BABE’S EYE VIEW By Babe Romualdez Updated March 15, 2009 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, DC — The mood in Washington, DC as confirmed to me by our Philippine Ambassador to Washington Willy Gaa, is that the US Congress now more than ever is inclined to listen to the general clamor to create “jobs for Americans” especially now that the number of jobless has reached 12.5 million. From the way things are going, it looks like Filipino workers in America are in peril because of the rising unemployment rate all over the United States with the exception of Louisiana. Because of the crisis, people have been leaving their hometowns looking for jobs elsewhere.
In fact when I was in New York the other day, the limousine driver of one of our associates told us that a couple of months ago, New York — one of the busiest cities in the world — felt like a ghost town. Everything was so bleak, jobs were lost almost every day. Rooms that were at a high of $450 went down to as low as $99 for a while.
Despite the crisis, the US continues to import foreign workers at an average of 138,000 a month — feeding the resentment of jobless Americans who feel that foreigners are stealing the work meant for them. An entry in a popular blog site by a group advocating immigration limits even said: “How can [it] make any sense for the American people’s own government to be recruiting more competitors for a dwindling number of jobs? Month after month as hundreds of thousands of Americans lose their jobs, the feds keep pumping another 140,000 new foreign workers into the labor force.”
Barack Obama had promised “American jobs for Americans” during the campaign, pushing for more incentives to companies that would keep their operations within the US — which in turn sent nervous jitters down the spine of call center/Business Process Outsourcing industry practitioners in countries like the Philippines and India.
A few days ago, international news organizations bannered Obama’s remarks during a healthcare summit where he said, “The notion that we would have to import nurses makes absolutely no sense,” in response to an observation by California Congresswoman Lois Capps that the US faces a huge shortage of nurses.
The US has been relying on medical personnel from the Philippines, China and India to fill the shortage. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a shortage of one million registered nurses by 2010. Last year, US hospitals had vacancies for 116,000 nurses, with an estimated need for 2.8 million new nurses by 2010. A few weeks ago, the US introduced the Emergency Nursing Supply Relief Act of 2009 to address the shortage by lifting visa caps for nurses, pegging the yearly limit at 50,000. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 Filipino nurses have already relocated to the US, the UK and other western countries.
Despite the “Sentosa” controversy involving Filipino nurses (recruited by the Sentosa Recruitment Agency) who left their jobs due to poor working conditions and were in turn slapped with a $50-million civil suit, hospitals and nursing homes still prefer Filipino nurses because they are hardworking, patient, agree to lesser pay (despite federal laws requiring immigrant nurses to get the same pay to prevent undercutting of American workers’ salaries) and do not overly complain about rendering unscheduled overtime and doing the work of nursing aides at times. On the other hand, Americans are more particular in everything — from the number of work hours to overtime to the specific work they have to render.
Obama thinks it preposterous to employ foreign nurses, yet there are not enough Americans to fill the gap. Even the plan to train more Americans to do nursing jobs will take a long time, especially because only a few want to become nursing faculty because the pay is low. Experts agree that any healthcare reform plan will not be possible without addressing the nurses’ shortfall — which puts Obama in a Catch-22 situation since hospitals are trying to reduce costs by retrenching staff while addressing problems brought about by the increasing number of patients who need medical care but are unable to pay their bills because of the crisis.
In fact, even giant pharmaceutical firms like Merck and Schering Plough will be cutting 16,000 jobs despite plans for a merger. The same goes with Pfizer’s plan to buy Wyeth which will result in 8,000 job cuts. Meantime, there are reports that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America want the Philippines to be penalized for passing the Cheaper Medicines Law authored by Mar Roxas which allows the parallel importation of patented medicines at cheaper prices. Congressman Ed Gullas however downplays the report, saying that even the US is contemplating the importation of cheaper medicines from other countries like Canada.
Now more than ever, the Philippines will have to stop its dependence on overseas Filipino workers. While OFWs are our number one export, we have to remember they won’t be around forever. Government has to come up with creative solutions to address the problem of joblessness in the country. Filipinos must envision the future five or 10 years down the road because of the changing mood in America and perhaps all over the world — which could put Filipino workers in peril.
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I received an e-mail from publicist Joan Orendain about Time correspondent Nelly Sindayen who is now in a coma at the San Juan de Dios Hospital. It was shocking to hear of the condition of Nelly, a good friend of ours who had been actively participating in MOPC forums. We pray she would recover soon. Any of her media colleagues who want to help may get in touch with Joan or the MOPC secretariat.
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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.
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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.
This refers to the news item titled, “Gov’t searching for more overseas jobs.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 01/25/ 09)
The Philippine government is raising false hopes with its repeated assurances that jobless Filipinos can find job openings in Australia and New Zealand; that these countries are “relatively insulated from the financial turmoil.”
The truth is Prime Minister John Key has said that New Zealand sees no economic growth and higher unemployment this year because of the impact of the global financial crisis. Meanwhile, the Finance Sector Union reported that between 5,000 and 20,000 jobs have been lost in Australia. The giant US construction equipment maker, Caterpillar, which has operations in Australia, is cutting 20,000 jobs worldwide.
Furthermore, the new “90 Day Bill” or “fire-at-will” bill comes as another threat to job security for Filipinos and other migrant workers in New Zealand. Under the 90 Day Bill, employers who are employing fewer than 20 people would have the right to sack workers in their first 90 days without the need to give any reason for such a decision. Clearly, the 90 Day Bill is New Zealand’s version of the “six-month labor contractualization” in the Philippines, a policy that deprives thousands of Filipinos of job security and forces them to seek jobs abroad at the cost of leaving their loved ones behind.
The Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government continues to ignore the challenge to fulfill the state’s obligation to generate and secure jobs at home. This challenge was issued by migrant workers during the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Last December, Malacañang also issued Administrative Order 247 for the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to “execute a paradigm shift by refocusing its functions from regulation to full-blast market development efforts, the exploration of frontier, fertile job markets for Filipino expatriate workers.”
No country is immune to the current wave of job losses, and Filipinos will find it harder to keep their jobs abroad. Therefore, the full-blast marketing of cheap Filipino labor is not the answer to the country’s chronic crisis. More than ever, securing jobs at home through genuine land reform and national industrialization must be pursued. AO 247 is a vain attempt of the Arroyo government to promote its labor export policy while completely disregarding the people’s clamor for urgent socio-economic reforms.
Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families certainly deserve a new government that will seriously address the roots of forced migration and the country’s chronic crisis. Someone who misused millions of public funds (including the hard-earned money of OFWs) to steal the presidency has no right to stay in power. Aside from corruption and human rights violations, the Arroyo administration’s perennial neglect of migrants’ rights and welfare gives us more reason to demand its ouster.
DENNIS MAGA, national coordinator, Migrante Aotearoa New Zealand, firstname.lastname@example.org