One Nation, Overseas

Need (hired) help? Try the Philippines, the forerunner of tomorrow’s distributed economy, supplying nurses, teachers, techies, and sailors to the global village.

They’re known as bagong bayani, a Tagalog expression meaning “new heroes.” That may sound a bit inflated, but at a succession of December celebrations in Manila, Filipinos who work on contract in foreign countries get treated something like the Series-winning Yankees coming home to New York. One day is Health Awareness Day, when thousands of overseas Filipino workers, also called OFWs, are treated to free medical care, and another is Family Day, when at malls all around the nation, the government throws a mass party. Bright welcome banners stretch from rafters. Christmas music spills from loud speakers. Returned workers, along with their spouses and kids, walk around in costume from the Auntie Anne pretzel emporium to Ace Hardware to the Gameworx bowling arcade. They also make pit stops at the booth for free dental checkups and the booth for psychological counseling. Two years is a long time away.

December’s bizarre climax comes when President Gloria Arroyo travels to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport to personally greet returning workers, who zoom through specially designated express lines for immigration and customs. After a welcome speech, Arroyo turns a big drum filled with tickets bearing the names of returnees and picks one from the batch to win a $2,000 grand prize.

It may look like a TV game show, but the Philippines has discovered the future of work. At any given time, about 10 percent of the country’s 76.5 million population is hard at work – outside the country. During 2001, more than 800,000 people headed out on a commute that makes Rye-Grand Central seem like a milk run to the corner store. They went to Italy, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Singapore, and Uzbekistan. They went to Mongolia and Equatorial Guinea.

Unlike Mexicans, who flock primarily to the United States, Filipinos traveled to 162 nations in all. Unlike Indians, who fill mostly tech and medical positions, Filipinos toil as domestic helpers, engineers, nurses, bricklayers, teachers, farmers, seafarers, stenographers, hairdressers, crane operators, cooks, and entertainers.

Having discovered its prowess as an outsourcer of labor, the Philippines is now pursuing the opportunity with fervor. Whereas the US has spent decades bemoaning the export of its jobs (to Mexico, to China), the Philippine government revels in the export of its people. Using technology to stay involved in family life back home, Filipino global commuters constitute one of the biggest sources of stability for the economy of a country perennially known as the Sick Man of Asia. Remittances, the money they electronically send back to their families, account for 8.2 percent of the nation’s gross national product, stabilizing its peso, improving foreign currency reserves, shoring up consumption, and making more than a dent in the unemployment rate (now 11.1 percent). Last year, overseas Filipino workers sent home $6.2 billion. Indians sent home twice the amount – with 13 times the general population.

In short, this archipelago nation has succeeded at creating the world’s most distributed economy, where the sources of production are so far-flung it boggles the mind. The machinery has gears in Andorra and the Seychelles and even Diego Garcia, wherever the heck that is. (Answer: a 17-square-mile atoll of coral and sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean, mostly a joint US-UK military base that’s become a temporary work location for more than 1,000 Filipinos.) With advances in transportation and telecommunications barreling ahead, it’s only a matter of time before the Philippine miracle becomes a standard for the new mobile global order, with skilled and unskilled workers commuting over multiple time zones to fill in labor gaps, zapping their wages homeward through space, reentering for a new assignment. Welcome to virtual nationhood.

In fact, this thriving “trade” has already made the Philippines the envy of the developing world. Officials from such poverty-plagued countries as Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, and Vietnam have come to Manila to find out how they too can be prime producers of labor.

The market for contract migrant work, they know, is growing: According to the International Monetary Fund, worldwide remittances totaled $2 billion in 1970; by 2000, the International Labor Organization set that figure at $73 billion. After a visit to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Indonesia’s labor minister, Jacob Nuwa Wea, said, “We learned some things we can adopt at home – like mechanisms to protect overseas workers, how to prepare candidates to meet skill requirements, and how to license private employment agencies.” Pakistan has patterned its overseas workers welfare fund after the one established by the Philippine government.

Flexible, industrious, and frequently skilled, Filipinos are finding their way into unexpected niche markets. Nurses trained in the Philippines, for instance, are more likely to end up working elsewhere. Hospital recruiters from Norway and the UK travel to Manila to hire them.

Likewise, American school districts having trouble attracting new teachers are discovering ample supply in the Philippines. Recruiters hop on a plane to Manila, where, in crowded hotel conference rooms, they handpick certified teachers, who are given crash courses in Georgia history or California politics before they arrive on US soil.

By David Diamond

Photo by eliremolona via flickr

Find more like this: Features


  1. jorj says:

    yeah..yaeahh yeahh..10 billion huhh..mga bagong bayani…and what we got..try visiting the POEA itself and see how the OFW was treated there..yung mga personnel nangangatog sa lakas ng aircon…kaming mga OFW ni walang maupuan sa pag proprocess ng mga dokumento…what a shame…namumura pa kami dun..we putting a lot of money ang bagal pa rin ng serbisyo…sorry but f*** them…

  2. ec says:

    bagong bayani? no we are not…. more like intrepid survivors or maybe victims of circumstances…f*** owwa and poea ….they haven’t done anything for the welfare OFWs…

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