Renowned journalist Maria Ressa has posed a question on her Twitter account that highlights the fact that Filipinos working overseas not only keep their families back home alive, but also keep the whole Philippine economy propped up in the face of decades of poor performance, jobless growth and rising poverty.
Apparently inspired by the unrest in the Arab world, she asks: ‘If conflict continues and affects remittances, what does that mean for the Philippine economy in the short term?’
With political upheaval engulfing parts of North Africa and the Middle East, where the majority of the more than 10 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are located, the immediate concern of the government is the safety of expatriate workers forced to brave foreign lands because they can’t find jobs back home.
Last November, the Aquino administration faced the daunting task of evacuating 60,000 Filipinos from South Korea as tensions rose on the Korean Peninsula after Pyongyang launched an artillery attack on its neighbour.
Those tensions eased, but the same problem has appeared in other countries where Filipinos work. During the anti-Mubarak protests in Egypt, for example, hundreds of OWFs were assisted by the government in returning home.
However, tears of joy from returning to the Philippines have quickly been replaced by tears of despair as those repatriated now face the grim reality of joblessness. They may be reunited with their families, but unless they find new jobs soon, they’ll end up living in poverty. The metaphor jumping from the frying pan into the fire has never sounded so apt.
The same predicament awaits the Filipinos who are now returning home from conflict-torn Libya, where an estimated 26,000 to 30,000 Filipinos are working, according to government estimates. In fact, the Aquino administration has already come in for some flak for being caught unprepared for the evacuation of OWFs in Libya.
Going back to Ressa's question, then, it's clear that getting OFWs to safety is a relatively small problem compared with the disruption to their work, which in turn means a disruption in the flow of remittances.
In the short term, this unrest is bound to hurt this country's economic performance. More broadly, it also highlights how fragile the local economy is. Depending on OWF remittances—now shown to be extremely vulnerable to suddenly changing circumstances—is evidence of the unsound (if not foolish) economic policies and short-sightedness of the Philippines’ government.
Portraying OFWs as modern heroes because of their continued deployment overseas has also highlighted the reality that while Filipinos are increasingly becoming ‘global citizens,’ the sad fact is that expatriates—and the Philippines as a whole—remain at the mercy of their foreign masters.