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{The New Foreign Aid : Philippines}

The Overseas Class

Millions working abroad help their nation get by, but not prosper. It's a life of lonely, risky sacrifice.

April 20, 2006|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

Manila — They nurse the sick in California, drive fuel trucks in Iraq, sail cargo ships through the Panama Canal and cruise ships through the Gulf of Alaska. They pour sake for Japanese salarymen and raise the children of Saudi businessmen.

They are the Philippines' most successful export: its workers.

Three decades ago, seeking sources of hard currency and an outlet for a fast-growing population, then-President Ferdinand Marcos encouraged Filipinos to find jobs in other countries. Over time, the overseas worker has become a pillar of the economy. Nine million Filipinos, more than one out of every 10, are working abroad. Every day, more than 3,100 leave the country.

Philippine workers sent home more than $10.7 billion last year, equal to about 12% of the gross domestic product.

The current president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, calls them "the backbone of the new global workforce" and "our greatest export."

Worldwide, these workers have earned a reputation for enterprise and hard work. They include some of the Philippines' most talented people, well educated and multilingual.

But as a third generation leaves to work abroad, it is clear the system has not led to prosperity. Policymakers have focused on easing the flow of workers rather than harnessing their earnings for economic development.

Dependence on the export of people has become a formula for stagnation. Once one of the strongest in Asia, the Philippine economy now ranks near the bottom. The government invests little money in manufacturing, education or healthcare. The economy can't create even the 1.5 million jobs a year needed to keep up with population growth.

"We have a middle class, but they don't live in the Philippines," said Doris Magsaysay Ho, head of a company that dispatches 18,000 workers a year to serve on ships around the world.

Filipinos work in every country except North Korea, said Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas, whose brother is a doctor in Orange County. More than 2.5 million work in the United States and nearly a million in Saudi Arabia.

The money they earn trickles into towns and villages, helping build houses, open restaurants and send children to school. But the absence of so many industrious and skilled people -- mothers and fathers, engineers and entrepreneurs -- exacts a heavy toll.

Across the Philippines, children are being raised by their grandparents. "Now children can buy a lot of computer games, but they don't have a mother or father, or both," Santo Tomas said.

For the sake of supporting their families, the overseas workers endure years of loneliness. Some, especially maids in the Middle East, suffer beatings and sexual abuse. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they are jailed for running away. Yet the Philippines has grown so dependent on remittances that the thought of doing without them is frightening.

"Money from abroad is the only thing that keeps the economy in motion," said Ding Lichauco, former head of the country's economic planning office. "If you don't encourage the employees to go overseas, you will have revolution."

Providing sailors, maids, entertainers and other workers for a growing world market is a big business.

In this competitive arena, the Philippines has an advantage. Many Filipinos speak English. They are generally better educated than workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Indonesia. And they have a reputation for being good-natured.

An entire bureaucracy has been created around them. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration helps find jobs in other countries, encourages workers to go abroad and processes some job applications.

The Technical Education and Skills Development Agency offers free training in welding, driving heavy trucks and other skills. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration stations diplomats around the world to look after the Philippines' foreign workers.

Those who bring or send their earnings home pay no income taxes. And the government offers returning workers low-cost equipment and tools to help them start small businesses.

With that level of encouragement, an industry has developed to match workers and jobs.

There are more than 1,500 licensed recruiting agencies. Some provide training -- six months for dancers, four months for seafarers, two weeks for housekeepers -- in return for a cut of the worker's earnings.

A cook on a cargo ship can make more than Arroyo's official salary of $1,000 a month. A bar singer in Japan can earn more than a Philippine senator. But the fees can run into the thousands of dollars; the better the job, the greater the cost.

Dozens of agencies in Manila's Ermita district attract job seekers from all over the country. Applicants line up on the streets, luggage in hand, ready to go anywhere.

Notaries sit at small wooden desks on the sidewalk. Using manual typewriters, they help workers fill out the 14 documents they are required to submit. Large copy machines on the sidewalk crank out duplicates.

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