MANILA — IN the run-up to the centennial of overseas Filipino labor migration to Hawaii, a former International Labor Organization official wondered why the Philippines still remains underdeveloped.
Manolo Abella, formerly a top-ranking official of ILO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, expressed this insight when asked to react on Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas’s view that labor migration is an “explicit” development strategy of the government.
“Why have we not stimulated more investments in producing goods on which remittance incomes were spent?” Abella told the OFW Journalism Consortium in an electronic mail.
He said he wonders that in all these years that Filipinos migrate overseas and remit billions of dollars, “why have we still failed to build a stronger economy?”
The year 2006 marks the hundredth year when the first Filipinos arrived in Hawaii as foreign farm workers.
From just a handful, Filipinos overseas are now estimated at eight million –temporarily or permanently living and working legally and sans official government papers– in 191 countries.
Their money has led their families in the Philippines to enjoy benefits while most of them work in dirty, difficult, dangerous, and sometimes dehumanizing, jobs. Likewise, with an estimated US$11.6 billion entering the Philippine banking system this year, their money has kept their home country’s economy afloat.
Labor migration has become reputable “especially after the World Bank has recognized that remittances are more important than development aid as a source of development finance, and are more stable than flows of foreign capital”, Abella said.
Indeed, the former head of ILO’s migration branch said multilateral groups’ recent recognition of remittances for development has made labor migration a more respectable feature of Philippine development policy.
HOWEVER, World Bank economists have cautioned that migration “should not be viewed as a substitute for economic development in the origin country – development ultimately depends on sound domestic policies” (italics the World Bank’s).
This was so despite president Paul Wolfowitz saying in the Bank’s 2006 Global Economic Report that emigration flows are “critical for development”.
Indeed, Wolfowitz has cited that migration “is not always beneficial”.
The bank’s statement goes against Sto. Tomas’s assertion that the Philippines explicitly exports labor as part of the country’s strategy for national development, noting that Filipinos abroad are sources of the country’s pride.
“[The government] has already admitted that overseas migration has been part of national life, and we have nothing to apologize for,” Sto. Tomas said in a forum September last year.
Adding that since remittances account for a tenth of the country’s gross national product (GNP), Sto. Tomas said the country “has come full circle in recognizing that overseas employment plays a vital role in sustaining our economy”.
According to a paper by Mary Lou Alcid of the University of the Philippines’ Social Work program, the Philippine government has not admitted for a long time that labor export is a policy of national development.
In a paper for an ASEAN regional conference on labor migration by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (the major supporter of the OFW Journalism Consortium), Alcid wrote August 2005 that the Philippine government “insists overseas employment is not a policy, and the official position is that people move to where the jobs are”.
Abella said it took a government official like Sto. Tomas to backtrack on this statement since overseas migration “has always been considered an admission of failure in development.”
“Understandably, those responsible for development would not be comfortable in admitting its use as a strategy,” he added.
NONETHELESS, Abella said that Sto. Tomas’s admission matters less “since this [perspective] may change”.
What matters most, he says, is “whether policies remain stable” on how the government manages labor migration.
This scholar on international migration disagrees with the assumption that Filipinos are finding employment abroad “because of Philippine policy”.
Larger developments elsewhere, such as the oil price boom and export-led industrialization in neighboring countries, are “beyond the control of the Philippine government” and have “created opportunities for our people to earn higher incomes in foreign countries,” Abella said.
It was rational for individual Filipinos, he adds, that they were able to exploit these ahead of other nationalities because of their advantage of education and use of the English language.
Likewise, Abella echoed most analysts’ sentiments that political noise hasn’t helped the economy grow to its real level.
“I think our underdevelopment has much to do with poor governance rather than just misguided policies,” he added.
The WB’s report, indeed, noted that since remittances are more than twice the size of international aid flows; these have become an important source of income for developing countries.
“Migration can worsen the problem but it also offers the possibility of bringing about greater technology transfers to the Philippines – if we only create the political stability so essential for people to stake their capital in their country” Abella said.
Government, Abella added, recognized that “it made economic sense” to support labor migration even if government intervention “was a belated response to processes already underway”.
Abella wishes that Filipino remittances may be “an important source of development finance, and government should find the means to induce more savings rather than consumption.”
However, he thinks the country should “worry” more on its capacity to supply foreign labor market demand for critical skills and the”low quality” of university education.