[ENFiD News & Views] 'Digong' Duterte’s Diaspora: How much will development matter in Filipino outmigration?

By Roli Talampas
Assoc. Prof., Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman
Member, Board of Trustees, Economic Resource Center for Overseas Filipinos

What changes, if any, await overseas Filipinos and their families? Is the incoming government of Rodrigo Duterte all set to make any difference in the fortune of migrant workers?

Anticipation is the name of the game nowadays. Waiting for president-elect Rodrigo Roa Duterte to take his seat in Malacañang Palace at the end of the June has caused a frenzied atmosphere of seeking his favor and collecting on his promises. Others are making reasoned, if not rational, proposals in media and elsewhere. Sound bites from possible beneficiaries of forthcoming Duterte-led moves add flavor to morning and evening TV news—they too want to be heard as their pleadings emanate from hunger pangs. One thing is sure, elites are not used to Duterte’s manner of talking to media as well as to endless crowds that gather around him, no matter if Duterte’s mandate is really within the realm of “political possibilities” in an environment of uncertainty.

Given these, migration is one probability while the remaining revolutionaries struggling for radical transformation are weighing their own options. We hazard the view that even in the short term Filipinos in their great numbers will certainly opt to leave even with noticeable changes that have yet to impact on their lives.

PNOY’s legacy

Outgoing president Simeon Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino (aka PNoy) committed himself to making Filipino exodus a matter “not of necessity but of choice” and protecting migrants when they do fly out of the country to earn money. In the six years that his government treaded his “daang matuwid” (straight path), more Filipinos have opted to work abroad. In 2013, some 10.4 million Filipinos went abroad, 2.3 million of whom are overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Of these OFWs 45.1 percent are from the largest island of Luzon, the rest are from the Mindanao and the Visayas island groups. Government statistics maintain that most of these are from the Visayas and not Mindanao.

PNoy went abroad more than 40 times. In his 2016 trips, he campaigned furiously for his anointed Mar Roxas in Filipino communities in Rome and California. At home and in his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) in late July 2015, PNoy said less OFWs were abroad (down from 9.57 to 9.01 million) and some 400,000 OFW returnees have found jobs, indicating falling unemployment and rising job availability in the country. Adopting his predecessor Gloria Arroyo’s conditional cash transfer program called 4Ps, PNoy has boasted of licking poverty conditions that creates opportunities for livelihood improvement.

Had PNoy’s sorties for Mar Roxas borne fruit, one, Duterte would not have won such number of overseas absentee votes and, two, Mar Roxas would be looking basically at migration from PNoy’s perspective. Speaking of said perspective, PNoy to his credit enshrined in the Philippine Development Plan some important aspects of migration and development in the latest Philippine Development Plan, but these too were at the insistence of government agencies working very closely with migrant civil society groups on the homefront. At the tail of his term, PNoy’s ability to look after OFW security became suspect as departing workers fell victims to airport terminal scalawags. Belatedly, his party-dominated Congress Lower House passed the a magna carta of seafarers but its Senate has not until its adjournment approved its own counterpart version, meaning, this too will have to wait for the a new legislature to process the same law.

Duterte’s promises

Duterte’s pro-labor stance is marked by his views against contractualization and his appointment of the patriot Sylvestre Bello and militant Mindanao labor leader Joel Maglunsod to head the Department of Labor and Employment. It has been clear that despite the country’s vaunted GDP growth over the years, poverty, unemployment and underemployment have persisted among the underclasses and the undeveloped regions. The crime situation in the Philippines is still a worrisome scenario. In the light of the dry spell impact on peasant livelihood, blood was still spilled on a Mindanao highway, an incident blamed on indiscretion state security forces. These concerns may pose serious challenges to the abilities of Duterte and his chosen men and women.

Related to Filipino outmigration, Duterte promised the creation of a department meant for OFWs . This may not exactly be first on the wish list of some 400,000 overseas Filipinos of the more 1.3 million registered voters who checked his name on their ballots. This promised department shall be housed at the Post Office building in Manila and should work to eliminate illegal recruitment. He told at an April Pangasinan campaign rally that he would also see to the establishment of an OFW bank and to track abuses against OFWs. The said bank will require such huge capitalization whose source shall have to be an additional cost of government. Meanwhile, tracking abuses will require creative and sustained efforts to nip OFW targeting plots in the bud.

Migration Scenario

Such OFW related moves under Duterte will certainly need new laws, a revisit of the old Labor Code (Presidential Decree 442) and the magna carta for migrant workers and its amended version, given the already available regulatory powers for relevant agencies provided for in said versions. With these laws and implementing rules already in place, but with remaining concerns as regards various incidents of illegal recruitment and abuse with alleged involvement of some foreign-based personnel, could a new department for OFWs really sound the death knell of OFW woes?

Contrary to claimed decline of OFW numbers, latest government statistics say otherwise, they have reached 2.4 million as of latest official count. Where other growth and development indicators are rejected by the general populace, rising deployment figures and increasing remittances may be used instead by those wishing to please the leadership and not the people who have placed their hopes on the former mayor of Davao City.

The Future of the Pinoy Diaspora

In Dutertes’s home island Mindanao, land of his birth, the promise and reality of economic growth must make prospective migrants think deeper about working abroad. Expectedly, some “experts” are less optimistic about it. Prevarications about the real score in migration outcomes, especially from state agencies that have stubbornly refused their shortcomings, failures and hypocrisies lest they lose legitimacy, will hopefully be tamed by Duterte’s angry speeches and marching orders.

Rhetorically, as civil society groups have continuously mouthed: government must not use migration as a strategy for development. The inequitable development outcomes from development plans and program and from overseas employment itself that have bedeviled the many people in the rural and urban margins and in the remotest reaches in the country will make families decide in favor of moving first from the rural areas to the cities, and from the cities to overseas. Where government and its services are yet to be felt, lack of job opportunities, poor incomes, dearth of social services, rising social tensions and conflicts, families will choose to send their best candidates to earn money abroad for years if not decades to come.

Right now, stock taking by some agencies of Philippine migration possibilities are in the works, hoping to catch Duterte’s attention by more reasoned proposals on how best to lick illegal recruitment, empower and legitimate existing conduits of migration networks in the Philippines and abroad, even paint the best picture that would win awards for the best migration project. Meanwhile, make no mistake that the same villains in this drama have come to rest simply because Duterte promised to use the full force of the law. Just like drug lords and other characters from the netherworld, they will continue to reinvent their powers for mischief.

To make it plain, what we are trying to say is that changes in Filipino migration will not be immediate, long-lasting, totally positive, all inclusive, or free. Connecting or associating migrant outflows with improved livelihood opportunities and outcomes will surely require large investments in making people, special skilled workers and professionals believe that it is much worth staking one’s fortunes with better local resources. Appeals to emotional predispositions of families–since working abroad has been found out to be mainly family decisions—would somehow showcase a disconnect to previous state bestowal of heroic status (OFWs as “bagong bayani”, new heroes) for overseas job seeking. The sheer number of those abroad and the constant decision by a majority of OFWs to renew contracts over and over again already imply a certain unpreparedness to settle back home, despite job conditions below expectations, continuing risks to personal safety, rising tide of racism in some countries, some uncertainties in the fortunes of large labor importing countries affected by falling oil prices, continuing recession, and the rise of China.

Looking ahead and beyond

The Duterte government of course may be able to capitalize on the institutional mechanisms that past administrations will bequeath to him. More than 40 years of the labor export policy has kept the Filipinos from becoming totally bankrupt, it has exposed more Filipinos than at any time in the country’s history to foreign interaction, and allowed government to claim decreased dependence of foreign remittances since 2011. It can be argued that a large and powerful social base for a globalized workforce should have served a national development agenda that could strike at the roots of underdevelopment and incessant crises that fan the flames of hopelessness and distrust about governmental ability to help the poor first and foremost. Happily, that is not impossible and that is not just for the incoming government to decide or to realize.

That is why participating in the process of charting the path of Duterte-led reforms is a must-do among those whose sympathies are not just for the OFWs but also for the entire Filipino people. OFW-related demands requiring due process to take its normal course seem to be class suits that are to be weighed in the courts of public opinion rather than the courts that could make judgments as to liabilities and their respective penalties.

Migration and diaspora actors are the new forces of change and development. Their character and development must creatively pursue active forms of citizen involvement in making the state and its agencies account for presumably activating a renewed stage of Filipino outmigration. Where Filipinos live and work abroad, knowing and pursuing ways beyond patriotic appeals to love for the motherland is a major challenge to young generation of the expatriate labor force.

Ways of the diaspora are varied. A new government with old hands may not be the best partner in the possibility of opportunities but it is the interest of the people that matters in deciding what to make of such opportunities.

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