Can Duterte reduce the nation’s dependence on migration?

Like the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore in 1995, the discovery of the frozen body of Joanna Demafelis shocked the nation on the gravity of abuse Filipino maids have been suffering from the hands of cruel employers overseas.  But, unlike the slow and uncertain initial reaction of the government to the Contemplacion saga in 1995, the response of the Duterte administration to the case of Demafelis was swift and decisive:  public expression of anger at the Kuwait employers and public expression of displeasure on the weak protection being extended to them by the host Kuwait government. Although opposed by the private recruiters, the ban on the deployment of new hires to Kuwait has met popular approval.

Is the Duterte administration prepared to reduce the nation’s dependence on migration?  Is the Duterte administration prepared to pursue a development program that lessens such dependence?

Last year, in an overseas Filipino workers side forum in Vietnam during the Apec summit, President Duterte blurted out an observation no President before him dared say in public (and more so, before an OFW gathering)—that the departure of the best and the brightest has been stunting the growth of Philippine industry.  “Paano ang mga naiwan?” was his plaintive question.

Of course, there is more than a grain of truth in what the President said about the exodus of Filipino talents and skills.  The biggest economies in Southeast Asia‚Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand —and all the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries have a deliberate program of seeking the best and the brightest from other countries to sustain their growth momentum.  The exodus is a big drain on the talent and skills pool of the sending country.

In our case, the POEA itself has actively been marketing Filipino would-be migrants across the whole skills spectrum for deployment in all corners of the world. The POEA even maintains a “hot list” of unfilled overseas jobs, which some narrow-minded officials claim is proof of the “mismatch” between Philippine education/skills development and the jobs available in the world market. These officials forget that a nation’s educational and training system is programmed to meet the social, cultural and economic needs of the Philippines, not of other countries.

If the Duterte administration is serious in reducing the nation’s dependence on migration, it should recalibrate and re-strategize the country’s socio-economic development program in order to make this happen. A historical review is in order.

Birth of the “temporary manpower export program.” In 1975 and 1976 then-Labor Secretary Blas Ople christened the policy of sending construction workers in the petrodollar-rich Gulf countries as a temporary manpower export program.  At that time, martial law was in its third to fourth year and the labor-intensive export-oriented (LIEO) development framework formulated by then-National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) Director General Gerardo Sicat was in its infancy.  The idea was to make the “manpower export” a “temporary” stop-gap employment policy, while the LIEO industrial policy had not yet taken off to usher in job-full industrial development for the country.

But what happened? In the succeeding decades of the 1980s and 1990s, the temporary program rapidly expanded and the temporary manpower export program became “permanently temporary.” Along the way, the Filipino “overseas contract worker” was renamed “overseas Filipino worker” (OFW).   At the turn of the millennium, the term “temporary” was quietly shelved and the program of sending out OFWs was simply placed under a policy dubbed by then-Labor Secretary Pat Sto. Tomas as “managing migration.” Under managing migration, the role of the government was reduced to two major tasks.  The first was to extend protection to OFWs, from the campaign against illegal recruitment at home to the placement of welfare officers in migrant destination countries and to the negotiation of bilateral agreements with labor-receiving countries.  The other task is the all-out marketing for the services of OFWs in all categories of work under all rungs of the skills ladder for all corners of the globe.

What is bizarre is to see how the various Medium-Term Philippine Development Plans (MTPDPs) of the Neda have treated migration as secondary to the “competitiveness” programs it had drawn for industry and agriculture. Migration, which has become the nation’s lifesaver, merited only a few paragraphs and pages in the voluminous MTPDPs.

As to the LIEO program, this was renamed in the 1980s as the “export-oriented industrial” (EOI) policy under the World Bank-supported “structural adjustment program” (SAP).  Like the LIEO of the 1970s, the EOI-SAP program of the 1980s to 2000s failed to usher in the promised “NIC-hood” for the nation. Instead, both the industrial and agricultural sectors stagnated in these SAP-EOI decades. It was the services sector that zoomed up, boosted primarily by the consumer spending of the OFWs, whose number has grown from around 50,000 in 1975 to over 10 million by 2015 and whose remittances have enabled the economy to grow year by year. Economists keep calling Philippine growth pattern as “consumption-led.”  But who is doing the consumption and who are profiting from such consumption (think of the Sys, Gokongweis, recruiters, bankers, realtors, etc.)?

In the meantime, tales of migrant abuses and migrant family breakups continue to pile up, documented by a growing number of journals, books and doctoral dissertations dealing with the “OFW phenomenon.”  The most vulnerable migrants happen to be those with the least skills who are given the “3D jobs” (dirty-dangerous-difficult jobs) or the “Salef jobs” (shunned by all except by a very few of the nationals of the labor-receiving countries).

Susan Ople, daughter of Ka Blas Ople, has dedicated her life fighting the abuses and human- rights violations committed against these vulnerable OFWs in various climes. Many are victims of illegal recruitment, human trafficking, maltreatment by cruel employers, duplicity of local and foreign “labor brokers” and corrupt practices by errant labor and foreign affairs officials. Toots Ople asked: Why can we not adopt a similar Indonesian policy in relation to Filipina maids sent to the Middle East? In 2015 Indonesia declared that it has a “road map” to stop the deployment of Indonesian maids in the Middle East and other countries if there is no concrete assurance of protection to these maids such as giving them separate housing facility (or dormitory) and respecting their basic human and labor rights, e.g., regular working hours and weekly rest days.

In Kuwait and other Middle East countries Filipina maids have become virtual house prisoners because their passports and identification cards are kept by their employers, they are forced to work and live 24/7 with families with a different culture and language and their mobility and communication rights are strictly limited.

In this context, a deployment ban in countries like Kuwait seems to be a bit late.  But yes, it is still a correct move and should apply to other Kuwait-like destination countries.

But how then should the Duterte administration spearhead a program to liberate the nation from its dependence on migration?  Can the Philippines duplicate the experience of South Korea, which succeeded in transforming itself into a labor-receiving country beginning in the 1990s after decades of being a labor-sending country (1970s-1980s)? More on this in the next article.



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