Philippine workers abroad: the boon has a price

Looking down the main drag of this farm town, Police Chief Eric Noble marvels at the modern conveniences -- byproducts of the fierce ties binding Philippine families.

Sturdy houses with concrete foundations now replace the thatched huts of a generation ago. There are new cars, washing machines, children attending private schools and former sharecroppers who have purchased the farms where they once worked as lowly laborers.

Such economic progress has come from remittances, the staggering $1 billion sent to families nationwide each month by Filipinos working overseas in an attempt to overcome extreme poverty and joblessness in their native land.

Since they began leaving their island nation in droves in the early 1980s, Philippine workers have become a staple in other nations worldwide, with the money they send home in many cases remaining steady despite the worldwide financial crisis.

Filipinos sent a record $1.5 billion home in June as more sought work abroad. Remittances for the first six months of 2009 reached nearly $8.5 billion, a 2.9% increase from the same period last year.

In her annual state of the nation address in July, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo hailed remittances as a driving force behind the economy. Labor Secretary Marianito Roque separately described the remittance system as a source of pride.

"The flow of overseas worker money in an unstable global economy demonstrates the resiliency of the Filipino people," Roque said. "Under the worst circumstances, our workers are getting jobs and sending home more money than ever. They are keeping the boat stable."

But some critics say the money comes at a continued social cost. The poverty-stricken nation of 90 million has seen 10 million workers -- more than 10% of its population -- join the overseas labor force.

The exodus of trained teachers, health professionals and engineers, some say, has done the Philippines more harm than good as those much-needed services go elsewhere.

There are also distinct social problems that arise when heads of households leave for greener economic pastures, officials say.

Though Noble, the police chief, praises the financial boost remittances give his town, he said the system is draining the Philippines of a prized resource: its people.

"Every day you look and shake your head," he says, "to see that someone else is gone."

A need to leave

Many Santa Barbara residents realize they must leave their isolated town to achieve a better life. But with millions of the poor living atop garbage dumps and under bridges in Manila, they know their nation's capital is not the solution.

And so they go abroad: One in 10 of Santa Barbara's 80,000 residents work in places such as Italy, Taiwan, Singapore and the U.S.

But recent months have hit hard. Since last fall, when the global financial crisis struck, many overseas workers have been forced to secure second and even third jobs to keep the remittance flow constant.

About 200,000 overseas Filipinos have lost their jobs since then, economists say. Many have returned to the Philippines, where, accustomed to the better salaries and working conditions abroad, they often do not want to take any available jobs.

Others are hounded by job placement businesses to repay hefty travel and work setup fees the agencies laid out in advance for workers leaving the Philippines. "They're stalked by loan sharks who threaten their lives if they do not pay," said Garry Martinez, chairman of Migrante International, a watchdog group.

The remittance system has also altered the lives of the stay-at-home families of overseas workers.

A recent International Monetary Fund study found that many extended families of overseas Philippine workers are refusing to pursue jobs at home that they consider too low-paying, preferring to rely on their monthly remittance cut.

There are social problems as well.

As parents leave home, children get left with relatives or friends who may not provide adequate supervision, which can lead to substance abuse and gang membership, says Tony Sarmiento, a Santa Barbara city official in charge of monitoring his town's overseas workers.

As a result, Sarmiento says, some workers abroad return home expecting to realize a dream of sending their children to college only to find that they dropped out of school in their absence.

"The worst part of this human export policy is that [the government doesn't] make the hard choices back home," said Benjamin Diokno, a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.

Some analysts say the Philippines must find ways to raise salaries to keep trained professionals from leaving the country. Statistics show U.S. salaries for some professions are more than 10 times higher than in the Philippines.

Teachers and nurses can make $25,000 to $45,000 in the U.S. doing work that pays about $3,600 a year in the Philippines, according to professional associations.

"We don't work toward a dynamic economy that would create more jobs," Diokno said. "Instead we rely on that paycheck from abroad."

Two jobs in Canada

Far from home, Lenin Posario is busing tables in Alberta, Canada, and mowing lawns to make ends meet.

He has made twice the salary he was making as a banker in Santa Barbara, enough to put his two oldest children in private school. But the loneliness sometimes threatens to drive him mad.

His wife, Ruth, was six months pregnant with their third child when he left nearly two years ago. He was headed for Canada to provide the family with a better life. Still, she felt abandoned.

"I was pregnant and emotionally unstable and suddenly a single mother," she recalled. "I couldn't stop crying."

"It's the price we have to pay, or our families will suffer," he said, sitting in his living room on a visit to Santa Barbara.

Maryann Bollesar also knows the anguish of missing her family.

Two years ago, she joined her husband in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where the former teacher works as a helper in a real estate office.

She left her two young sons with her younger brother in Santa Barbara. Each Friday, she talks to them over the Internet, able to see them via remote camera.

"I see how much they've grown without me and I want to burst into tears, I miss them so much," Bollesar said.

"But I try not to cry in front of them."

Her son Francis Ivan, now 6, a boy who likes basketball and hamburgers, stood in the living room of his uncle's home and talked about a mother he hasn't seen in two years.

"I want to hug her," he said, staring at the floor.

"Every week, I ask her, 'Mommy, when are you coming home?' "

But the boy's life is about to take another lonely turn.

The uncle he lives with, Edgar Doria, wants to move to Canada. He and his wife, Janet, plan to leave their infant daughter, along with their two nephews, behind with other family members.

Doria said he tries not to feel guilty.

"It's a toxic choice, but we have to go," he said.

"We're leaving the Philippines for the sake of the people we love."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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