Time to stop cycle of migration

>> Friday, February 19, 2016

By Val G. Abelgas

The government is bracing for a conceivably crippling crisis involving the possible layoff of some 1.5 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) currently employed as temporary workers in the Middle East because of the precipitous slide in world oil prices in the recent weeks.
These temporary workers account for about 75% of the more than 2 million OFWs in the region. President Aquino, according to Malacanang spokesmen, has ordered the Department of Labor to prepare measures to soften the impact of the impending job losses.
Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma hailed his boss as being “pro-active” on the situation, saying that the President is acting on the problem although “there is no indication yet that it is happening.”
I can’t see how acting while the country is about to fall on the precipice can be considered “pro-active.” The President is, in fact, merely reacting to an almost certain crisis. If he were a “pro-active” President, Aquino should have on his first year in office instructed his labor and economic managers to prepare an exit plan from the country’s dependence on foreign labor deployment, knowing fully well that doing so could spell trouble for the country’s economy and population.
While the Migrante International, which is tracking OFW developments all over the world, has warned of the stark possibility of the massive job losses in the Middle East, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz remains optimistic and says that massive retrenchment of OFWs in the Middle East is “far from happening.”
Baldoz pointed to the latest data from the DOLE’s field offices in the Middle East showing that job losses for the January reporting period had so far been either negligible or altogether non-existent. In the eastern Saudi region (where the bulk of its oil industry is based), labor officials reported a 1.1-percent decrease in job orders or employment contracts processed between December 2015 and January 2016.
She reports a continued decrease in job orders in other places in the region, but she describes it as “negligible.” She said the job losses can be attributed more to the “Saudization” of the labor force rather than the glut in global oil supply that has resulted in the sudden drop of world oil prices.
Oil prices have sunk to below $30 a barrel, the lowest level in 12 years, before making a slight recovery amid a glut due to additional supply in the United States, refusal of the Oil Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut production and the economic slowdown in China. The end of Western sanctions on Iran is expected to worsen the glut.
Since the middle of 2014, the price of a barrel of crude has fallen more than 70 percent. Because of the prolonged price slump, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, suffered a budget deficit of about $100 billion in 2015, forcing it to cut subsidies and scale down public projects. Other oil exporters in the Middle East are in similar straits.
These can only mean an economic slowdown in the region, which, in turn, could easily translate to less demand for workers not only in the oil industry, but also in a broad spectrum of businesses, including construction where the bulk of Filipino workers are employed outside of the oil industry.
And yet, the Aquino administration seems optimistic that those to be displaced can easily find jobs that are currently available in the country. Maybe if only 50,000 were to be displaced, but what if even just half of the 1.5 million temporary workers in the Middle East were laid off?
Where will all these 750,000 suddenly unemployed Filipinos find jobs? How will they support their families? Can you imagine that many people suddenly returning to the country and laying idle for months, or possibly years?
The Aquino administration, which has benefitted from the ever-increasing money remittances of the close to 12 million Filipino workers abroad, has opted to continue sending thousands of Filipinos abroad instead of finding ways to achieve “inclusive growth” that would stop the cycle of migration in the country.
The overseas Filipino workers program was initiated by then Labor Secretary Blas F. Ople in the 1970s as a temporary remedy to the unemployment problem. Most countries transitioning from an agricultural-based economy to an industrialized one had to deploy workers abroad at one time or another. Taiwan and South Korea, for example, used to be two of the biggest exporters of labor. But with industrialization, their citizens now stay at home and travel only as tourists or businessmen.
The same is true with China and India, which are the world’s two biggest labor exporters. They have transitioned to become two of the strongest economies in the world, and will soon be importing instead of exporting labor. The Philippines, which is the third biggest labor exporter, remains poor and unable to provide jobs to its population.
UnladKabayan, a non-profit based in the Philippines, said “There is a definite cycle of migration: Filipino workers go abroad, earn a little, return to the Philippines, use up the savings, and then work abroad again. The challenge is to break this cycle, and provide an alternative to migration.”
Indeed, the government has to start refocusing its priorities to stop this “culture of migration” and keep its workers home, so that they don’t have to suffer the indignities of working for foreigners and their children don’t have to grow up without their parents.
But lulled into complacency by the sweet scent of the dollar, our leaders would rather keep the status quo, never mind what ills it would bring in the future.
During his campaign for the presidency, candidate Noynoy Aquino said of his vision on the issue of the OFWs: “From a government that treats its people as an export commodity and a means to earn foreign currency to a government that creates jobs at home so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity; and when its citizens do choose to become OFWs, their welfare and protection will still be the government’s priority.”
Aquino even boasted in his last State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) that the number of OFWs have been reduced due to improved local job generation.
But Migrante said that under the Aquino administration, the number of OFWs leaving the country increased due to chronic joblessness and low wages – from 2,500 daily before Aquino assumed office in 2009, to 4,018 in 2010, to 6,092 daily by early 2015 citing Department of Labor and Employment data.
Migrante added that Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) data showed that the Aquino government has breached the two million mark in OFW deployment processing in 2013, the highest record in the history of Philippine labor export.
Migrante agreed with Aquino that there has been a notable “reverse migration” from the Middle East, but it is not because the country has attained “inclusive growth” as claimed by Aquino, but because civil unrests, calamities, economic instabilities and other similar factors in migrant-receiving countries.
With the continuous repatriation of distressed OFWs from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, and the deportation of undocumented OFWs from Europe, Canada and the United States, the government should start thinking “long-term” in addressing the problem.

Instead of staying in denial, the government should accept the fact that the Philippine economy can’t depend on foreign remittances to maintain its growth. It should work on the premise that it has to provide jobs to stop the cycle of migration and maintain a stable and “inclusive” economic growth.(valabelgas@aol.com)


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