Ateneo PolSci Bloggers

Permanence in the Periphery

In Political Economy on May 3, 2009 at 2:57 am

by Rosselle Tugade

The overseas labor sector has probably absorbed the biggest shocks brought about by the global financial crisis within the context of the Philippine economic system. The Department of Labor and Employment has reported that about 121,000 Overseas Filipino Workers have been laid off or given wage cuts. Various commentators and scholars have warned against the instability of labor export as a source of national profit time and time again. However, the State–in its sheer incapacity and incompetence to generate domestic employment and a strong local industrial sector–has tolerated and even glorified the fundamentally flawed policy of labor exportation. Thus far, the Philippines remains languishing into the lower rungs of poverty and underdevelopment and has significantly lagged behind its ASEAN neighbors.

The origin of the labor export policy is problematic in itself. Back in the 70s when land reform and the country’s manufacturing export industry showed the signs of weakness and instability, the Marcos regime propped up the exportation of labor as a temporary solution to the country’s slow economic development–that is, as a viable source of instant employment without concern of developing an equitable national economic policy framework. Fast forward four decades and four administrations later, the country has become too dependent on remittances generated by Overseas Filipino Workers to inject money into the country’s financial bloodstream. Worse, labor exportation has become a permanent and basic economic policy of every administration in lieu of developing a strong industrial sector and substantial agricultural development. Aside from its dire economic consequences of rendering the Philippines incompetent and a failure as a developmental state, labor exploitation has been the cause of several social problems, specifically creating fissures within OFW families. Not to mention, countless workers have been subjected to exploitation, abuse, and even death in foreign countries.

Labor exportation in contemporary Pinoy psyche, and how it got (and stayed) there

Yet despite the obvious dangers of overseas employment and its contribution to the retardation of true economic development, the State and to some extent, the media, has vigorously promoted labor exportation. The most apparent cultural testament to this claim would be the creation of the image of the OFW as the hero of the contemporary era, toiling and sacrificing a lot abroad for their families and consequently, the country’s Gross National Product. The reproduction of this image in the media together with the staple notion that working overseas is equivalent to grazing in greener pastures further socializes the ordinary Filipino towards the whole overseas employment phenomenon. More than anything else, this cultural problem is of course a product of faulty policies, institutions and economic frameworks.

It is no exaggeration to argue that the outbound direction of Filipino skill and labor power is a manifestation of the classical Marxist claim that labor has been converted into cheap commodity and is at the mercy of the market’s demands. One need not look further in substantiating this claim. Past State of the Nation Addresses delivered by Mrs. Arroyo have been sprinkled with the glorification of labor exportation as an innate strength of the Philippine state, wherein laborers like the Supermaids and Lady Welders are marketed and branded as the best in their ‘field of specialization’, just as how a retailer does in showing off his or her premium goods. This is what exactly sets the Philippines apart from its rich neighbors: we are being constantly pushed over and bullied by more economically muscled states into entering unfair bilateral/multilateral agreements out of fear that immigration and employment opportunities for the prospective OFW may disappear altogether.

Every time we complain about negative portrayals of Filipinos by foreigners as crude and lowly wage laborers and domestic helpers (most recently in the Chip Tsao fiasco over being called a ‘nation of servants’), we are thrown into a complex and unintended hypocrisy of sorts: while we refuse to admit that we are more than a labor-exporting country, our contemporary culture itself constantly replicates the opposite view. Another case in point, the ‘nursing’ trend in college and university enrollments. Ask an ordinary nursing student his/her purpose in taking up the course and chances are, the answer would be related to overseas employment. This whole situation is reflective of a state of affairs conducive to the perpetuation of utilitarian and mechanistic application of human productive skill, confounded by the fact that it is directed towards already developed economies. But as previously asserted, this sociological condition is a fairly recent implantation in the Filipino psyche and is representative of the sense of permanence of labor exportation in the Philippine economic landscape.

An economically castrated State

A glimpse at the National Economic Development Authority’s (NEDA) Medium Term Development Plan for the country only consolidates the claim that the State has virtually placed labor exportation at the forefront of its economic strategies. While there is a recognition of the concern for employment generation, the figures projected in the MTPDP are not promising in terms of productive economic restructuring: ten million jobs are expected to be generated by 2010, wherein one million OFWs per year (from the plan’s inception in 2004 until 2010) will be deployed accordingly. Simple logical calculation would lead to the conclusion that at least six out of the ten million projected employment opportunities will come from abroad, effectively depriving the domestic economy with half of a generation of the labor force. This prioritization of overseas employment generation is a perverse and maligned view of economic development. At best, this strategy only addresses the problem of sustenance as a country and not genuine national growth at all.

Going further into the MTPDP reveals a plethora of distorted strategies for employment generation that are either implausible given the current condition of the domestic market or potentially contributing to the furtherance of economic ‘anti-development’. While different in character from overseas employment, the NEDA report shows a prioritization of the labor outsourcing industry, which basically spells the same thing for the Philippines: that the country is bound to remain in the margins of the Periphery, prostituting its labor force to the developed world in search for cheap manpower.

Unlike its ASEAN neighbors who were but measly runners-up to our economy five decades ago, the Philippines stagnated into the pit of underdevelopment for lack of strong central planning and State supervision over industrialization projects. At present, the State remains institutionally weak and is seen as a contested source of booty for notorious rent-seekers for the perennial elites. Among the other plans stated in the MTPDP is the development of a class of highly skilled laborers for specific industries such as jewelries, textiles, etc. The problem with this proposal is the lack of a substantial domestic market and consumer base to support those industries. Moreover, the lack of strong State protection for domestic industries over cheap imports and highly liberal free trade poses a constant threat over local entrepreneurs. The literature on the matter generally points toward the conclusion that the neoliberal economic philosophy upon which the Philippine economy depends on is a sure-fire cyanide pill for developing countries. In times like these when the global economic system is going haywire, the Philippines’ lack of control over its clientele–that is, the developed world that imports our labor–will effectively render it helpless against the battering wind of crisis. As with culturally-themed attacks on the Philippines in relation to its penchant for labor exportation, the country is as equally helpless in economically injurious acts of the developed world.

Legislators are missing the whole point: instead of creating long-term employment alternatives to laid-off OFWs, they are scrambling to pass band-aid statutes to give dole-outs like tax cuts which will not address the problem of a weak domestic economy. Short-sightedness seems to be the inherent problem in policy-crafting in the country: whatever legislation secures votes and an additional term will do, even at the expense of long-term development. Still referring to the MTPDP, there is no mention of infrastructure development or investment. For instance, the proposed solution to science and technological progress in the local context is a ‘Balik Scientist’ program that provides dole-out incentives to Filipino scientists and researchers who have opted to give their services abroad where obviously, the R&D system and infrastructure is well-planned, well-supported, and well-invested in terms of relevant equipment. The same principle goes for virtually other jobs directed overseas: there is a lack of proper infrastructure and institutions (e.g. an established fair and formal trade union-government relations etc.) to attract and sustain high-quality employees.

However, the latter part of the NEDA output is retarded at best and disturbing at worst. Academic researches and studies on the Philippine economic condition have proposed a paradigm shift to a general framework away from the neoliberal model. However, what is utterly disgusting about the solutions forwarded by the current administration is colored with self-interested politics. The MTPDP explicitly posits Charter Change into a unicameral parliamentary government and is considering state funding of political parties. Historical experience is enough to show that political parties in the Philippines are deprived of differentiated trajectories and are more of electoral machineries than representatives of active democracy. Furthermore, the sorry excuse for an economic plan advocates for the revision of national patrimony in order to bring in more investments. This shamelessly adds insult to injury: at present, 1.2 million hectares of land are being sold to foreigners instead of being developed agriculturally for practical and social reasons; do we need a more explicit declaration of our willingness to prostitute our land and labor?

As we approach the 2010 elections, there is an urgent need for a revamp of the State and its policies that should focus on encouraging domestic growth and laying out a strong economic framework. What we need more than anything else is a State with big balls to resist the pressure of perpetuating the defective neoliberal economic setup of the country and will instead devote resources to infrastructure, education, and industrial improvement rather than debt servicing and the creation of a laboring-class-for-export. Our countrymen have sacrificed long enough to put food on the plates of their families and babysit the GNP, much like how a victim allows a vampire suck his blood and life away. Current economic strategies conjured by our statesmen act similarly to the undead, propping itself as alive and when the truth is it is already useless and deceased, or worse, rotting to the core. What this country needs is not a singular soul to revive the hopeless corpse, but enough collective force to push the dagger into the heart of the defective system and build a better one.

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