Address problems in the homeland!*

Wigberto Tañada, Lead Convenor

I would like to thank the Scalabrini  Migration Center and the other organizers of this conference for inviting me to this important forum.  I would like to congratulate Dr. Manolo Abella, a kababayan from Quezon, for his enlightening and provocative piece on migration and development.

The debate on the migration-development nexus is an old one in the Philippines.   Four decades ago, under martial law, Marcos justified the labor migration policy, focused then in the deployment of overseas contract workers (OCWs) in the Middle East, as a stop-gap temporary measure.  The argument then — deploy the OCWs to ease the unemployment problem  while the new economic doctrine propounded our political and economic leaders had not yet delivered the promised full employment.  What was this doctrine?  The labor-intensive export-oriented or LIEO program, which gave birth to the garments, electronics assembly and various EPZ-based enterprises.  The LIEO program was also used to justify the massive borrowings from the IMF-WB.

By the l980s, the debt crisis exploded and the economy collapsed.  The LIEO failed to take off and the outward movement of Filipino OCWs intensified.  This time the destination countries in Asia had multiplied, with the addition of Japan and the Asian NICs.  This time, our economic technocrats deepened the LIEO and baptized it as the structural adjustment program (SAP) backed up by the IMF-WB’s structural adjustment loans.  This time the SAP slogans were even shriller – open the economy through the all out-liberalization of the trade regime, all-out liberalization of the investment regime, all-out deregulation of agriculture, and all-out privatization of government assets and corporations competing with the private sector.

By the mid-1990s, the Philippines was second only to Singapore in economic openness in Asia.  And yet, it still registered one of the highest unemployment and underemployment rates in the region.   Yes, I agree with Manolo Abella — the high population growth rate was and still is a major explanatory factor to the unemployment problem.

But another explanatory factor is clearly the poor performance of the economy under SAP.  Under the SAP decades, from the l980s up to the present, manufacturing, domestic industry in particular, has continuously stagnated.   And so is the agricultural sector except for a tiny percentage producing mangoes, pineapples and a few exotic crops.  Not surprisingly, it is also in these SAP decades that the OCWs, now renamed as the overseas Filipino workers or OFWs, have increased by leaps and bounds.

There are, of course, some success stories, some good OFW stories of families being lifted out of poverty.  The national government is also happy because remittances keep the economy afloat, keep the GNP growing.

However, there are also many, many sad OFW stories all over this hapless country.  Thus, when Flor Contemplacion was executed in 1995 in Singapore, the nation had an emotional outpouring of collective grief. Congress immediately passed a Migrant Workers’ Law discouraging the deployment of OFWs in vulnerable jobs and declaring migration a voluntary choice, not a forced option.  Twelve years after, with the industrial and agricultural sectors continuing to stagnate despite or because of SAP, the 1995 Migrant Workers Law has become inutile.  POEA is now processing over a million OFWs a year.   As the ILO pointed out, ten per cent of the population are overseas.

Over one-fourth of the country is dependent on OFW remittances.  This is why the formal service sector keeps expanding side by side with the informal sector.  The former is reflected the numerous malls sprouting all over the country; the latter in the large number of informal settler colonies mushrooming in both the urban and rural areas.  Migration is a leveler for some but is also a great new divider for our society.

And despite the remittances, our industrial and agricultural sectors continue to stagnate, no thanks to SAP, no thanks to the neo-liberal economic technocrats who believe that with the mere openness of the economy, everything would work out well.

Migration is also depriving our local industry, both export-oriented and domestic-led, with the needed supply of skills and talents.  As a result, local industry is becoming less and less competitive.  Last year, we, at the Fair Trade Alliance, were even shocked to learn that foreign poachers are recruiting without license and without any regard for the dislocating impact of their piracy on local industries the ‘mission-critical personnel’.  These are the Filipino professionals whose skills are vital in the continued operation of a business.  For example, without a plant engineer, a factory with thousands of workers will grind to a halt; without a pilot, no plane will take off;  without doctors and nurses, no hospital will be able to tend to patients; and so on and so forth. The cost of training these mission-critical personnel is very high, and yet, it takes a foreign poacher, less than a day of negotiation to pirate them and less than a week to place them overseas, using tourist visas.   As a result, the crisis of many surviving industries, hospitals, power companies, telecom companies, etc. has deepened.

This is why we went to Pat Sto. Tomas March of last year to complain and to ask for some regulatory measures, at least to require these foreign poachers to behave and for the mission-critical personnel to observe their training contracts and give the companies which invested on their education and training ample time to adjust.   We are happy and grateful to Ms. Sto. Tomas when she ordered pilots and other mission-critical personnel to file at least a six-month notice before they are allowed to leave the country, although what we are seeking, like the local health associations, is for the mission-critical personnel to render a minimum number of years or months so that the companies which trained them can recover the cost of training and arrange for a smooth adjustment. In the Middle East, Filipino professionals doing critical functions are not allowed to leave as long as replacements have not yet found.  In the United States, some mission-critical personnel like NASA engineers are even banned to work in other countries under the US Homeland Security Act.

Of course, some neo-liberal economists are saying that the exodus problematique can easily be solved through the free interplay of the supply and demand forces, specifically through the increased training and education of pilots, engineers, doctors, nurses and other mission-critical personnel and professionals.

This answer may hardly be a solution.

First, it takes time to identify, develop and hone talents and skills.  Second, it is expensive to invest in the development of these talents and skills.  Finally, our own industry becomes less competitive and loses out in global competition while waiting for the new talents and skills to be developed.

As it is, we are honing skills and talents for other countries, which have managed to avoid invest time and money in producing their own mission-critical personnel and professionals.  In the process, they are able to save their own critical industries and economy, while our own industries suffer and even collapse.

Take the case of the nursing shortage.  More than 100 hospitals have closed down.   Today, the shortage has eased with the expansion of the nursing schools and the entry of more nursing students.  But who will invest to have the 100 or so hospitals to be re-opened?

What is the point that I am making?

The point is that like the economy in general, we are managing migration in a haphazard and open-sesame style, somehow consistent with the neo-liberal openness dogma.  If we do not recast this dogma of liberalization, even the proposal being raised in this forum – that is, to use OFW remittances as a fund for development – may not work.

For what is happening?

Most of the remittances, amounting to over a billion dollars, are also going out and used to pay for imported appliances, clothing and imports which our dying industries are unable to produce.  They are also used to import rice, corn, meat, vegetables and other agricultural products which we are not able to produce at home.

This is why the dream of some economists that a turning point in migration, that is forced migration becoming a thing of the past and migration becoming truly a voluntary choice,  will eventually occur once the Philippine economy has reached a certain level of growth, expansion and sophistication has not happened and is not likely to happen.

This will not happen unless we are able to address problems at home.   On top of my long list of doables is the need to do away with the SAP of the IMF-World Bank.

Thank you and good day.


* Response to Dr. Manolo Abella on migration at the Conference on International Migration and Development , November 19-20, 07, Pan Pacific Hotel, Malate, Manila

To download a copy of this speech in .pdf file, click here.


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