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Myths about OFWs

THERE IS just too much bleeding-heart sentimentalization over overseas Filipino workers, bordering on ridiculousness. They have been practically mythologized, in a manner they themselves would detest.

Yes, there are horror stories—runaways from cruel employers with no one to turn to in a strange land, young women forced into prostitution—but we have to put things in perspective. We are talking here of a population of eight million OFWs, nearly as big as the population of Switzerland or Greece.

One reason for the depiction of OFWs as the downtrodden of the earth is that their alleged plight are being exploited by NGOs, here and abroad, which get donations from European leftist organizations or Christian do-gooder associations, purportedly in order to come to the succor of these “slaves” of global capitalism. More often, though, the donations merely finance the fat salaries (they call it “allowances”) of NGO elites who often have never worked a regular job yet manage to enjoy the comforts of cosmopolitan cities.

With the caricature of OFWs imposed on us, the government has also been at a loss on what polices are really needed not only to assist OFWs themselves, but to harness their income for national development.

Myth 1: “OFWs are our country’s poor, the downtrodden, and they risk life and limb in strange lands for pittance wages.”

Well, they certainly make more than journalists writing about their “plight,” even more than a columnist writing two columns a week for this paper. OFWs’ average salary, based on several surveys by the Asian Development Bank and on extrapolations from total remittances abroad, is P40,000 to P50,000 per month. And that’s not only tax-free (by Philippine law) but often is the net or disposable income since his board and lodging are often free.

A sentence in a recent column by a colleague trying to portray the sufferings of OFWs nearly floored me: “The poor Filipino farm girl arrives in a foreign land and is soon snatched by her strange employer.” Well, in the first place, a poor farm girl doesn’t have any business arriving alone and without any support group even in Metro Manila, where she is as likely to be snatched by strange employers as anywhere in the globe.

Overseas employment, in fact, is closed to our poorest, as literacy and facility in English are prerequisites for work abroad—and I mean all, even for night-life entertainment places, or for farms in Israel. An Asian Development Bank survey in 2004 found that 58 percent of OFWs surveyed had several years in college, college degrees or even masteral units or degrees, while 28 percent had gone only through high school.

In fact, the reason there has been a massive migration of workers abroad is not because of extreme poverty in our country, but because OFWs are so skilled, likeable and English-literate that there is a huge global demand for them.

Rather than the poorest, the typical OFW comes from the C+ class. They are not starving, and they live in decent houses.  OFWs who come from towns outside metro Manila are not “poor farm girls” but mostly what we would consider the middle class in those areas. The impetus for their working abroad is a very strong and admirable sense of ambition that they could move out of the C class into which they and their fathers had been born, that they could finally build their own concrete house, and put their children to college in Manila.

In an ADB survey, the usual, expected response in focus-group discussions to the question why they decided to work abroad was that they wanted to have a higher income to uplift their families’ status. However, just as important a reason were “the perks and excitement of travelling abroad, the adventure.”

One little-appreciated fact in our OFW phenomenon is that it represents the Filipino females’ massive and liberating entry into the work force, in the manner that American women really first got into the workforce in World War II. While this has entailed risks to Filipino women—and the horror stories of OFWs indeed involves mainly domestic female workers—such risks have also emerged whenever females have left the protection of the home to work in a male-dominated world.

One characteristic of OFWs is their gutsiness, their willingness to take risks, as in going to a strange land to work, often even illegally. One term I often heard from OFWs when asked why they decided to work abroad: “makipagsapalaran.”  That is a beautiful Filipino term with the root word meaning “fate.”  “Makipagsapalaran” is to test fate, with the connotation of being bold in doing so. This characteristic is the reason many returning OFWs have become leaders, even politicians, in their towns.

What’s also admirable about OFWs is that while they live austere lives abroad, they send much of their income (averaging 60 percent, according to the ADB study) to their families back home, even when these already have comfortable lives or even if their children are already productive grown-ups. The more common horror story about OFWs is how their children or spouses splurge their remittances on the latest cell-phone model and designer clothes.

Myth 2:  “OFWs are unskilled workers, and the typical OFW is a domestic helper exploited cruelly like slaves.”

That may be true in certain places like Hong Kong and Singapore, but it is not representative of the current stock of OFWs. Using data on the deployment of OFWs from 1998 to 2000, their main occupations are: production workers—30 percent; professional and white collar staff—28 percent; domestic workers and caregivers—28 percent.

“Production workers” are mostly skilled workers such as electricians, welders, carpenters, auto mechanics, crane and earth-moving equipment operators. Their average salary ranges from P60,000 to P80,000.

On the other hand, in North America and Northern Europe the stereotype of an OFW is that of a professional often making more than P100,000 a month: engineers, hotel supervisors,  nurses and medical technicians.

Of course domestic help and caregivers make up a significant percentage of OFWs, and in several Western European countries, the stereotype of a Filipino is either a female domestic help or a male household maintenance man. That doesn’t mean that they are poor or necessarily exploited.  The standard wage for a domestic help in Greece, where I had been ambassador, was 900 euros (P55,000). An OFW there who became a good friend of mine earns enough to be able to visit the Philippines twice a year and to have two residences, one in her hometown and another in Metro Manila.

To portray OFWs as our poorest, and even to weep for them as if they were wimps or refugees from poverty, is to denigrate them and to miss their audacity.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer