BY RAYMOND CALBAY
On my count, I have at least 24 blood relatives living and working overseas. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, first cousins—they have relocated to the United States, Canada, Britain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in search of the proverbial greener pasture.
If for anything, what they found were higher salaries, better social services, and colder climates. Extra money they do have—and these they send back to the Philippines in more ways than one: helping to put up a small business, paying for their nephew’s tuition, or rebuilding the ancestral house in the province. And sometimes, even to remit dollars monthly to feed, shelter, and clothe an entire family with no bread winners. From knowing relatives in the Philippines who solely rely on remittances to go about their daily lives, I understand the need for financial literacy and how it should be extended to OFW families.
The Philippine economy hinges greatly on remittances by its OFWs. Inflation and peso appreciation in part are regulated by some $14 billion of inflows from Filipinos working abroad. Local spending power is spurred by foreign currencies disbursed via remittance services. Condominiums, shopping centers, and resorts are built to capture money from this segment of our society.
On the other side of the coin, however, are returning OFWs with nothing to withdraw from their busted bank accounts. Household heads who budget money for the family usually have the penchant for buying things left and right that when the time comes for their OFWs’ contracts to expire, their economic fate also halts.
Pop culture is replete with the social cost of the OFW phenomenon. Broken families, deeper plunge to poverty, lives lost. I recall from childhood how some blockbusters capitalized on horror stories experienced by OFWs: the Flor Contemplacion Story (Singapore-based domestic helper hanged to death as convicted of murdering fellow Filipina) and the Sarah Balabagan Story (under-aged household help raped by her employer but received state-sanctioned beating because of conservative Islamic law).
The glaring statistics tell us that one in 10 Filipinos are out of the country for better opportunities, but with most of them working menial jobs like rendering domestic help and waiting tables (even as they keep college diplomas back home). Some have the fortune of being able to practice their profession, like nursing and engineering. This phenomenon has been touted as warm body exporting. The brain drain of professionals is apparent with the quality of healthcare, teaching, and that the country now has. Amid these concerns, the potential of OFWs as investors should be optimized to help not only the country but also themselves and their families.
Reunions that cycle back to poverty because of unplanned finances and sudden loss of income make going abroad and its toll on the family all the more tragic. Recently returning OFWs who find no other option but to reapply for foreign contracts again should not happen—and should be avoided at all cost. As a start, local government, community media, and schools should partner in educating families of savings and investment options for OFW families.