How the OFWs will save the Philippines
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2005-05-15
Easily 40 percent of the responses I get for my columns are from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Inq7's predominantly overseas Filipino patronage records a whopping average daily page views of 1.8 million - which of course balloons every now and then during crisis season in our archipelago of many troubles. It goes without saying that Inq7 has become some kind of umbilical cord that links the many Filipinos out there to their roots.

In addition to my own personal OFW contacts, quondam or in active duty, my exposure to them has been enriched by the marvelous miracle of online correspondence. They react, they chastise, they cheer, they encourage, but most inspiring of all, they share with me - a virtual stranger to most - their dreams, frustrations and deepest fears. Some write in English in varying ease of expression, others write in Filipino. I try my best to respond to our OFWs, but given my limited time and energy, it is not always possible to do so. I consider it a great honor and privilege when readers share with me their views, concerns and even fears. To have readers connect to me, the person behind the words that somehow (I hope) had helped provide momentary relief from their burdens and nostalgia, is both spiritually and psychologically rewarding.

No one doubts the fact that the hard work and sacrifice of our OFWs help keep the country afloat. But I don’t know of any OFW who believes in the sincerity of the government when it tries to hail them as the "heroes" deserving of respect and recognition. The OFWs feel that what they get from the government does not match its "hero" rhetoric.

Maybe the government's processing of OFW papers has improved somewhat. Maybe the government has shown better handling of high profile cases like that of Angelo de la Cruz. Occasionally, OFWs may find leis band music welcoming them on their return home. But beyond these token tributes, the OFW is left staring at an empty bag because the government has not really addressed the more basic and important services that they need most.

Left with no other survival alternative, the OFW responds to the only one recourse left to break the vicious cycle of poverty and despair in the homeland. The money flows in and sooner than later, the effects of their hard work and sacrifice start to translate to better lifestyles for the family they left behind. But all this, of course, is attained at a tremendous risk and social cost.

In a desperate bid to seek a solution for their economic problems, many of our OFWs have made themselves vulnerable to abuse by foreign employers. For every Sarah Balabagan we hear about, I am sure there are countless others we do not even hear about. Some do not bother to bring it up for fear of losing their source of income. Some do not bother to seek justice because they neither trust the justice system of the host country nor believe that the Philippine government can and will make a difference for them. Like battered wives, some have been brought to the point where they accept their circumstance as simply a "part of their fate."

It does seem no different from the soldier being asked to fight an all-steel tank with roller skates and a baseball bat and thereafter be dubbed a "hero".

The worse off the OFW is in the economic ladder, the bigger the risk of employer abuse. With insufficient education and very little political connection, they are usually naive about the law and the avenues for recourse. It becomes ironic that he or she whose needs are greater must bleed the most.

Aside from the loneliness and the cultural alienation, the desperate OFW will have many fears and anxieties, some approximating the extreme sacrifice of risking one’s own life and happiness for the sake of family. The misery of separation from loved ones, the anxiety of not really knowing what problems may be brewing back home, the parental guilt of not being there to guide the children, possible adultery by the spouse left behind – these examples provide only some of the mental tortures of OFW life. And who have not heard of stories of spouses using the hard-earned OFW money for gambling or womanizing; or the husband who returned home to find his wife pregnant by another man and one who had also helped himself to the foreign exchange remittances?

But of course there are cases upon cases of OFWs who returned home with the blessing of a better life. And for as long as this possibility continues to exist, hard-put Filipinos will still seek the one option that offers the shortest proved way to economic redemption.

Thanks to information technology, physical distances have somehow been made more bearable. But no thanks to information technology, Filipinos overseas get their regular dose of toxic news from home via cable or the internet real time or on demand. When bad news is perceived by outsiders, they tend to be magnified and isolated from proper context, not to mention the fact that media has a traditional inclination to sensationalize. So imagine an already suffering parent overseas now having the additional worries about crime, drugs and prospects of a disintegrating home!

The Sleeping Giant

It will just be a matter of time before our OFWs will discover strength and power in their numbers. Unity will allow them to wield this power. Crisis, after all, drives people to take courage and express the best of their creative potential. Most OFWs have already formed regular social gatherings in their localities where they can be amongst countrymen. OFWs meet in the Piazza Cinquecento across the main train station in Rome, in Statue Square near Central Hong Kong, and so forth. Many join OFW Associations which help ease their homesickness and allow them to share their burdens with fellow Filipinos.

As far back as the Marcos years when the OFW phenomenon was in its infancy, I already saw what I believe were the beginnings of political and economic emancipation and empowerment – coming from the exposure of Filipinos to the ways of the developed world. Like pioneering travelers, returning Filipinos will most certainly describe to their neighbors and everyone else in the community how positively different and how orderly it is in those places where they worked abroad.

Imagine what possibilities can take place once our overseas compatriots gain more sophistication in the way they communicate with each other and with the world. Imagine what a united, coordinated OFW network of associations worldwide can do. Imagine millions of financially liquid Filipinos actively demanding and executing their right to select the kind of leadership they want. United, they can make and unmake presidents. No administration can survive a worldwide OFW withdrawal of support, especially if they dramatize their intentions with a suspension of remittances, an action which will be linked with the anger and indignation of all the people supported by these remittances.

It will not be far-fetched for this worldwide OFW network to think of using their financial muscle to demand the ouster of a corrupt and inept administration for a new leadership. The Macapagal-Arroyo regime could well be the recipient of one such action because of the depth and the extent of the problem her regime caused. If our overseas workers decide to use their trump card, Macapagal-Arroyo will have little choice but to leave Malacanang in order to avert a fiscal collapse which can open worse exit scenarios for her and her family.

Unlike their families, friends and communities back home, the OFWs are easily linked by today's internet, the mobile phone, fax and landline. With their number and financial resources, they can easily organize a well-funded mother organization that will coordinate all OFW associations. One dollar from each OFW given every quarter will be more than enough to fund such a mother organization. Having the same problems, concerns and working circumstances, the OFWs have more reason to unite than break up; as is the tragic fate of Filipino organizations that are plagued by what is called the crab mentality.

United, OFWs will wield more power than all the civil society groups, business clubs and retired AFP officers associations combined. Many of these civil society groups, business clubs and retired officers associations have narrow, even selfish interests to pursue and speak mainly for themselves. In contrast, the agenda of the OFWs mirrors the needs and aspirations of the ordinary citizen of the Republic.

From personal experience, I know that travel makes one more nationalistic. Perhaps it is because in traveling, one realizes how distinct one is from the rest of the world and how far removed one is from one’s nourishing roots. Feeling lonely, one therefore longs for the old familiar language, the taste and smell of those native dishes not even the best chefs of the world will ever be able to duplicate, and the comforting touch and voices of the people one has left behind.

The more you realize how impoverished, miserable and deprived your countrymen are compared to the rest of the world, the more protective you tend to become. And, as you broaden your perspective with the political and economic successes of the rest of the world, the more you see how short-changed and neglected your people are. When this happens, the more you gather a greater resolve to do something.

Last November, I was with a Philippine media delegation that attended the Focolare-organized NetOne International Media Congress held at the Pope's summer residence in Castelgandolfo, near Rome. In an evening of entertainment devoted to country performances, our delegation was asked to render a Philippine number. We were caught by surprise. We never expected that we would be called upon to do a number. All the members of the Philippine delegation realized that beyond their varying familiarity with each other, they never sang or danced together. Finding a song all of us knew was therefore the first order of business.

A dance number was out of the question. I was on a wheelchair most times and my good friend Conrad de Quiros, a fellow NetOne delegate, is a self-certified two left-footer. Conrad and Baryshnikov appeared to have made a pact. Conrad swore not to invade the world of dance. Baryshnikov vowed not to attempt his hand at essay writing.

We agreed to sing Bayan Ko as our contribution to the evening’s performances. Having been a People Power participant (Bayan Ko was the anthem of the struggle), I felt a lump on my throat. After we managed to make a decent account of ourselves, ABC-5 vice president Vic Vianzon commented that he did not realize that singing Bayan Ko outside the country can move one close to tears. And many in our group echoed Vic's experience.

This experience gives one that jolting sense of how an OFW must feel breathing and thinking out the essence of the anthem of nationalist and economic redemption every day of his or her working life out there. I am sure that in each OFW heart there is a great desire to straighten out the mess our country is in. He would have the greatest motivation for that - the urge to end the separation from his loved ones and that nationalistic fervor that reverberates in a Filipino's heart and soul when he is displaced from the land of his roots.

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