By David Diamond,
known as bagong bayani, a Tagalog expression meaning "new heroes."
That may sound a bit inflated, but at a succession of December celebrations
in Manila, Filipinos who work on contract in foreign countries get
treated something like the Series-winning Yankees coming home to
New York. One day is Health Awareness Day, when thousands of overseas
Filipino workers, also called OFWs, are treated to free medical
care, and another is Family Day, when at malls all around the nation,
the government throws a mass party. Bright welcome banners stretch
from rafters. Christmas music spills from loud speakers. Returned
workers, along with their spouses and kids, walk around in costume
from the Auntie Anne pretzel emporium to Ace Hardware to the Gameworx
bowling arcade. They also make pit stops at the booth for free dental
checkups and the booth for psychological counseling. Two years is
a long time away.
bizarre climax comes when President Gloria Arroyo travels to Manila's
Ninoy Aquino Airport to personally greet returning workers, who
zoom through specially designated express lines for immigration
and customs. After a welcome speech, Arroyo turns a big drum filled
with tickets bearing the names of returnees and picks one from the
batch to win a $2,000 grand prize.
may look like a TV game show, but the Philippines has discovered
the future of work. At any given time, about 10 percent of the country's
76.5 million population is hard at work - outside the country. During
2001, more than 800,000 people headed out on a commute that makes
Rye-Grand Central seem like a milk run to the corner store. They
went to Italy, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Singapore, and Uzbekistan.
They went to Mongolia and Equatorial Guinea. Unlike Mexicans, who
flock primarily to the United States, Filipinos traveled to 162
nations in all. Unlike Indians, who fill mostly tech and medical
positions, Filipinos toil as domestic helpers, engineers, nurses,
bricklayers, teachers, farmers, seafarers, stenographers, hairdressers,
crane operators, cooks, and entertainers.
discovered its prowess as an outsourcer of labor, the Philippines
is now pursuing the opportunity with fervor. Whereas the US has
spent decades bemoaning the export of its jobs (to Mexico, to China),
the Philippine government revels in the export of its people. Using
technology to stay involved in family life back home, Filipino global
commuters constitute one of the biggest sources of stability for
the economy of a country perennially known as the Sick Man of Asia.
Remittances, the money they electronically send back to their families,
account for 8.2 percent of the nation's gross national product,
stabilizing its peso, improving foreign currency reserves, shoring
up consumption, and making more than a dent in the unemployment
rate (now 11.1 percent). Last year, overseas Filipino workers sent
home $6.2 billion. Indians sent home twice the amount - with 13
times the general population.
In short, this archipelago nation has succeeded at creating the
world's most distributed economy, where the sources of production
are so far-flung it boggles the mind. The machinery has gears in
Andorra and the Seychelles and even Diego Garcia, wherever the heck
that is. (Answer: a 17-square-mile atoll of coral and sand in the
middle of the Indian Ocean, mostly a joint US-UK military base that's
become a temporary work location for more than 1,000 Filipinos.)
With advances in transportation and telecommunications barreling
ahead, it's only a matter of time before the Philippine miracle
becomes a standard for the new mobile global order, with skilled
and unskilled workers commuting over multiple time zones to fill
in labor gaps, zapping their wages homeward through space, reentering
for a new assignment. Welcome to virtual nationhood.
fact, this thriving "trade" has already made the Philippines
the envy of the developing world. Officials from such poverty-plagued
countries as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, and Vietnam
have come to Manila to find out how they too can be prime producers
of labor. The market for contract migrant work, they know, is growing:
According to the International Monetary Fund, worldwide remittances
totaled $2 billion in 1970; by 2000, the International Labor Organization
set that figure at $73 billion. After a visit to the Philippine
Overseas Employment Administration, Indonesia's labor minister,
Jacob Nuwa Wea, said, "We learned some things we can adopt
at home - like mechanisms to protect overseas workers, how to prepare
candidates to meet skill requirements, and how to license private
employment agencies." Pakistan has patterned its overseas workers
welfare fund after the one established by the Philippine government.
industrious, and frequently skilled, Filipinos are finding their
way into unexpected niche markets. Nurses trained in the Philippines,
for instance, are more likely to end up working elsewhere. Hospital
recruiters from Norway and the UK travel to Manila to hire them.
Likewise, American school districts having trouble attracting new
teachers are discovering ample supply in the Philippines. Recruiters
hop on a plane to Manila, where, in crowded hotel conference rooms,
they handpick certified teachers, who are given crash courses in
Georgia history or California politics before they arrive on US
of this future already abound. You see them mobbing Hong Kong's
Statue Square any Sunday afternoon - young Philippine domestic workers
who celebrate their day off together: Hong Kong is a temporary home
to 200,000 Filipinos. You see signs in the Dubai airport, Filipinos
napping on benches between connections to various Persian Gulf destinations:
They have been a major source of labor - both white and blue collar
- in the Middle East since the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. You see their
mark on ships and in ports everywhere: At least 25 percent of the
world's seafarers are Filipinos, and the majority of cruise waiters,
an industry," admits Patricia Santo Tomas, the Philippine secretary
of labor and employment. "It's not politically correct to say
you're exporting people, but it's part of globalization, and I like
to think that countries like ours, rich in human resources, have
that to contribute to the rest of the world."
Fifty-three-year-old Vidasto Lantaca is wearing thick glasses, his
hair a mess. He paces barefoot, holding an unlit cigarette, in his
mother-in-law's tiny house in Barangalo Hulo, an overcrowded neighborhood
in Manila's Mandaluyong City served by the Parish of Our Lady of
the Abandoned. A college-educated mechanical engineer and the father
of two sons, ages 10 and 13, Lantaca has been unemployed for three
years. His wife, Percy, a nurse, worked on and off as a baby-sitter
overseas until her age prevented her from getting another contract.
When she came back to stay, she began work as a midwife, supporting
her family on barely more than $2,100 a year. But the Lantacas'
lives are about to change.
perennial Sick Man of Asia now has a borderless business plan: "It's
not politically correct to say you're exporting people, but it's
part of globalization."
nine days, Vidasto will make his way through Metro Manila to Ninoy
Aquino Airport, where he'll depart for the Middle East. Having scrounged
up a job placement fee - he borrowed $1,000 from a friend and took
out a loan of $400 from his recruiter - he'll head for Dubai to
work as a quality control manager for a construction company. His
monthly paycheck of $1,400 will help cover food and schooling, and
might even enable the family to save.
isn't Vidasto's first job overseas. He's been a Philippine global
temp before. He worked for six years as a construction supervisor
in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, coming home for long-enough stints to meet
Percy and marry her. He also did time as a mechanical engineer in
Eritrea. But for the past three years, the family has been living
on a mere $175 monthly while Vidasto searched out his next opportunity.
That meant digging themselves into debt and giving up their TV to
pay for his physical - but this job in Dubai will ultimately get
the Lantacas' lives on track again.
his new post, Vidasto will oversee the maintenance and operation
of machinery, like cement mixers, for National Ready Mix, a construction
company owned by the conglomerate Lootah Group. He'll be responsible
for assigning jobs to about 40 equipment handlers and for ordering
spare parts. When he arrives in the United Arab Emirates, he'll
be met by a company representative, shown around, and settled into
his own private room. Along with his salary, the firm will pay for
his food and housing. He'll communicate with Percy and the kids
via cell phone - perhaps the company will throw in some minutes
- and within a few months, he'll deposit thousands of dollars into
the family bank account.
What sets the Philippines apart from other countries whose legions
also spill over their borders into wealthier lands (200,000 Malaysians
commute daily to Singapore, for instance; some 200,000 Thai nationals,
or about a third of a percent, leave home to work elsewhere each
year) is that the federal government here is avidly encouraging
the flow. In an example of socioeconomic engineering on an unprecedented
scale, the Philippine leadership is embracing its role as temp agency
to the world and structuring a political "business plan"
accordingly. Although the ratio of remittances to GNP in nations
like El Salvador and Cape Verde tops that of the Philippines, no
other government maintains so sprawling a network of workers with
as strict a hand.
government official responsible for all this is labor secretary
Santo Tomas, whose office is located on the seventh floor of a centuries-old
building in Manila's oldest section. She is in charge of local and
overseas employment; these days, for instance, her department is
busily trying to fill demand for health care workers in developed
nations where populations are aging. Santo Thomas also helps protect
employees once they're relocated. Under her purview, the Overseas
Workers Welfare Administration, funded by both employer and worker
contributions, maintains a network of 27 worldwide and 14 regional
offices to intervene when problems arise. It was the OWWA that was
responsible for moving 30,000 Filipino workers to safety during
the Gulf War.
most important, Santo Tomas and her staff regulate the hundreds
of recruiters who broker close to a million job placements each
year. In 1974, Ferdinand Marcos created a mechanism for managing
overseas workers on a government-to-government basis, but the phenomenon
grew so quickly and became so unwieldy that four years later the
government handed the business over to the private sector, choosing
instead to provide regulation and oversight. Today, there are 1,300
private recruiters on record at the government's labor registry.
They are the link between foreign employers - who also must register
with the government - and job-seekers. They populate the upper floors
of two- and three-story buildings along Manila's jeepney-clogged
roads, advertising "Worldwide Jobs!" and they make money
by charging the hired employee a placement fee. For a licensee to
recruit legitimately, Santo Tomas and her staff require $7,000 up
front as a surety bond, to be kept in escrow, and a clean legal
record. Thereafter, her office keeps a regular public file of a
recruiter's status (Good Standing, Delisted, Forever Banned).
I was young," says the labor secretary, "the only people
in this country who traveled were the rich. Now we've democratized
travel. I have a niece in Italy, a nephew in Bern, another nephew
in Brussels. I have nieces in Los Angeles and New Jersey. By becoming
an exporter of labor, we have broadened our horizons."
Tomas has the poise and unharried demeanor of a long-ago charm-school
graduate or pleasant younger grandmother as she sits back on a sofa
in her massive office. She is open enough to admit that she pays
her housekeeper the typical sum of only $50 a month and is willing
to write her cell phone number on her business card in the event
of further questions.
to her post in 2001, she weaves a convincing case for promoting
and protecting international labor. The minimum wage in Manila is
$5.30 a day, compared with the average $15 a day earned abroad under
contracts approved by the federal government. Working in Manila,
nurses bring in $15,000 a year; in the US they earn an average of
$47,000. By diligently remitting money home, Filipinos help their
local banks, which not only make a profit on currency exchange but
use the capital to finance trade or buy Philippine bonds. The billions
of dollars in foreign currency deposits go a long way toward underwriting
the country's own development.
course, in the grand scheme of the Philippines' future, providing
temporary labor to the planet is itself supposed to be only temporary.
If the governor of the nation's central bank, Rafael Buenaventura,
has his way, each productive, dedicated overseas laborer will be
an advertisement for doing business right there in the Philippines.
Buenaventura envisions global companies choosing the Philippines
for establishing new plants, corporate headquarters dotting his
archipelago and a million mothers working minutes from home. The
push to send workers out of the country will pay back in spades.
"At this time," he says, "it is too late to be competitive
in manufacturing. The biggest boon we have is trained manpower that
speaks English; therefore, we could be an outsourcing center."
He pauses. "But if ever we can get our act together, we'll
be like Ireland, where you can bring back skilled workers. That
doesn't bring in remittances, but it provides jobs and raises export
now, though, it's hard to imagine the labor flow reversing. Many
Filipinos actually find their host countries preferable to their
homeland: Among the estimated 7 million overseas workers, more than
2 million have chosen to stay permanently, either getting amnesty
or marrying into foreign citizenship.
YOU; DO YOUR HOMEWORK; SEND MONEY - 100 million cell phone text
messages a day are why overseas Filipino workers and their families
a complete copy of this article, go to: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.06/philippines_pr.html
featured in HFC website are original texts as originally published
in their respective sources. No word has been edited in any way.]