Sunday, 19 September 2010

Toiling Far From Home for Philippine Dreams

MABINI, the Philippines — Mediterranean-inspired, 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 workers who plan to return here one day.

Kate Michele Mendoza, 12, above, is able to attend a private school in Mabini because her parents work in Italy.

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 class.”

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 O.F.W.’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 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.

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 — 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.

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 principal. Read more

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