Wake Up, Philippines!

The Filipino Dream

Posted in Filipinos/Filipinas, OFWs by Erineus on March 21, 2009

SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan Updated January 12, 2009 12:00 AM

Mary (not her real name) left for Qatar last week.

At 27, she had never flown on a plane and had never seen the inside of the NAIA. But she was traveling with two other Filipino women who had worked for four years in Bahrain, so she thought she would be fine on her first flight.

When she was 15 Mary had dropped out of first year high school in her province that is frequently visited by typhoons and had gone to work as a maid in Manila. The eldest of a big brood, her earnings helped pay for the miscellaneous expenses of sending her younger siblings to school, and the other expenses of day-to-day survival in the hardscrabble rural areas of the country.

About five years later her employer, seeing potential in the spunky teenager, sent Mary to a nearby public high school, tagged as the best of its kind in Metro Manila. She was the eldest high school freshman, and perhaps that helped her graduate with honors four years later.

They were four difficult years, with class sizes sometimes approaching 80, with no textbooks, and with computers only for the use of teachers. Mary struggled with both English and Filipino. But the school was still better than what was available in her hometown.

Upon graduation she decided, with her employer’s blessings (and money) to enroll in a course as a nursing assistant. Over a year ago she graduated, but she entered the Philippine job market as it was becoming saturated with health professionals.

Mary applied for a job in a call center but was turned away because of her limited proficiency in English.

She was luckier in her application for a job overseas. Mary has a two-year contract to work in a hotel in Doha for a monthly salary of 900 riyals (nearly P12,000), with free housing and meals. With help from some relatives, which allowed her to forgo the services of a recruitment agency, she spent a total of about P35,000 for her travel and work documents.

Last week Mary savored what might be her last taste of pork in two years and bade her relatives, including a newborn nephew, and friends goodbye. She left behind crosses, rosaries and prayer books, skimpy clothing, plus a boyfriend she has promised not to replace with a foreigner.

Parting is normally an occasion for sadness. But in this case, Mary left Manila with the hopes for a better life of her family on her shoulders.

The pay in Qatar is not exceptionally attractive, and there have been enough cautionary tales of abused overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). But her first trip overseas trip is an adventure for Mary, and the job is a stepping stone for better opportunities.

* * *

Think of how much better Mary’s opportunities could have been if from childhood she had received quality education in her hometown. Free public education is supposed to help level the playing field, improving the chances of the poor to rise from poverty, and raising national productivity.

Even when the lack of opportunities at home forces people to seek employment overseas, quality education also means better human resources, which means higher earning capacity and bigger remittances.

India’s diaspora, for example, increasingly consists of highly skilled professionals: computer programmers, engineers, doctors, financial managers.

Health professionals now also account for a big percentage of our OFWs. But most of our workers overseas are still employed in blue- collar jobs, as construction workers, electricians and, yes, still as household helpers, chambermaids and sanitary personnel.

Such jobs are vulnerable to economic slowdowns. By the middle of the month, Dubai is sending home thousands of foreign workers as its construction boom grinds to a near-halt. Sailors and workers in the oil industry are also losing their jobs as global energy demand slumps.

The growing army of Philippine cooks, and a still growing army of health professionals, could make up for some of the job losses. While organizations such as the World Bank have warned that this year will be dire for migrant workers, the International Monetary Fund is actually projecting modest growth in OFW deployment in this year of recession.

Mary was among the first to leave. Stories similar to hers unfold in hundreds of thousands of households across the country every year.

Many of the partings are bittersweet, and the diaspora has broken up a number of marriages. Children grow up without one or both parents, and the absence leaves an indelible imprint. Social workers have noted a growing number of problem children whose parents are working overseas.

There are OFWs who have returned to the Philippines, vowing never to venture overseas again for work, after finding certain cultures oppressive and deciding that they could not stand being second-class citizens in other lands.

And yet the exodus continues. As many OFW destinations grapple with recession, the fear is that the job market would tighten and a big percentage of OFWs would be sent home.

An American who traces his roots to Ireland told me that a diaspora is not such a bad thing, especially during tough economic times. Those who leave help keep the economy back home afloat, he said, citing the exodus from Ireland. Those who return often bring back positive aspects of their adopted countries.

I have often said that no nation became great by sending its people overseas. But at the start of a year of recession, it is better to look on the bright side.

Someone like Mary who manages to land a job while others are being sent home is considered by many Filipinos to be truly blessed.

As Mary bade her cousins goodbye on the eve of her departure, the look on the faces of those left behind was of gladness, with a tinge of envy.

For many of the cousins in her extended family, Mary is living the Filipino Dream.

View previous articles of this column.


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