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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The diaspora as savior

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Yes indeed, the Filipino diaspora seems to have reached almost all parts of the globe, from the remote Arctic to the less remote (to us) Antarctica

The recent outburst of violence in Israel and Gaza has brought national attention not only to the atrocities committed against the civilian population, but also on the plight of our Filipino brothers and sisters caught in the maelstrom of war.

I did not realize we had as many as 30,000 Filipinos working in Israel, a country with a long history of friendship with ours.

Neither did I know till violence erupted that there are hundreds of Filipinos in Gaza, some married to Palestinians.

Years back, while writing for another paper, I was surprised to get an e-mailed reaction from a Filipino worker in Kazakhstan. Even in Kazakhstan?

When I visited London in 2000, then Ambassador Cesar Bautista told me a story about Filipinos working in Iceland, at that time so remote that one’s impression was it was covered in ice all year round.

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Iceland these days has of course become one of the hottest travel destinations, but back then, few Filipinos visited the country.

It is one of the other countries under the jurisdiction of our Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The good-natured ambassador said when he visited Iceland, he was surprised to learn that some 300 Filipinos already resided in the ice-cold, volcano-dotted country.

Years back, two Filipino seamen from Cebu were stranded when their ship left port.

Left to their own devices, they started working in a fishing company, and found the pay quite satisfactory.

After a year of getting acclimatized, they wrote to relatives and friends, Cebuanos mostly from northern Bogo and Medellin, to apply for work in Iceland, such that when our Malabon-bred ambassador visited he was welcomed with warmth by a huge number of OFWs.

Yes indeed, the Filipino diaspora seems to have reached almost all parts of the globe, from the remote Arctic to the less remote (to us) Antarctica.

There are OFWs in many African nations, in the Middle East where the whole industry of labor exports started, in the steppes of the “istans,” and practically every country in Europe save for Liechstenstein and perhaps Moldova, the former because it needs no foreign workers, the latter because it is worse off than the Philippines economically.

A decade or so ago, the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) opened the door to Filipino workers beyond being temporary entertainers.

South Korea has thousands of OFWs, and is opening its doors for more starting next year due to demographic challenges.

Taiwan in 2016 when I was first assigned there had some 125,000 OFW’s, grown to 150,000 in 2019 before the pandemic struck, and is now almost 180,000 according to the current representative there.

Many wealthy countries are in a demographic winter, whether in our continent or in Europe and North America, and their citizens have shunned blue-collar work where pay is comparatively lower and more physically demanding.

That is the niche which our fellows fill.

Another huge niche are household help and caregivers.

Growing too are our teachers, in high demand in Asian countries due to their ability to teach English, which is second language to us.

With the pandemic, the demand for medical professionals, particularly nurses, has grown by leaps.

Our TESDA teems with trainees for construction jobs, as welders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, all with the intention of seeking jobs abroad.

Although the diaspora has resulted in a brain and brawn drain for us internally, and spawned many social costs due to broken families and wayward offspring lured into drugs and even mental health problems, our broke-down economy looks to the diaspora as savior.

Sadly, that diaspora will not abate.

It will continue to be our economic savior, with all the attendant social costs it creates.

We are all convulsed with anger whenever a Filipina domestic helper is raped, tortured, and killed by some depraved employer in Kuwait or elsewhere.

We are in fear and anxiety when conflicts that threaten to inflict harm on our OFWs occur in the countries where they reside.

The latest of course is the conflict in Israel and Gaza, threatening, as we write, to spread to other countries in the Levant.

We grieve for four Filipinos who died as we pray for those still left in the theater of war.

Our ambassador to Israel, erstwhile public opinion pollster Junie Laylo, along with DFA USec Ed de Vega, and DMW Acting Secretary Hans Cacdac, are trying very hard to evacuate Filipinos in Gaza through Rafah in the Egyptian border, and others through Tel-Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

Months back, we had to evacuate Filipinos in strife-torn Sudan, through a land corridor to southern Egypt, and two years ago, those in Ukraine towards Poland.

We hope and pray the conflict in the Taiwan Strait does not explode into a violent take-over, because repatriating 180,000 Filipinos, not by land but through sea and air, is almost impossible due to our proximity to the theaters of war, particularly the Luzon Strait which demarcates our country from southern Taiwan.

For decades on end, our leaders kept promising to create more decent jobs which provide living wages in the country, so that working abroad will be, tritely, “one of choice and not one of necessity.”

But the diaspora continues, and our BSP keeps reporting with some amount of glee, that the remittances from our diaspora keep growing, now upwards of $23 billion.

Our consumption-driven economy relies greatly on these remittances, as does our medium-cost housing industry.

And with gloomy prospects of short-term recovery and growth which we wrote about last Thursday, again, our economic lifeline will depend on enlarging that diaspora.

***

By the time this column is printed, I shall be in some foreign country for an extended period that will end a few days after the long Undas and barangay election holidays.

I have decided not to bring my laptop, as I loathe to write more about the international embarrassment the ill-conceived Maharlika has become.

When Congress backtracked on the use of pension funds, I likened Maharlika to Humpty Dumpty.

Could it yet be fixed, I asked earlier this year.

Still, what the president wanted, Congress delivered.

Now that DBP and Landbank ‘discovered’ that converting their liquid assets to equity in a still un-manned and un-organized GOCC named Maharlika will impair their lending capacity 10 times over, and would violate BSP regulations.

And belatedly they cry to the regulator, the BSP, after having prematurely parked their funds into Maharlika.

Yet the BSP governor and the administration’s first finance secretary failed to see that?

How our legislators and economic managers can fashion policies, just because the president fancies it, defies cogent explanation.

So truly Humpty Dumpty, and let’s see how ‘all the king’s men’ can mend the brokenness.

So while abroad, I shall shut my mind off from the mundane workings of poor governance, and try my best to just relax, and since it’s autumn when leaves are falling and not the season to ‘smell the flowers,’ I shall simply revel in the changing colors of fall.

I should write again in this space, with the indulgence of our editors and publisher, on Monday, the 13th of November.

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