The Philippine government cannot provide employment to its teeming employable citizens, sad to say. That’s the reason so many Filipinos go abroad where employment abounds. Thus the template OFW was coined for Overseas Filipino Worker, which used to be OCW for Overseas Contract Worker.
Time was when one was tagged as OCW the term had a rather abject, connotation. No longer because our government has dubbed them “heroes.”
Hero, in mythology and legend, is an honor given to someone with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, especially one who risked or sacrificed his life for a cause, or has saved somebody from the pangs of death.
Our OFWs are called heroes by a grateful government because their dollar earnings, a record high of close to $20 billion in 2011 have saved the country from economic collapse. They don’t mind the loneliness and deprivation as long as they can build and achieve their dreams of putting body and soul together, sending their kids to school, enjoying little luxuries, if not sudden opulence, especially professionals who are mega-buck earners.
In our recent visit to the Philippines we traveled north of the country. We were amazed how the provincial landscape had morphed into a once languorous landform of nipa huts into gleaming homes with TV antennae soaring into the sky, while in their garage are parked trappings of affluence, like a late model car, a passenger jeep with a sign “Katas ng Qatar” or “From Saudi With Love.”
That scenery was absolutely amazing, vibrant, albeit startling metamorphosis.
Another OFW vignette. My late wife and I were in the shopping mall one December day. We were behind a young family with two carts loaded with goodies and the queues were unusually long I figured to my wife it may take about 10 minutes to check those goodies in the counter so why don’t we transfer? Besides our small basket was totally paled by the two cartfuls in front of us pushed by a shopper who ostensibly was on vacation from Dubai , said so by his T-shirt.
Thanks to our heroes in the construction sites in the Middle East, factory workers, health care professionals, engineers in industrialized countries, the nannies, tutors and chambermaids of rich families in Europe , entertainers and mariners in cruise ships, plying the high seas. Their dollar remittances have become a major factor that propped-up the Central Bank reserves that prevent it short of insolvency.
There are estimated 11 million OFWs worldwide and the exodus goes on with tens of thousands leaving the country every year. This includes an increasing number of skilled professionals and workers taking on unskilled jobs resulting in brain drain. This is particularly true in healthcare and education.
There are medical practitioners in the Philippines , especially those working in government hospitals in the provinces who undergo retraining to become RNs whose services abroad are very much in demand.
Filipinos in America today find it easy to integrate themselves in mainstream American society because of their high education and speaking skills many of them have ascended to the middle or upper middle class. Filipino-Americans have the second highest median household income of $65000 exceeding that of the US general population. Asian Indians and Filipinos lead Asian-Americans in household wealth. Filipinos constitute the second largest immigrant group in the US and they live a life as sophisticated as educated Americans. They are among the 49% of Asians in the US --aged 25 and over--who hold bachelor degrees. By contrast, the corresponding figure for white Americans is 31% and, for all Americans, it is 29%.
However, in other countries where Filipinos abound like those in the Middle East , there are serious issues they have to contend with. OFWs both blue collar and white collar face problems of illegal recruitment, maltreatment, exploitation, long hours of work, limited food, or quartered in he doghouse. They suffer these indignities just so they can earn a mighty greenback to send home. These issues have become major concerns of our attaches in these countries. In some cases their paychecks are withheld and passports confiscated for flimsy reasons. Some domestic helpers, educated as they are as teachers, are physically or sexually abused and maltreated. There are sad stories of Filipino entertainers in counties like Japan who become sex slaves. They go abroad for a promise of domestic work or “social services” only to be deceived into sex work.
But by and large our OFWs have become movers of our country’s economy and have been honored by a government that sets aside a day in December to welcome our Balikbayans at the airport in a perfunctory ceremony, have photo-ops and published in the papers with the caption "OUR MODERN HEROES.” And our reluctant heroes are grateful for the attention and recognition, if only as an annual parody.