by Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS CBN Europe News Bureau

LONDON – The long-standing debate on Philippine labor export policy was reignited at a trade union forum on overseas Filipino workers (OFW) as former congresswoman Liza Maza told UK-based Filipinos that migration is a not a solution to the country’s socioeconomic problems.

Maza, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives between 2001 and 2010, spoke on “Labor Migration and Development: The Philippine Experience” at the UNISON Center in London, a discussion hosted by public sector trade union UNISON, in association with Kanlungan Filipino Alliance and Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines.

“Labor export as a policy is not a sustainable development policy. It does not address the problem of hunger and poverty in the Philippines,” she told ABS-CBN News at the event.

“Migration is actually not bad, if it’s freely chosen as an option. It’s freedom of movement: you can go anywhere you want to work. The problem with most Filipinos is that labor migration has been forced upon them as a consequence of the lack of opportunities in their own country.”

She added that mass labor migration is causing an adverse effect on the local infrastructure, draining away sufficient supply of skilled workers from public services like healthcare and education, which consequently remains underdeveloped.

Talented Filipino professionals are also lured away too easily by better prospects abroad, depriving local industries of their potential and valuable contributions.

Labor export as policy

As of 2010, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimates approximately 9.4 million Filipinos living and working abroad, with a further 3,800 workers leaving the country each day according to Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW).

With an estimated 250,000 Filipinos, the UK is among the top destinations for migration alongside USA, Saudi Arabia, Canada, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong and Kuwait.

Most employment destinations, however, have been hit badly by the global recession, leaving OFWs and other migrants in a more precarious situation than ever before.

On top of this, the Philippine government has taken measures to reduce its spending by slashing the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the agency responsible for the welfare of overseas Filipinos.

In 2011, DFA had an annual budget of P10.9 billion, less than P1.7 billion to the previous year’s budget of P12.6 billion. It also announced the termination of 12 diplomatic posts by the end of 2012, affecting embassies and consulates from Russia to Venezuela.

“Many countries have been suffering from the economic crisis in the last few years, which led to budget cuts and austerity measures. This leaves the marginalized and the poor in vulnerable positions, including Filipino migrants,” said Maza, who was touring Europe for a networking mission on behalf of the International Women’s Alliance.

The former congresswoman for the Gabriela Women’s Party insisted that mass migration is not a viable answer to socioeconomic problems in the Philippines, blaming a succession of governments for using labor export as a policy to generate income and to alleviate levels of unemployment and poverty.

She also smashed the idea of migrant workers as “heroes”, an association often used to praise OFWs, which she claimed as propaganda used by the government to facilitate labor export policies and create a culture of migration.

“If they want to solve the country’s economic problems, they must first find a solution to poverty and hunger,” she said.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, labor export as a government policy started in the Philippines during the Marcos era, when the dictatorship saw an opportunity in the 1970s to combat high levels of unemployment by facilitating the exodus of the unused Filipino workforce abroad.

A public agency later known as the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) was created to act as a regulated channel for the provision of Filipino contract workers to foreign employers. Private recruitment agencies were also licensed by the government to facilitate this system.

This labor policy has been adopted by successive administrations ever since and has remained relatively similar with some developments along the way, including better provision of assistance and ensuring the welfare of OFWs.

The face of the Filipino migrant worker has also evolved throughout the years. Domestic workers, hospitality staff and construction workers have now been joined by skilled professionals in various sectors like healthcare, management, and education.

The migrant life

For the most part, the Philippine labor export policy has worked wonders for the local economy. In 2009, $20 billion in remittances kept the local economy stable amid the global financial crisis.

In 2011, foreign exchange remittances increased even further at $23 billion, generating approximately 12% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

But at what cost?

At the UNISON forum, OFWs and their supporters shared stories of hardships and triumphs. They worried over the effects of recent changes in visa regulations in the UK, affecting many of their friends who are either students or living with dependents.

They are also concerned about the recession, on how the budget cuts and austerity measures are creating an air of insecurity over their jobs and income, as well as resentment of unemployed British workers towards foreign workers.

They raised the issue of discrimination, of inequality, of poor working conditions, and of negative portrayal of immigrants in the media, among other things.

Yet many of them are also grateful for the opportunities, choices, and freedom afforded to them by their host country, and criticized the lack of such benefits in the Philippines.

They highlighted misconception in the homeland about life abroad, the perceived notion of an easy life, endless employment and boundless money jarring with the hard realities of being a migrant.

They were concerned at the lack of economic development and political stability in the Philippines, making it almost impossible for them to return home should they wish to do so.

“I’m in favor of migration. It’s an important contribution to Britain’s economic, social and cultural life. But I don’t think people should be forced into migration through economic or political circumstances,” said Nick Sigler from International Relations at UNISON.

“We’re not saying no to migration. What we are saying is that migration has to be a choice and not forced. And in order to reduce the levels of migration, particularly from the Philippines, economic development, fairness in terms of the economic system and changes in the political attitude are extremely important.”

Daisy Brett-Holt, a UK-based Filipino social campaigner, added: “If the system is already good, the country will become rich and we won’t have to leave our country. We can go out to invest or become tourists. Of course not all of us will stay in the Philippines. As Filipinos, we love to migrate. We are, by nature, migrants.”

For Maza, there is one thing most migrant Filipinos would want more than anything: “I think that most Filipinos, given the chance and the right opportunities, would simply want to go home.”

Standing up for their rights

Globalization has made migration both a necessity and a choice for workers around the world, promoting healthy competition, international development, and easier mobility in social, economic and geographical terms.

In the near future, at least, OFWs are here to stay. At the union forum in London, they demonstrated passion on important issues that matter to them in both the host nation and in their native country.

Yet according to UNISON, the majority of Filipino workers are still disengaged with activities of trade and labor unions in the UK.

Furthermore, after working on some missions in the Philippines, the group also observed that the country has comparably low levels of union activity, making it easier for employers and companies to exploit their workers.

“All workers, wherever they come from, need to be treated fairly. Otherwise what happens is bosses exploit the gaps between workers. We want to make sure Filipinos in this country receive the level of pay they’re entitled to, treated fairly with dignity and respect, but also aren’t exploited because of the work permit regulations they have to comply with,” said Greg Thomson from Strategic Unit at UNISON.

He encouraged OFWs to consider joining unions, including the Filipino Activist Network, created by UNISON members in 2011, to uphold their rights as legitimate workers in Britain.

“It shows Filipinos are engaging with society, standing up for their rights, and speaking up for themselves. And as you heard from this evening, they also want to say something about what’s going on in the Philippines.”