Magazine article Newsweek International

Workers for the World; the Country's Prime Export Is People. but Is Migration a Real Development Strategy?

Magazine article Newsweek International

Workers for the World; the Country's Prime Export Is People. but Is Migration a Real Development Strategy?

Article excerpt

Byline: George Wehrfritz and Marites Vitug

Galicano Solares lives beneath a highway overpass in a dank Manila slum. His on-again, off-again construction job pays $4 a day, considerably more than he earned in the gold mines of Bicol before he moved to the city in the late 1980s. Yet he can't afford to educate his three children--now under the care of relatives in the countryside--let alone build the middle-class future of their dreams. But the 37-year-old with a stubbly chin and sweat stains on his T shirt has one advantage over others in the squatter settlement: his wife is a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia. "If there's an emergency, we call her," he says, "like when one of our children had a fever recently and we needed money for medicine."

That story of economic struggle, multiplied thousands of times over, is the story of the Philippines. Despite the wave of industrial development that has swept much of East Asia in recent decades, the country of 80 million remains extremely poor, mismanaged and still predominantly agrarian. But the Philippines does play a visible role in the global economy, thanks largely to a single export commodity--its people. According to the government, 1 million Filipinos will go abroad as contract workers this year, the biggest exodus ever. "The Philippines has already surpassed Mexico as the largest source of migrant labor in the world," says Manolo I. Abella, a migration specialist at the International Labour Office in Geneva. In all, about 8 million Filipinos--an astounding one tenth of the country's citizens--currently work overseas to support families back home. They remit more than $7 billion annually, according to the government, but that's only official transfers. A recent Asian Development Bank report put the real figure in the $14 billion to $21 billion range--a sum that dwarfs both foreign direct investment and aid flowing into the country, and amounts to 32 percent of GNP.

In the past, the Philippines was shamed by its inability to create enough good jobs to keep its people at home. But hard economic reality--a 14 percent unemployment rate and one of the highest poverty indexes in the world (nearly half the population subsists on less than $2 a day)--has shifted the sentiment. Today, in a move that countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh are likely to emulate, the government takes the position that, like it or not, the overseas workers constitute the nation's biggest comparative advantage in an increasingly borderless world. And so Manila makes it easy for its citizens to emigrate, and works hard, through its embassies, to see that their rights as foreign workers are protected. When extremists took a Filipino truck-driver hostage in Iraq recently, for example, Manila agreed to withdraw its contingent of soldiers there to win his release.

Unlike much of East Asia, where plummeting fertility rates are the norm, the Philippines could see its population balloon to 130 million by 2050. Experts say the country would explode if the flow of migrants were halted. "I've always viewed [overseas employment] as a safety valve," Labor and Employment Secretary Patricia A. Sto. Tomas told NEWSWEEK. "If you prevent them from going to Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia, you might have a revolution on your hands." That risk, combined with official helplessness to fix the local economy, has forced Manila to reconsider migration in a fundamental way. Its new--and more controversial--position: "Our traits as a people lend ourselves well to being part of the [global] service industry," says Tomas. "Perhaps that is what globalization means to us."

Labor migration is as old as the nation-state. Millions of Irish fled a devastating potato famine between 1846 and 1848, Chinese fanned out across Southeast Asia for similar reasons in the 19th century and India suffered a postcolonial brain drain that has only recently begun to reverse itself. Yet both the volume of today's labor outflow from the Philippines, and the extent to which Manila facilitates it, are unique. …

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