The Unoccupied Colony

by Ben Kritz
23 October 2007

Filipinos are very proud of their labor overseas. And in one small respect they should be, because they are good at it. They are a clever and hardworking people, and adapt easily to different cultures. But on the other hand, they are entirely missing the concept of how much harm they are doing themselves and their country by exporting their best and most abundant natural resource at bargain prices.

The people who fiercely champion the OFW invariably point out the well-known successes, the few who do make a mark in other parts of the world. Filipinos, they say, are respected for their talents in the medical field, they are world-class entertainers, and in recent years, no discussion of the subject can truly be complete without mention of what good boxers and pool players they are. But for every Filipino medical school graduate who becomes a respected doctor in another country, then are a thousand more who settle for being nurses or lab technicians. For every Lea Salonga, there are ten thousand wannabes who titillate horny middle-aged businessmen in bars from Tokyo to Toronto.

Filipinos are a race of servants, as even I can attest from my own former career in the automotive industry. In a dealership I worked in, the West Coast flagship for a major European manufacturer in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the longest-serving and most fiercely loyal employees were the Filipinos, including one man in my own department. He was a college graduate, as were most of his countrymen in that place. They were well-liked, they were appreciated, but not one of them was in charge of anything. Those positions were the exclusive province of us natives. The Filipinos were like beloved dogs; cared for and treated as members of the family, but not entrusted with anything more important than fetching the paper or keeping the squirrels out of the yard, no matter what their education or experience might have entitled them to. The few Filipinos who do excel in professional pursuits overseas and attain positions of influence and importance are applauded and respected, even by their host countries. To their compatriots back home, they are applauded and respected because they are Filipino. But to the rest of the world, they are applauded and respected because they achieved something in spite of it.

Still, most Filipinos believe the potential indignities of being an OFW are more than worth it, if it means a better life for their families back home. So what happens to their hard-earned dollars or euros or pounds that they send back to their families? Here�s an example:

A family that lives across the street from me consists of middle-aged mom, two sons in their 20's, a similarly-aged female cousin from the province who serves as a maid, an elementary-aged boy belonging to one of the sons, and an infant boy belonging to the other. Both young men have wives who are working as "domestic helpers" (the currently-acceptable PC euphemism for "servants") in Hong Kong, and whose incomes support the household. While their wives earn the keep for the entire family, the men leave child-rearing and domestic chores to mom and the maid, and spend their time and their spouses' money on customized scooters, the latest Filipinegro wardrobe must-haves, nightly gin sessions, and a string of girlfriends each. This goes on for about three weeks of each month, when the money runs out and life takes a decidedly spartan turn for a few days, until the next remittance arrives.

Ask them what they do for work, and the brothers, without a hint of shame, will explain that their wives work overseas. For all the patriarchal machismo of the culture they are a part of, there is no concept of responsibility. And the marketability of OFW's eliminates any incentive -- or short-term necessity -- for them to do anything other than what they are doing. Ask them what they will do when their wives come home, and they just shrug. After thinking about it for a while, one brother offers that he will probably buy a tricycle. How's that for hitching one's wagon to a star? More like hitching it to a mole.

Besides the disastrous effect the OFW phenomenon has on families, it has another even more calamitous economic impact that so far nobody here seems to grasp. The more foreign currency OFW's send to the Philippines, the more the value of the peso becomes inflated. In other words, the number of pesos exchanged for a dollar or a yen or a euro becomes less as the supply of foreign currency increases. Consumer prices change very little, if at all, to reflect the currency revaluation. A liter of milk that cost PhP 50 three years ago still costs PhP 50, but the peso in that time has gone from 56 to the dollar to 45, so in essence the price of the milk purchased with OFW remittances has gone up by about 22%. Even if the OFW, in the U.S. for example, receives an annual cost-of-living increase in his wages of 2 or 3%, which is a relatively common pattern, the Filipino families back home are still taking a double-digit pay cut. So it becomes harder to make ends meet from month-to-month, let alone save up for that entrepreneurial dream of a corner store or one�s own jeepney.

The OFW phenomenon is already a social and economic disaster for the Philippines. How long it will take for it to be irreparably catastrophic will be determined by the will of the government to concentrate on initiatives and structures that use all this human raw material in a productive way at its source, rather than selling it overseas; and it will be determined by the people being made to understand that the easy way out of their economic misery is actually the easy way into an even deeper abyss. Filipinos, so proud of having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, have only succeeded in reinventing it, with that famous "Filipino ingenuity" they have -- now the colonists don't have to actually show up to pillage the country's resources, they can do it by mail order.

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