Sunday, September 09, 2007

From OFW to Pinoy Expat: analyzing the Malu Fernandez controversy

Global talent has never been more mobile, thanks to changes at the national, regional and international levels which have eased their flow across borders. Many countries, developed as well as developing, have designed policies and programs to attract talented people as students, temporary workers and immigrants.Gerry Rodgers, Director, International Institute for Labour Studies, International Labor Organization

Ex·pa·tri·ate (n): somebody who has moved abroad; a citizen who has left his or her own country to live in another, usually for a prolonged period.—
MSN Encarta Online Dictionary

WHY don’t we discard the term “OFWs” and use “Filipino Expat” instead?

“Filipino expat” is a neutral term used by most countries in the world, and free from the harsh and bitter narratives that characterized the evolution of the descriptor for the hardworking overseas Filipino.

The use of the term OFW (overseas Filipino workers)—and the social narratives behind it—may have gone out of date, and may account for why the blogosphere blazed in sheer hatred and venom when a certain Malu Fernandez denigrated Filipinos working abroad and typologized class stratification in Philippine society in terms of Jo Malone-versus-Charlie/Axe.

It’s possible that many OFWs now are wearing Bulgari or Gucci or Poison by Christian Dior or Chanel No. 5, hence the global moral outrage. In fact, what the matapobres in this world failed to realize is that the composition of expatriate Filipinos working abroad has slowly but surely undergone a profound transformation.

For decades we were sending many unskilled workers all over the world, after those heady days of the ’70s when the cream of our construction workers were tapped by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries to build their infrastructure.

But then there was the wave of entertainers, mainly to Japan, and the domestic help—with many of the unskilled ones going to the Middle East and many of the college -graduate types, such as teachers—landing in Asia (primarily Singapore and Hong Kong) and Europe (Italy and Spain).

Unfortunately, besides the downside of labor export in terms of losing some critical skills for nation-building, the past decades were also littered with stories of abuse, primarily because of labor systems that were skewed in host countries. It was only in recent years, thanks to pressure from multilateral organizations, that host countries have worked more closely with labor exporters like the Philippines to substantially reform their work and wage systems.

These days, the share of skilled professionals (including those in the health field, such as nurses), technicians, managers, investors, engineers and accountants, among others, to the overall number of people leaving for work abroad are rising—partly owing to a deliberate, initially criticized state policy early this year to set floor wages for deployed domestic help in a bid to prevent labor importers from targeting uneducated, hence easily exploitable, workers.

Hence, if one looks at the distribution of Filipino expatriates abroad, one wouldn’t be surprised to have workers wearing varied types of fragrances, from the cheapest to the most expensive, befitting their economic status. .

This observation may find resonance in the fact that nearly half of the buyers of condominiums and properties in the prime areas of Makati and Fort Bonifacio, as well as in cities outside Metro Manila, are expatriate Filipinos. Why is the property sector on the upswing these days? Why are bookstores, boutiques and gadget shops selling expensive stuff proliferating? It’s the money from expatriate Filipinos. There is no longer any basis for the matapobres to look down on expat Filipinos anymore. Not that they were ever justified to do so anyway.

The typical narrative about the OFW is Angelo de la Cruz, that scrawny desert-truck driver begging for Philippine officials to bring the troops home so his captors would spare his life. It could also be Flor Contemplacion, the maid convicted for murder of a fellow Filipino maid in Singapore.

Their narratives—even when they were still called OCWs or overseas contract workers—are stories of privation and hopelessness, tales that particularly recurred during the ’70s and the early ’90s. From the perspective of the media covering the Philippines and even from many among us, the term OFW has come to be associated with images of despair and backwardness.

These narratives, however, have started to get obsolete since the late ’90s as more and more Filipino professionals and skilled labor are joining the global labor markets. Horror tales of maids getting raped are still there, but stories about successes of professionals abroad has also become prominent.

For every story about abused maids, there are several others about hotshot engineers, doctors, nurses, information technology professionals, accountants and bank managers making it big in the global scene. It’s now a mixed picture, one that won’t fit into the simplistic Jo Malone-versus-Axe class struggle format of Malu Fernandez.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon that goes beyond the usual Filipino-as-economic-refugee thesis. A significant part of this new trend is caused by global dynamics.

For instance, demographic change in advanced countries has prompted rising demand for medical and other professionals, and the Filipinos responded to this opportunity quite well. High crude prices brought riches to oil- and gas-producing countries. They are recycling these petrodollars in exploration and development, as well as the construction of rigs and oil platforms, and are hiring an increasing number of Filipino engineers, architects, geologists, mining engineers and skilled construction workers. That explains the double-digit growth of remittances each month in the last three years.

The rise of the knowledge economy is probably the most important factor. Global companies operating from Asia to Africa have realized that in this brave new world, competitiveness requires smart employees with good ideas in between their ears. Making money now is more about applying ideas to produce value; and it’s so easy to achieve that goal by bringing together critical masses of bright heads from various cultures. To produce graduates with “the global culture,” universities across the globe are recruiting professors from different countries to ensure “cultural diversity.”

It’s not only companies that are massively recruiting people; some countries, in fact, consider it part of their “national interest” to recruit people from various cultures. Countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand are among the most aggressive recruiters.

The world has changed—courtesy of globalization—and it’s making much of our biases, assumptions and perspectives about Filipinos working abroad obsolete. It’s time for us to appreciate and acknowledge this trend.

(Note: I originally wroted this piece as editorial for BusinessMirror, 10 Sept 2007)


Urbano dela Cruz said...


Neil Ruiz's research in this area might interest you -and is relevant to your discussion.

Neil is Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution in D.C.

His research Made for Export: Emigration and Higher Education in the Philippines" (the ppt is available as a pdf) shows that the overwhelming number of OFWs/Pinoy Expats are college educated. (up to 45% in 2000 -see slide 16).


Dave Llorito said...


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Dave Llorito said...

how i wish i could get the text of his paper. the power point slides are quite funny.

Dave Llorito said...

i mean the premises and conclusion are quite off tangent...

Dave Llorito said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Urbano dela Cruz said...

you might try emailing him directly. He's got a full plate (Brookings, the Migration Policy Institute, and AU) but he will respond to emails.

otep said...

Brain drain ang nangyayari sa Pinas dahil sa highly skilled Overseas Filipino Workers na umaalis dahil sa malaking sahod at opprtunity na offer ng ibang bansa. Nakakalungkot lang ang ganyang sitwasyon ng Pinas.