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This Month's Focus: Filipino expats, expatriates, overseas contract workers, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Rizal, Balikbayans, culture, migration.
I'm leavin' on a jet planeDuring my first few months in Manila, I was intrigued to discover that one of the biggest hits of mid-1998 was that old John Denver song made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary back around '69. Not the original version, but covers by local bands, several of which were floating around the airwaves. Seemed like every time I got in a taxi or entered a department store, the song was playing plaintively in the background. I didn't really mind, being an old sixties hand, but wondered just what the appeal was in pre-millennium Manila.
The answer may have to do with the Republic of the Philippines' major export — human sweat and blood. An estimated 6-7 million Filipinos, a good 10% of the population, live and work abroad. Most are in the Middle East, although large numbers work in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Western Europe, and elsewhere. They remit some $7 billion each and every year, the country's largest single source of foreign exchange. These vital hard currency inflows alleviate pressure on the Central Bank, build houses in depressed rural villages, pay for relatives' badly need operations, and send siblings and cousins to school.
There are two very different types of international Filipinos — balikbayans on the one hand and overseas contract workers (OCWs) on the other. The Marcos regime coined the term balikbayan in the mid-70s, from the Tagalog terms balik (to return) and bayan (town and nation). It was a clever marketing pitch to lure Filipino emigrants, most living in the states, back home as free-spending tourists. Balikbayans continue to send money regularly, and periodically return on nostalgic and triumphant vacations, spinning wonderful tales of the land where the streets are paved with gold, bearing bounteous gifts, and (often) criticizing the many perceived deficiencies of the Philippines as compared to their adopted land across the Pacific.
Of more relevance for understanding the popularity of "Jet Plane" are overseas contract workers (OCWs). During the mid-'80s, major changes in the global economy generated demand for semi-skilled and skilled Filipino workers in the Middle East, Asia, and Western Europe. The Philippines enthusiastically sent its sons and daughters to fill jobs that locals wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole, from Bahrain to Singapore to Qatar to Osaka and all points of the compass in between.
Unlike many other segments of the huddled masses of international migration, overseas Filipinos tend to be educated, literate English speakers. The world's cargo ships have a disproportionate representation of able-bodied Filipino seamen, reflecting the excellence of the Philippines' maritime academies. The mid-management ranks of multinationals around Southeast Asia are dominated by Filipino business graduates who make far more than they could in Manila or Cebu. Some OCWs are professionals (doctors, nurses, engineers, and such). The great majority, however, labor as construction workers, domestics, drivers, dancers, or "entertainers" of one sort or another.
All my bags are packed and ready to goRamon is an OCW who has spent most of the last decade working in the Middle East as a driver and all-purpose domestic. Ramon grew up on a plantation in Negros Occidental, a province in the Visayas famed for its sugar production, landed elites, and tremendous economic fluctuations linked to volatile international commodity markets. Over 70% of cultivated land in Negros Occidental has traditionally been planted in sugar cane, with the industry structured around large haciendas. The large and rapidly growing population still has no major source of sustenance other than back breaking labor on the plantations.
When Ramon was growing up, things weren't so bad. World sugar prices were stable and profitable for the hacenderos, and the mestizo families who owned the plantations ensured that "their" workers had enough rice, provided medical care, and even served as godparents (compadres). However, the severe global recession of the mid-80s plunged 85% of the population into dire poverty and ended the planters' ability (or willingness) to provide for the poor people living and working on their land.
Ramon was one of the fortunate local sons who landed a contract with a Manila manpower agency. By the early 1990s, his Negros town had made a major transition to traditional pottery crafts, which provided somewhat more predictable income and was less strenuous than working the cane fields. By 1995, however, at least half of the families in town were receiving regular overseas remittances from fathers, sons, husbands, or daughters. As a consequence, many had no motivation to work. Why bother when regular monthly remittances provided more income with a lot less effort?
Ramon is proud of what he has accomplished and knows that he has helped his family survive a very difficult decade. When he came home over the recent holiday season, he brought many gifts (pasalubong) that were greatly appreciated and basked happily in the glow of familial appreciation.
However, Ramon's seeming success has come with a steep price tag indeed. He is estranged from his wife, and his children hardly know him other than as a quasi-mythical source of material sustenance. Ramon has suffered incredible mental anguish during his hard years overseas, experiences recurrent bouts of serious depression, and no longer believes in God. His most fervent dream is to return home to stay, but he is terrified of the economic implications. Even though his remittances have built solid houses for his parents and siblings, he hasn't saved any money to speak of and knows there are no jobs in Negros. Besides, he no longer feels that comfortable with his family or his children-strangers.
As he boarded the plane at the Bacolod airport for the hop to Manila and his inevitable rendezvous with the big jet plane back to Riyadh after the holidays, he smiled bravely and waved cheerfully to his family assembled outside the ropes. But as he settled into his seat, his bravado faded, his jackhammer-pounding heart was breaking, and an uncontrollable flow of torrential tears betrayed his pain.
But the dawn is breakin' it's early morn'Unlike well-assimilated Canadian or American balikbayans, OCWs are alienated labor, to use an old leftist term. They are contractually consigned to subservient and marginalized roles and isolated linguistically and culturally in their host countries. Many lead lives of loneliness, deprivation, and terrifying abuse, a reality of which the Filipino people are well aware. Domestic workers abroad are regularly beaten or held captive, and sexual abuse is rampant. The Manila papers generally ignore the issue except for the occasional, predictable outcry after a particularly abusive incident, generally sexual abuse of a maid somewhere in the Middle East.
OCWs are widely depicted as "national heroes," a message that Cory Aquino institutionalized in a 1988 speech to Hong Kong OCWs: "Kayo po ang mga bagong bayani" ("You are the new heroes"). It was the least she could do given that her administration was basically bailed out by the badly needed foreign exchange generated by Filipinos working abroad during those difficult recovery years following the EDSA Revolution. The "OCW as hero" message was perpetuated by Ramos, as epitomized by such events as the "Global Filipino Conference" and exhibits such as "Filipinos Overseas: A Showcase of Excellence." The theme continues to be reflected in the annual holiday dog and pony shows at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, as assembled politicos ritualistically greet returning OCWs, shower them with gifts, and pontificate about their hero status.
But what is a hero in this context? There's a great deal of symbolism involved, much of it wrapped up in the mythology of the great Chinese-mestizo national hero, Jose Rizal. The evolution of Filipino nationalism has played out against the tableau of the messianic life of Rizal, replete with recurrent themes of suffering, obligation (damayan), and self-sacrifice. These are, of course, the same themes reflected in Christ's passion, not to mention reminiscent of the martyrdom of Ninoy Aquino, another Filipino whose impact has been substantially greater in death than it ever was as here-on-earth leader.
This "hero worship", however, is somewhat hollow, and the negative aspects of exported Filipino labor are swept neatly under the sociohistorical carpet. These are human beings, not commodities, although the distinction is increasingly lost in current discourse. Among the issues ignored are the emotional devastation of broken families, the nastiest sort of human exploitation and human trafficking, and the inability of Philippine embassies abroad to protect their own citizens.
While the underlying national embarrassment (hiya, or shame) rears its head from time to time in the Manila papers, most of the time the drumbeat concentrates on the heroic work of the OCWs as saviors of the Philippine economy. The one-sided debate continues to be dominated by the flying banner of nationalism. The country simply could not survive without the overseas remittances, and the ugly reality is that there are no jobs in the Philippines for the millions of OCWs should they ever return. No wonder politicians and journalists alike tiptoe so carefully to avoid facing the seamy side of the issue.
One of the major unaddressed policy issues has to do with the difficulties experienced by OCWs when they do come home. They can almost never earn the types of salaries they did abroad, and often return to broken homes, joblessness, and children who barely recognize them. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) try to help in the readjustment, but they are underfunded and political realities preclude heavier public sector assistance. Even seemingly progressive acts like the Philippine Senate law that granted OCWs absentee voting rights in 1994 are less than they seem. It's ironic that such efforts have given OCWs some civic rights, but nothing has been done to grant them the right to work and live productively in their beloved homeland.
So kiss me and smile for meCarmina is all too typical of female OCWs who go abroad to support their families. Despite the fact that she earned her teaching degree from a provincial college in her home province in Mindanao, she never landed a decent paying job in the Philippines' impoverished educational sector. Her family had staked all their hopes on her, and she felt incredibly pressured to repay their years of sacrifice to put her through school. But she just couldn't do it in the Philippines, and had no desire to move to Manila or Cebu to enter the sex trade (see my Eva from Cebu column if you're interested in learning about what happens to girls who follow that route).
In desperation, she followed the example of many of her kababayans (townspeople) and sought overseas contract work. It wasn't hard to parlay her college education into a job as "governess" in the Middle East. She was happy to have found lucrative work, liked the fact that her fluent English would make her new job easy, and hoped that the children she would be nanny to would be nice kids. Nevertheless, she experienced some anxiety as she boarded the silver bird, the first time she had ever been on a jet plane.
Upon landing at Bahrain International Airport, Carmina's passport was promptly confiscated and she was quickly transported off in the back seat of a darkened Mercedes to work in a mansion in the desert city of Al Qurayyah, some 25 kilometers from the capital city of Manama and a million light years from the rural Philippines. Her new home turned out to be a high-tech dungeon, her "governess" duties non-existent, and her self-esteem and humanity attacked with a vengeance. She was not allowed to call home or send or receive mail, and she feared that she would never return to the Philippines alive. She had made a horrible mistake but had no way to go back.
Like many other Filipinas journeying to the far corners of the globe, Carmina was victimized and abused, physically, emotionally, and sexually. She prayed the rosary many times each day as she scrubbed floors and toilets. Her employer raped her repeatedly, sometimes bringing his friends over to share in the experience. Carmina couldn't even find out if her remittances were being sent to her family in Mindanao and more than once seriously considering committing suicide.
In the end, Carmina was more fortunate than many others in her situation. She was driven back to the airport at the end of her one-year contract and allowed to board the plane back home. When she got back, she learned that her family had received only the first three months of her salary. She entered a desperate state of clinical depression and angst, a condition that a Western psychologist would immediately classify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She experiences tremendous guilt about letting her family down, and is terribly hurt by the social ostracization she now faces on a daily basis, especially from macho men who consider her damaged goods. Most days she experiences at least one nasty hallucination of being raped and anymore she doesn't really care whether she lives or dies.
Now the time has come to leave youThere have been many diaspora in human history. In academic terms, this involves large movements of people out of their countries of origin into host countries where they find themselves geographically apart from their homes, but still retaining strong sentimental and psychological links to their cultural origins. One need only think of Jewish, Chinese, and Indian diasporas dating back to at least the 15th century.
However, the flow of Filipinos abroad would seem to be different given the context of globalization of the international economy and the explicit and implicit labor export policy of the Philippine government. Overseas Filipinos are encouraged to work abroad, glorified as national heroes, and welcomed home for the holidays. Yet they are neither inside nor outside the core of what it means to be Filipino, existing in a cultural never-never land of lost self-esteem, cultural identity, and illusory dreams.
The global migrations of overseas Filipinos have created a painful discontinuity among nation, culture, identity, and place. Given the disruptions, it is amazing and admirable that Filipinos around the globe continue to be so loyal to their homeland. Indeed, many identify with their roots more so in exile than they ever did when they lived at home. Benjamin Anderson, one of my old Cornell professors, coined the term "imagined community" to describe what happens when cultural self-definitions are recreated and new notions of who and what you are come to the fore. Unfortunately, such academic formulations aren't much help for the lonely Filipino sitting in the window seat of a jumbo jet taxiing down the endless runway, gazing wistfully out across the dreary, damp tarmac, fighting back the tears and gently humming that old pop refrain:
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
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|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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