The Learning

PBS Premiere: Sept. 20, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

Working abroad has become commonplace for Filipinos, weaving itself into the political and social fabric of their country.

Since World War II, the Philippines has gone from being one of the richest countries in Asia -- after Japan -- to one of the poorest, with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of just $2,007 in 2010, compared to $32,700 in Japan. A severe recession in the 1980s saw the economy of the Philippines shrink by more than 10 percent, and years of political volatility during and since the time when Ferdinand Marcos was president (1965 to 1986) have contributed to economic stagnation.

Easing poverty has been a top priority for decades, with leaders attempting various reform programs in hopes of spurring economic growth. One such effort was a decree by Marcos in 1974 to "facilitate and regulate the movement of workers in conformity with the national interest." Exporting Filipinos would serve as a source of foreign exchange and would increase revenue for the country's economy. Annual overseas deployment increased tenfold.

Working abroad has since become commonplace for Filipinos, weaving itself into the political and social fabric of their country. Of a total current population of 92.2 million, there are approximately 10 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) around the world in 170 countries, with 1 million in Saudi Arabia alone, followed by Japan, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan. Financial motivations for leaving are high: According to the World Bank, in 2010 26.5 percent of Filipinos were living below the poverty line, and as of April 2011, the unemployment rate and underemployment rate in the Philippines was 7.2 percent year over year and 19.4 percent year over year, respectively. Remittances account for more than one tenth of the gross domestic product of the Philippines. As of 2007, the Philippines ranked fourth in the world in annual remittances, behind only India ($25 billion), China ($24 billion) and Mexico ($24 billion). In 2010, remittances from Filipinos based abroad reached over $20 billion, the highest figure ever recorded, marking 8.2 percent growth from the $17.07 billion registered in 2009.

The movement does draw criticism, however. Economist Joseph Anthony Lim of Ateneo de Manila University notes that, prior to the financial crisis, economic growth in the country was largely spurred by remittances, which were used for private consumption rather than investment. He argues that the government needs to focus on implementing real reform at home that will provide sustainable growth and address systemic and structural poverty. Other common criticisms focus on the high social cost of migration, including the breakup of families out of economic necessity, and government neglect and insensitivity.

Those focusing on the positive side of overseas employment point out that poverty rates have been cut in places like the Philippines as a result of the practice, private money is less susceptible to corruption than foreign aid, governments have been able to reduce their borrowing, and consumption among the poor is a positive development rather than a negative one.

In the Philippines, OFWs are commonly called "bagong bayani," which means "new heroes."

Photo Caption:Dorotea Godinez underneath a welcome back banner at her former school. Bogo, Philippines. &nbsp
Credit: Miguel V. Fabie III (1968-2010)

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