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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 17, 2006

COMMENTARY
Consequences of the Philippine diaspora

By Richard Halloran

About 15 years ago, a Filipina caregiver named Fely worked as a maid for a European family in Tokyo, and on her days off, was a baby-sitter for an American woman teaching English. Fely's husband, an engineer, had a job in Malaysia. They supported four sons staying with her parents outside of Manila and were saving up in hopes of one day buying a pig farm.

Since then, the tragedy of Fely's scattered family has been multiplied countless times as hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have been forced to leave their homeland in search of work. Fully 8 million Filipinos are working abroad today 10 percent of the nation's population and 20 percent of its labor force.

Moreover, this export of people has become a mainstay of the otherwise crippled Philippine economy. Filipinos sent home $11 billion last year, or 10 percent of the nation's economy. That is estimated to rise to $12 billion this year. Perhaps double that income comes from funds carried or mailed in from abroad without showing up in banks or tax records.

Professor Belinda Aquino, director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawai'i, points to "push" and "pull" to explain the diaspora. Pushing Filipinos out is a faltering economy that cannot provide enough jobs. Unemployment hovers above eight percent while underemployment, meaning working for only one to three days a week, is running at a crushing 25 percent.

Pulling Filipinos abroad are demands for educated people such as doctors, nurses, caregivers and medical technicians. Japan has just signed an agreement with the Philippines under which 400 nurses and 600 caregivers a year can enter Japan to serve its aging population. Filipina entertainers go on extended tours.

That pull has spread to less- educated people such as manual workers, maids, clerks, bartenders, cooks and waitresses. In underpopulated Saudi Arabia are 500,000 Filipino construction workers. "Filipinos," says Aquino, "are all over the place."

Another push comes from wide disparities in which a few Filipino families have world- class wealth while a large majority are mired in poverty. Corruption is endemic. A managing director of the World Bank, Juan Jose Daboub, said in Manila last week that the Philippines needed "more effective and transparent collection of taxes and better quality of public spending."

Nor are improvements on the horizon. The Asian Development Bank has reported that despite a five percent Philippines growth rate projected for 2007, "job creation is inadequate to make a meaningful dent in unemployment and underemployment."

This adds up, wrote a commentator, Melissa Remulla Briones, to a "wave of hopelessness that is enveloping the country." A 2001 poll found that 20 percent of Filipinos wanted to leave because, she said, "they saw no hope." That figure was up to 25 percent last year, which helped to explain why people in other poor countries were not leaving home in such numbers.

Last year, 193,000 Filipinos went to the Middle East for work. Of those, 7,000 were employed in U.S. facilities in Iraq. Another 155,000 Filipinos went to nations in Asia, including those recruited to work in McDonald's fast-food outlets in western Australia.

The Philippine government encourages people to go abroad. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has proposed training what she called "super-maids," women who would not only clean house and care for children but would be schooled in first aid and escaping from fires in high-rise apartments.

The Philippine president was scheduled to visit Hawai'i yesterday to take part in ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of Filipino immigration to work on plantations here.

Although the dispersed Filipinos are earning far more than they would at home, life is often not easy. About 30,000 Filipinos were caught between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas in the fighting in Lebanon; about 5,500 fled. Another 30,000 were trapped in Israel but apparently suffered little in the Hezbollah rocket attacks.

Three Filipinos recently were kidnapped in Nigeria but were released unharmed. Filipinos seeking work in Israel were forced to pay commissions of $4,200 to get a job. Filipinas have reported that they have been sexually abused by employers or forced into prostitution.

The Roman Catholic Church, sometimes criticized for failing to help overcome poverty in the Philippines, has become a social haven for Filipino expatriates in some places. Near a church on Chung Shan North Road in Taipei on Sunday can be heard the lilting accents of Filipino English, plus Tagalog and other languages from home, mostly, but not always, cheerful.

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.