Filipinos toil far from home to fulfil dreams

pastel-colored houses dot the coast and hills of this rural town in the
Philippines, dwarfing their traditional counterparts made of unpainted concrete
blocks under roofs of corrugated zinc. The larger houses, barely inhabited,
many of them empty, belong to overseas worker who plan to return here one day.

Despite their absence,
the workers have contributed money to help build roads, schools, water grids
and other infrastructure usually handled by local governments.

They pay for annual
fiestas that were traditionally financed by municipalities, churches and local
businesses. Thanks to their help, Mabini became a “first class” municipality
last year in a government ranking of towns nationwide, leaping from “third

In one village nicknamed
Little Italy, where a quarter of the 1,200 residents are working in Italy, the
overseas workers paid 20 percent of the cost to construct a public hall.

“We couldn’t have
finished it without the OFW’s,” the village head, Raymundo Magsino, 64, said in
an interview inside the building, referring to “overseas Filipino workers.”

Remittances, which the
government says have been rising sharply — from $7.6 billion in 2003 to $17.3
billion in 2009 — now account for more than 10 per cent of the Philippines’
gross domestic product. The payments are also the main factor driving the country’s
recent economic growth, which would have otherwise remained stagnant.

Too much dependence on remittances

But critics, including
many overseas workers, say the government has developed an unhealthy dependence
on the remittances, turning a blind eye to their social costs, especially
divided families and the reliance on them to pay for services while failing to
build a sound economy that produces good jobs at home.

About 15 per cent of the
42,000 residents of Mabini, about 80 miles south of Manila, live overseas —
typically working as maids, nurses or service workers — compared with an
estimated national average of 10 percent.

One recent morning,
Jocelyn Santia, 40, was packing her bags after two months of vacation here to
return to her job as a housekeeper in Milan. She and her husband, who died six
years ago, began working in Italy 20 years ago after being recruited by an
employment agency.

Her grandparents and a
brother raised her four children here, though the two eldest now attend college
in Italy. Her sacrifice, she hoped, would yield good, white-collar jobs for her
children. But with her departure — and yet another separation from her two
younger children — looming before her, she expressed bitterness about having to
leave her family.

“The economy is bad
here, salaries are low,” she said. “It’s the fault of the government that so
many Filipinos have to go abroad. If there were good jobs here, why would we
ever think of going abroad?”

Nilo Villanueva, the
mayor of Mabini, said he had often heard this criticism from overseas workers.
Mr. Villanueva was elected in 2007 by campaigning in Italy and championing the
interests of overseas workers. The mayor connected Little Italy to the water
grid last year.

Yet, even as Mr.
Villanueva has sought overseas workers’ investments in a feed mill and other
projects, he said he worried about the town and country’s reliance on
remittances. “Many people have become lazy now because they are overdependent
on remittances,” he said.

He said the municipality
not only counted on investment from its overseas workers, but also had become
dependent on their earnings in less direct ways. Most overseas workers here,
for example, send their children to private elementary schools, which have
smaller class sizes and offer richer educational and extracurricular programs.

“They are helping the
municipal government because we are spending less on public schools,” Mr.
Villanueva said.