Toiling far from home to pay for Philippine dreams

MABINI, the Philippines –
Mediterranean-inspired, pastel-coloured 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 workers 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 OFWs,” 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 percent 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.

Filipinos, who typically work as
maids, nurses or service workers abroad, began going overseas in large numbers
in the 1980s.

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 percent of the 42,000
residents of Mabini, about 80 miles south of Manila, live overseas, 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

Nilo Villanueva, the mayor of Mabini,
said he had often heard this criticism from overseas workers. 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 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 Villanueva said.

At the private Santa Fe Integrated
School, which charges an annual tuition of $370, 80 percent of the 250 students
are children of overseas workers. About half have both parents overseas and are
being raised by relatives or housekeepers, said Louella D. de Leon, the

Kate Michele Mendoza, 12, and her
sister Christina, 8, are typical cases. With their parents working in Italy
since Kate Michele’s birth, they live with their grandparents and two cousins,
whose parents work in Oman. The parents return here once a year, staying one to
two months.

“We go malling when they are here,”
Kate Michele said.

De Leon said that while the children
of overseas workers were better off financially, they lacked discipline and
scored poorer grades than the children whose parents were present.

“The kids of OFWs have everything in
terms of gadgets – the latest cell phones that you can’t even find in Manila –
and they have bigger allowances than even the teachers,” de Leon said. “But
they have an attitude. They are arrogant.

‘’I don’t understand their parents,“
she added. ”They are working as maids in Italy and they hire maids here to take
care of their own children. They value their money more than their families.“

The national government has
highlighted the positive effects of the OFW economy, calling the workers
‘’heroes“ and presenting awards for the model OFW family of the year.

In an interview in Manila, Vivian F.
Tornea, a director at the Department of Labor’s Overseas Workers Welfare
Administration, said the benefits of the remittance economy far outweighed the
costs. Tornea denied that the national and local governments had become
dependent on remittances, saying that overseas workers’ contributions to
building public infrastructure were simply ‘’payback“ because they did not pay
income taxes.

‘’Just as we get assistance from other
funding institutions, why can’t we accept from our own nationals who are
willing and capable of giving something for their own community?“ she asked.

While the government has welcomed the
overseas workers’ remittances, it has done too little to ensure their long-term
financial health, critics say. Atikha, a private organization here, provides
financial literacy programs for overseas workers who, here in Mabini and
elsewhere, tend to invest in houses and vehicles that remain unused for years.

Ella Cristina Gloriane, a personal
finance adviser at Atikha, said overseas workers often incurred debts overseas
to build their dream houses here. ‘’That’s one reason why many of them can’t
come home,“ she said. ”They have to keep working to repay their debts.“

In the Pulong Lupa neighbourhood,
about half of the houses belong to absent overseas workers. No one answered the
doorbell at several houses, but a caretaker, Jovel Bonapos, 16, appeared at the
gate of a large pink house.

The house, he said, belonged to a
couple and their four children living in Italy. They visited only once every
two years, staying up to two months each time. The house had four bedrooms and
three bathrooms, and it is ‘’completely furnished,“ he said.

In a large house not too far away,
Lorena Sawali-Baquillos, 37, lives with her three children while her husband
works as a seaman. Sawali-Baquillos, who leads a small organization of OFW
families, said she understood the motivation behind building the Italian-style

“Filipinos are stuck on status
symbols,“ she said. ”After the sweat and tears of working in Europe for many
years, they build a big house to show the fruits of their labor.“

‘’But it’s weird,“ she added. ”How can
you enjoy your house if you can only see it in photos? The houses have huge
beds, even though they may use them only a few weeks a year. They’re fully
furnished with plasma televisions and ovens, but there’s no one to bake a cake.“


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