economy would surely be floundering.

The government christened them "economic heroes." And politicians, media folk, and most of civil society joined in the chorus of "new heroes" or "bagong bayani."

Economic saviors, perhaps; but heroes? . . . No. Let us not diminish and trivialize the hero ideal.

No OFW left with the hero purpose in mind. The early OFW narrative was a diasporic mix of adventure, intellectual uplifting, and searching for greener pastures. Later, the exodus swelled with desperate millions leaving for sheer survival, hoping for work deployment that can provide for dignity and dreams to their lives.

For millions of OFWs, the dreams became realities: life infused with dignity and heretofore unimaginable comforts, essentials, and accoutrements of life: a condo, a car, taxi, jeepney, or tricycle, boondock houses upgraded with cement walls, the education of a sibling or two, better food on the table, livestock, and the countless balikbayan boxes full of pasalubongs and bilins.

And it comes at the price of separation, heartaches, longing—the painful separation of fathers from their loved ones and the unimaginable sadness of mothers watching their children grow through skype. In their chosen land of promise, many become victims of discrimination, maltreatment, and exploitation, unfair labor practices and non-payment of wages, unsanitary living conditions, beatings and sexual abuse, rape and prostitution, and many occasions that tantamount to enslavement and human trafficking. There are many tragic stories buried in the OFW saga, often silenced by employer threats of countercharges and deportation or concealed behind closed doors of privacy, many so familiar that they have become ho-hum stories, except for the rare story that makes headline or prime time news, that evokes short-lived outcry and outrage.

The hero attribution serves to politically assuage the government's shame for its failure to provide Filipinos the opportunities to forge a life at home. But in a country chronically plagued by unemployment (7.2%) and underemployment (19.4%), the migration is opportune, a veritable political deus ex machina. While government celebrates the bounty of remittances and clicks its heels in delight, it is shameless in its failure to alleviate and protect the OFWs from the long list of inequities and miseries that beset them. The bureaucratic high-jacking of balikbayan boxes adds salt to the wound, while the taxmen drool at the potential in taxes.

This diasporic population of 12 million or more OFWs is larger than the combined population of three of the most populated provinces in the country. It might be apt to consider the OFW population as a province of the OFWs, a province without borders. Besides its remittances, it is a potentially powerful block of votes—more than the Iglesia ni Cristo voting machinery—that can be an awesome political instrument for change. It can start by demanding of government and politicians the rights, protection, and privileges due them.

Economic saviors. . . not heroes. This contrarian opinion is not meant to denigrate OFWs, (I have written an earlier contrarian essay on Heroes, and a rant and rave against someone who dared called Filipinos lazy: The Lazy Filipino? . . . Not) but to celebrate their spirit, their willingness and sacrifice to suffer separation from family and loved ones, just so they can dream and hope again, and walk with dignity in their lives.

Saviors, not heroes; many among them, victims. The recent decades of exodus were fueled by chronic political corruption and government apathy to the plight of the masa, driving millions from a country depleted of opportunities. We should take umbrage at shameless claims that the migration has slowed down because of new opportunities at home. The exodus will continue unless real change occurs, until the corruption and greed that rule the hearts and pockets of politicians bow to the needs of the masa. Sadly, many among us have resigned to the horrifying likelihood that the change we dream of and long for. . . will not be in our lifetime.

This continuing exodus should not be celebrated as collective heroism, but rather as a lamentation for the millions of Filipinos driven away by hopelessness. Certainly, there must be real hero stories buried in the millions of OFWs; let them be known so we can celebrate them. In the meantime, let me celebrate the true and unsung heroes among those who chose to stay—men and women we take for granted: teachers, doctors, nurses, soldiers, policemen, and countless civil servants, who daily serve with courage, compassion, and inexplicable passion for country.

by Godofredo U. Stuart Jr.                                                                                                          December 2015
Suggested Readings
Philippines Age structure / Index Mundi
Youth Migration from the Philippines: Brain Drain and Brain Waste / Graziano Battistella Karen Anne Sun Liao / UNICEF Philippines and Scalabrini Migration Center / 2013

Heroes / G. Stuart

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