Friday, June 26, 2009

Filipino Irregulars

The last time I saw one of my elder brothers (I am the youngest of 6 brothers) - was in 1987. The summer break was ending and I had decided not to continue on to my junior year in Ateneo. Worried that my future would be going to the dogs, my Mom had called that elder brother of mine to talk to me.

Eight weeks earlier, to pass the idle vacation days, I had gotten a part-time job and, for the first time in my life, I was earning my own money. I was selling toilet bowl cleaners, dish washing liquid, deodorants for men and women and all kinds of personal hygiene products. Never mind that I was carrying a portable toilet bowl and sneaking through security checks to enter buildings, making cold calls in offices during lunch breaks. All that mattered to my young, idealistic mind and heart was that I was wearing a smart coat and tie. I remember, quite vividly, that I felt extremely proud at getting a quick kick start at being a useful member of society.

"Don't make any decisions when you are emotional. Let things settle down and allow the situation to clarify itself. This will give you a better perspective of what you want to do with your life, and where you want to bring it," my elder brother said to me. He was referring to my emotional high at that moment because I had just been declared the company's top salesman, beating all the other full-time salesmen, and I had gotten a hefty lump-sum commission. The Briton company owner was so impressed with my performance that he offered me a full-time job, promising to give me money equivalent to my current college scholarship which I would surely forfeit by not continuing school.

That elder brother of mine guided me through my inexperienced youth. Following his advice, I continued my schooling. As he left that night, he hugged me tight, as if saying goodbye for good, leaving me with parting words that I will never forget: "Aim for your full potential, never stop learning, and always remember to pray."

The next day I learned from my mom that my elder brother had gone TNT in the US. And, just like that, like lightning striking one moment and then gone the next, my brother was ripped away from me, from us - his family, from my mother and father, from his wife and daughter left behind. Twenty-two years of not seeing my elder brother is a very long time. Life has whisked by, and we are both completely different people now compared to the last time we met.

In the Philippines we use the term TNT ("Tago Ng Tago," literally meaning "always hiding") to refer to Filipinos who leave for abroad but remain without full legalized status in their destination country. The term is used with a mixture of both envy and concern, with the former sentiment prevailing with finality. Concern, yes, but not for the TNT's safety but rather for how long he can stay undetected. Envy, most definitely, because at long last the guy was successful in extricating himself from what is, in the view of many TNT hopefuls, a hopeless local job market.

How many are they? Based on the latest available government statistics, as of 2007, roughly 1 of every 10 overseas Filipinos (10.3% or 900,000 of 8.7million) is an irregular migrant, that is, those whose stay is officially unsanctioned by a host country. As finding work is the main reason for becoming an irregular migrant, it may be more accurate to say that, as of 2007, nearly 1 of every 5 (18% or 900,000 of 5million) Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is undocumented.

While there is a consistent 3% yearly increase in the total stock of overseas Filipinos, the number of Filipino irregulars has been on a steady decline, being more than double the current rate (21.9% or 1.6m irregulars) at the start of this decade.

Why are the numbers of irregular migrants decreasing? Are more getting caught and deported back to the Philippines as a result of tighter immigration controls? Or could it be that the numbers have just shifted to a realm beyond the reach of official government statistics? And, which irregulars are the resilient ones, managing to stay on undetected, and what conditions help them to persevere? Might it be that Philippine jobs have recently become plentiful and salaries more competitive that less migrant hopefuls are compelled to seek work abroad?

Where are they? Next only to the United States of America, in Asia it is Malaysia (128,000 irregular migrants in 2007) which is top destination for Filipino irregulars, beating Singapore (56,000), Japan (30,700) and South Korea (12,000), among others. It may be worthy to note that before its much-publicized crackdown on overstaying workers in 2005, Malaysia had 5 times more Filipino irregular migrants than Singapore, 10 times those in Japan and 20 times those in South Korea.

Interestingly, this trend of declining numbers is not the same in all of the 193 countries (of 195 total countries of the world) where there is a Filipino. Region-wise, dramatic reductions in irregulars are evident only in East and South Asia (49% drop) and the Americas (54% drop) while other regions have in fact seen increases in irregulars (West Asia, 3% increase; Oceania, 12% increase).

What is their economic contribution? At the end of 2008, the Central Bank of the Philippines reported a total of US$16.4billion in remittances from overseas Filipinos. Year 2008 estimates by the World Bank placed this volume of remittances at 11.6%, and this was subsequently confirmed by official Philippine government statistics to be at 11.2% of the total Philippine Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Overseas Filipinos, by the size of their remittances sent back home, form a sector that is nearly two-thirds (62%) the size the entire Philippine Agriculture and Fisheries sectors combined, or virtually half (49%) of the whole Philippine Manufacturing sector. Indeed, even if the perennial 20 storms that hit the country every year were to intensify in strength and cause an additional 60% crop damage the Philippine GDP would be unaffected, riding on the yearly buffer of remittances. “Not only does it boost private consumption (from the purchase of basic necessities to big ticket items such as cars and housing – private consumption accounts for over 75 percent of GDP), it also lifts foreign exchange reserves, the current account, and deposits in the banking system,” cites the World Bank in its April 2009 economic updates on the Philippines.

Remittances have propelled the Philippines to the forefront of the migration industry worldwide. Based on the World Bank’s 2008 estimates, in the East Asia and the Pacific (EAP) and South Asia (SAS)– without counting China and India which overwhelm all kinds of comparisons by their sheer size – the Philippines, at US$18.6 billion, is the far leader in absolute dollar remittances, the nearest competitor being Bangladesh at only US$8.8 billion, a mere 48% of the OFW remittance volume. In the world, the Philippines is a ranked a proud 4th behind migration powerhouses such India (rank 1, US$30 billion yearly), China (rank 2, US$27 billion) and India (rank 3, US$24 billion). In terms of Percent-To-GDP, the Philippines’ remittances, at 11.6% of its GDP, tops the whole EAP and SAS regions.

Not all perspectives argue that remittances are always good for an economy. Burgess and Haksar (2005), in an International Monetary Fund working paper entitled “Migration and Foreign Remittances in the Philippines,” argue, among others, that remittances may have a negative impact on the economy if its recipients feel less need to work, thus becoming unproductive labor inputs, or if the country becomes overly dependent on remittances to support the its balance of payments position, thus lessening the pressure to implement needed fiscal policy reform.

The economic contribution thus of the 900,000 irregular OFWs can be argued to be roughly one-fifth of this overall positive impact of remittances on the Philippine economy. This is because it can be said that all migrant workers, whether regular or irregular, suffer the hardships of working abroad primarily to be able to send money back home to their dependents.

Without a doubt, it is in the best interests of the Philippines to address the immediate vulnerabilities of the Filipino irregular migrants – such as work exploitation and access to basic social services – and, at the same time, put into place a strategic and proactive response to the persistent numbers of resilient Filipino irregulars who, despite all odds, persevere and survive unwanted.

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