Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are keeping the Philippine economy afloat with their remittances, which last year was reported at US$11.5 billion. Because many OFWs send money to their relatives at home via “unofficial” routes, the amount could be much bigger.

The Marcos regime was the first Philippine government to officially encourage labor migration. Succeeding governments have since followed suit, refining the policy to include not only the marketing of Filipino labor but also the creation of vast bureaucracies supposedly to cater to OFW and their families’ needs.

OFW remittances keep their families in necessities as well as luxuries. No one’s keeping records, but a considerable proportion of spending on home appliances like television sets probably comes from OFW families.

But the logic of the labor export policy is based not only on providing jobs–and high paying ones at that– to the otherwise unemployed. There’s also the socio-political one, which says that exporting the excess labor the economy can’t absorb also helps ease social unrest, and therefore diminishes whatever threat to the political system such unrest can create from time to time. The labor export policy not only means that more money is spent while remittances boost the foreign currency reserves. It also helps guarantee the survival, such as it is, of the status quo.

Getting workers out of the country and their remittances in are the limits of government planning because that’s all every government specially the current one is interested in. All the rest is on an ad hoc, reactive, makeshift basis, and that includes OFW safety in conflict areas like the Middle East.

There’s a considerable downside to the labor export policy, but you’re dreaming if you think the government cares. One or both parents’ working abroad while the children remain in the Philippines means that some OFW children are growing up with no other link to their parents except the monthly allowance they send. One-parent families are also prone to various problems. The flow of money from abroad also develops a consumerist culture resistant to venturing into enterprises that could further economic development.

The OFWs themselves face considerable difficulties where they’re deployed, among them the impact of being away from their families for long periods and the often painful process of adjusting to foreign cultures. Employer abuse, contract violations, arbitrary reductions in pay and even withholding wages are fairly common, especially for domestics.

The threat to the physical safety of OFWs in the conflict areas of the Middle East is not new, but has escalated in recent years as the United States and Israel adopted a more aggressive policy. US Middle East policy since 2000, when George W. Bush was elected, has been focused on regime change in those countries it claims to be terrorist havens. This has encouraged its Middle East surrogate, Israel, to adopt an even more aggressive stance towards its neighbors.

Israel accuses the anti-Israel guerrilla group Hizbollah of kidnapping two of its soldiers, and of firing rockets into Israeli towns. Israel’s bombing of Lebanon is officially meant to force the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbollah, and to remove it from the Israel-Lebanon border region. Both aims many analysts regard as impossible to achieve, and indeed, the Lebanese government has announced that it will stand by Hizbollah.

The same analysts also doubt that the Israeli armed forces expects to force Hisbollah to release the two Israeli soldiers as a result of the bombing of supposed Hizbollah camps. What the Israeli government hopes to achieve is regime change in Lebanon. It wants the currently pro-Syrian government it also accuses of harboring Hizbollah changed into a more pliable, pro-Israeli one. The Israeli military has thus announced that the bombings–which have targeted, among others, water and power plants in Beirut–would continue for weeks, even as it began to send ground troops into Lebanon.

There is thus no immediate end in sight for the current conflict, and no assurance that the Philippines’ 35,000 OFWs in Lebanon will be safe.

President de facto Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has assured the OFWs and their families that Philippine “contingency plans” are in place. But those “plans” appear to be changing from day to day, which suggests that there are really no such plans, only responses to events as they occur.

An earlier “plan” moved some OFWs to Catholic churches in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, apparently on the assumption that Catholic Churches were somehow immune to bombs. A later plan said the OFWs would be moved by land, hopefully with the help of the International Red Cross. The latest plan seems to be to beg other countries with ships standing by to evacuate their own nationals to please, please, please allow Filipinos to come on board.

And yet, the Middle East being the most volatile region in the planet, where, however, the Philippines has some 1.5 million OFWs deployed, and considering as well the vast amounts of OFW money that also keep the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency and other bureaucracies fat and happy, any reasonable person would expect that some plan to assure the safety of those OFWs should have long been in place.

That there is apparently none, although there are words enough to claim there is one, isn’t surprising. After all, everything else is on an ad hoc basis with this regime. Why shouldn’t the safety of 35,000 of the country’s “modern day heroes” be an exception?

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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