A NATION’S EXODUS: Emergent Risks of Labor Migration and the Means to Convert them into Opportunities

My father and brother are OFWs. They both work for a prominent telecommunications company in the Middle East. Before this year ends, they will both return for good, bringing home new skills, training and experience. They are blessed. Their homecoming will surely be sweet and full of promise. They took the risk of overseas labor and are now reaping sufficient harvests. God is so good to us.

How about the thousands of OFWs who have just been repatriated to the Philippines due to persistent violence in their countries of employment? Does their untimely arrival mean they’re not blessed? I don’t think so. Like other international migrant workers, papa and my brother also took the risks and susceptibilities to distressful conditions or separation anxieties attached to overseas employment. But the difference would be whether they have seized the opportunities through labor migration or keep them at bay.

As a son and a brother of OFWs and as a graduate student of international relations, I get to see both personal and academic views on the issue of international labor migration and how it affects my country’s political choices, economic policies and programs, and the society. But as a person, I choose to be optimistic without disregarding the realities of the issue at hand.

Apparently a conventional risk, international labor migration (or overseas employment) has evolved through time across all sorts of relevant issues and brought both tremendous and terrible changes in various parts of the globe. Because of the sudden unfolding of global events, the enduring relevance of migration and the vulnerability of migrant workers are further highlighted. Prevalent or conventional labor migration problems continue to challenge decision-makers: illegal recruitment, human trafficking, and inhumane treatment of migrant laborers. To these, most states have already responded.

However, I strongly believe that contemporary problems in international labor migration have already proliferated and will even bud emerging risks that also need substantial and immediate attention. I chose two of the more emergent ones: a) economic and social reintegration of migrant-workers (OFWs) who have been repatriated due to conflict/ distress in their countries of employment, or due to migrant-receiving states’ manpower retrenchment; and b) the reorientation of the future labor force to mitigate the proliferation of unemployed “abroad-driven” graduates.

At this point, please allow me to share a brief story of my nation’s exodus and to use it as an illustration of the multifaceted and emergent risks of international labor migration, and the probable means through which they can be converted to opportunities.


Taking chances

Hoping for better economic conditions, the Philippines’ overseas employment program was conceived in the 1970s as a temporary measure to address pressing problems of unemployment and balance-of-payments through remittances. True enough, in a span of 30 years, remittances from OFWs jumped from a mere Php103 million in 1975 to Php10 billion in 2005, a hundredfold increase.[1] These remittances are no doubt a huge respite for a struggling economy. But more than the money, the migrant workers are absolutely more valuable. Therefore, the emergent risks that my present generation of decision-makers will have to face deal with people and how to empower them amid vast circumstances.

Due to sudden world events, thousands of OFWs have returned and more of them   are expected to return in the next months. As of December 2011, “the Philippine government had already repatriated 26,273 OFWs, most of them from war-torn Libya and other MENA countries.”[2] Lately, new immigration policies and economic crises have compelled migrant-receiving states to implement retrenchment. Their return will certainly add to the lingering problems of unemployment and underemployment in the country. This massive influx of migrant workers calls for an orderly and comprehensive repatriation and reintegration program.

So now, the surfacing questions posed by the first emergent risk are: Can the government handle the challenge of OFW absorption? Given its developing state, how can the country keep its economy afloat; and the society, motivated?

This is related to the second risk which deals with the reorientation of the future labor force to mitigate the proliferation of unemployed abroad-driven graduates.

Now, let me illustrate why this is also a challenging risk. The Philippines has been the largest exporter of nurses worldwide. “Of all employed Filipino registered nurses (RN), roughly 85% work overseas.”[3] I, for one, was once lured to shift to nursing when I was a college sophomore because of the promising high-paying overseas employment associated with the course. It is also assumed that majority of young people in developing (especially labor-sending) countries have adapted a certain ‘culture of emigration’ in which spending a time working abroad becomes a normal ‘rite of passage.’[4] Years close to my college graduation, the financial crises struck the world market propelling many migrant-receiving states to halt hiring, retrench employment, therefore causing widespread unemployment. At that time also, thousands of BS Education graduates who originally aimed to teach abroad just added to the rising number of jobless in the country. Behind this labor employment phenomenon is an acute problem: the improper orientation of the future economy-drivers of the nation. Good thing, I took the road less traveled (a decisive risk). I landed a good job.


Perseverance and direction matter.

A key factor to a labor-sending state’s maximization of overseas employment is a development-oriented migration attitude. Here, migrant-sending states will not only focus on allowing better-educated and highly-skilled professionals and manual workers to toil abroad and send remittances. Economic progress through remittance-dependence was not the way of many progressive economies that were also formerly dependent on labor-sending migration. Like the Philippines, these countries also took major risks in the 1950s-1970s and now reap the harvests of economic and intellectual advancement.

“Until the mid-1980s, Korea was one of the major labor-sending countries in Asia. Now, it opens its market to foreign workers.”[5] Its government was firm in the belief that the state’s labor emigration policy would only be a transient one, with the aim of perseveringly aid their struggling economy while also absorbing skills and technical knowledge from industrialized countries and utilize them for their local industries. Indeed, Korea took chances. It took the risk while keeping its wheels on track.

Likewise, during the twentieth century, millions of migrants from China and India were received by select countries in North America and Europe. Although this action was not directly promoted by the respective governments of the hitherto non-economic giants, their people back home tremendously benefitted from the positive economic impact of their countries’ home-grown but globally competent engineers and IT specialists. Not only have they become contributors to the national development of their respective countries, they have also become assets to recipient states.


Reaping the harvest

Clearly, emergent risks may not have yet penetrated people’s minds but these risks do gradually proliferate. Before a matter gets worse, decision-makers and leaders of tomorrow have to act on it. And just like the triumphant stories of Korea, China, and India, other developing states like the Philippines can also move from risks to opportunities.

First, the risk of economic and social reintegration of migrant-workers will be quite costly. But as the manager of its citizens’ affairs, the government is responsible for this crucial step. “Through the National Reintegration Program, returning OFWs will be provided with the appropriate assistance that would ease their return to the country. Under the program, they can avail of a low-interest, collateral-free loan offered under the Php 2 billion OFW Reintegration Loan Fund, from which they can borrow a minimum of Php 500,000 to a maximum of Php 2 million for new or existing businesses.”[6] The government, through the Commission on Overseas Filipinos, also designed the Diaspora to Development Initiative, “taking as models the best practices from countries that have shown significant progress in mobilizing their diaspora communities to contribute to home country development.” One of its eight development actions, the Return and Reintegration program, focuses on “providing returning OFWs and retirees information and facilitating services for a successful reintegration into local life.”[7] Interestingly, OFWs are considered modern heroes (mga bagong bayani) because of their contribution to national economic development. Therefore, it is just appropriate that they are given prompt and efficient service in the process of reintegration into the economy and society. More than their worth as migrant-workers, they are first and foremost kababayans (fellow countrymen).

It is logical to assume that international labor migration is a mutual process, benefitting both labor-sending and labor-receiving states. “Migrants transfer home skills and attitudes – known as ‘social remittances’ – which support development. In the process, ‘brain drain’ is being replaced by ‘brain circulation.’”[8]
Therefore, as long as the returning migrant workers generously pass on professional and technical skills and expertise to their countrymen, intellectual development will keep going. This is a key foundation for economic advancement.  Financial remittances, in this context, will therefore become only secondary to the much-needed transfer of skills. Of course, the remittances should be used to enrich the budding socio-economic growth of the country. This also emphasizes the critical importance of returning migrant workers rather than viewing them as burdens to economic development. Their reintegration will significantly contribute to national development. Of course, they have to be guided accordingly as they invest in entrepreneurship and other sustainable income-generating activities. Civil society groups (business communities and NGOs focusing on sustainable livelihood) can be of great help to them.

The reorientation of the future labor pool is truly a risk. The problem with the prevalent line of thinking of most Filipino graduates is the lack of nationalist risk-taking and global competence. By taking the risk of reorientation, the opportunity of socio-economic transformation may be achieved. To maximize the opportunities, deliberate change should begin from where policy-makers can meet future history-makers: the school. It is where students can be honed to become sharers, and not just receivers of opportunities. In addition, a country should produce graduates that consider both national socio-economic development and global competence. As early as NOW, future history-makers should be taught that although overseas employment can bring economic benefits to a developing country, it is not always the key to achieving them. It is only an instrument to receive and ‘pay forward.’

To go beyond ‘overseas employment,’ the enormous and prospective labor pool should be reoriented with a new perspective: to learn and contribute more and not just to graduate and leave the country. This veers away from a deeply embedded emigration-for-money-only culture. Risks should have noble purposes in order to gain precious opportunities.

It will certainly be worth it when people begin to focus and understand the very purpose of work, even in the context of international labor migration and development.

American critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “This nation (US) was built by men who took risks – pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, business men who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.”

The Philippines, just like other developing and migrant-sending states, is still on an exodus. It is yet to find the very essence of overseas employment and more importantly, the value of the people who continue to face the risk of international labor migration. Nevertheless, I am convinced that this tiny developing country will reach the promised destination.

Along the way, its people can gain precious experiences that they can sow for future harvest.


Take chances.

Persevere and follow good direction.

You will reap the abundant harvest.

[1] Battistella, G. “Philippine overseas labour: From export to management”,  ASEAN Economic Bulletin, 12(2). 1995. 165. for data from 1975 to 1994; and http://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/spei/tab11.htm for data from 1997 to 2005.

[2] OWWA: Over 26,000 OFWs repatriated in 2011, http://www.philstar.com/nation/article.aspx?publicationsubcategoryid=65&articleid=759825, accessed in January 2012

MENA region stands for Middle Eastern and North African countries

[3] Perrin, M. E., A. Hagopian, A. Sales, and B. Huang. “Nurse Migration and Its Implications for Philippine Hospitals.” International Council of Nurses. 2007: 219-26.

[4] Castles, S. and Miller, M. The Age of Migration: International Population Movement in the Modern World. New York: The Guilford Press. 2009: 62.

[5] Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN) Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific. www.unesco.org

[6] DOLE appeals to OFWs to shun Syria, as government continues repatriation efforts, dated January 5, 2012


[7] http://rnr.cfo.gov.ph/, accessed in January 2012

[8] Castles, S. and Miller, M., op cit. 57-58.


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