By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, OFW Journalism Consortium
IS Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” C. Aquino III his mother’s son when it comes to labor export?
Mr. Aquino, set to become the 15th Philippine president, may opt to follow-through with his mother’s institutionalization of the economy’s resilient force: overseas Filipino workers (OFW).
Under his mother, the late President Corazon C. Aquino, government regulation over the deployment of OFWs was subsumed under one agency, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
Overseeing Filipinos’ lot in host countries, on the other hand, was cauterized from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and appended to another unit, the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA).
Mr. Aquino, like his mother, should have a direct hand in labor migration, said Tomas Achacoso, POEA administrator under Mrs. Aquino.
Mr. Achacoso said having a “direct hand” involves not only improving the system of informing prospective overseas Filipinos of migration’s risks but also in shaping policy focused on labor migration and national development.
“The success of labor migration [in the Philippines] has distracted policy makers from the original temporary role of the program,” the former POEA chief told the OFW Journalism Consortium.
The program of sending out Filipinos to work overseas under POEA predecessors Overseas Employment Development Board and National Seamen’s Board was used by then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos to beef up the country’s dollar reserves amid runaway unemployment.
With foreign investors cashing out of the Philippines under Mrs. Aquino’s time and with a huge foreign debt, money from OFWs propped up a cash-strapped People Power-born government beginning 1986.
Economists also credited money from OFWs, now nearly 10% of the country’s population, for having arrested the downward spiral of the economy during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the global financial system a decade later.
Economist Alvin Ang noted that for a long time, overseas work and remittances mitigated economic problems such as a feeble fiscal position and lack of jobs.
But since the word mitigation is “fungible,” which in economics means something can be substituted into a resource; remittances from Filipinos abroad “should not just be band aid.”
Mr. Ang agreed with Mr. Achacoso that the six years under the Aquino administration beginning June is crucial for OFWs.
Mr. Ang said the country should pursue the “diasporic dividend” — the “net of net” benefit from the migration phenomenon. Now is the time for the Philippine government to explicitly encourage overseas Filipinos to invest in their hometowns, he said.
By sending clear signals to local governments, this could happen, he said. “The national government may set the policy environment about luring remittances for development, but many local governments are not minding this potential resource, thus the policy disconnect,” Mr. Ang told the OFW Journalism Consortium.
Remittances are sterilized and merely circulate in the financial system, ending in consumption, especially since these are money of individual migrant workers and their families, he noted.
Thus, while the impact of remittances on Philippine development is of a macro nature, the vehicle to lure these for development is micro, Mr. Ang said.
“That way, and if the local government is involved, then you can target development,” Mr. Ang added.
The policy should be explicit and leave no room for doubt in the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan.
Mr. Ang said that government should actively instill a consciousness among prospective Filipino workers that their migration is only temporary, and that they do not merely return here to retire after a long overseas stint but “to work” and remain productive for themselves and for the economy.
Mr. Aquino’s campaign platform is to boost foreign investment, pour more resources to education, and generate more jobs locally through agriculture, business process outsourcing, infrastructure, manufacturing, logistics, mining, and tourism.
“If there is no production here, the Philippines will not have any productivity,” Mr. Ang said.
“Or else, this country will remain consumption-driven, a situation that not even a thousand Noynoys can remedy.”
Mr. Ang proposed an overhaul of government’s information campaign on migration as a first step.
The government’s current pre-employment orientation seminar should be made optional while information should be specific to separately cater to high-skilled and low-skilled workers.
There should be “complete information disclosure of a destination country’s conditions, not just the pay. That way, information on the country where the worker will migrate to would be clearly disseminated.”
Mr. Achacoso, for his part, said the government should address the concerns of labor migration from a “holistic standpoint” by explaining “how labor migration affects national development.”
Given the Philippines’ respectable global stature as regards labor migration, Mr. Achacoso said the DFA “should be taught about the principles and mechanics of labor migration, so that they can better argue with host countries about adjustments to make the life of migrants much easier.”
Moreover, the Philippines should request host countries for some compensation for skilled workers lost here and hired abroad, such as nurses and doctors.
Mr. Achacoso hopes that no less than the President sustains “a continuing interest in policy issues that affect labor migration, and intervenes every so often to shape and direct policies and programs.”
Again, though, these policies should not be merely about “consolidating the Philippines’ share of the [overseas job] market over which it has little real control.”
Another essential task for the incoming president, Mr. Achacoso said, is a better approach to creating jobs domestically.
“Labor migration as the solution to the Philippines’ economic problem is erroneous, and addresses only one aspect of the [domestic employment] problem,” he said.
Mr. Ang said the incoming Aquino administration should be able to reap the diasporic dividend. “He [Aquino] can help turn remittances into concrete investments.”
Preventing overseas movement of workers is unacceptable, yet the Philippine government should not rely on demand-driven job markets abroad to sustain the economy, Messrs. Achacoso and Ang said. — Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, OFW Journalism Consortium