La dolce vita?

Rica Agnes Castañeda  - Panelo | Pictures: Jay Panelo

Vesnice Mabini Batangas zvaná „Malá Itálie” se stala symbolem toho, jak migrace změnila filipínskou společnost a kulturu. Pro generace Filipínců bylo „makapag abroad” (schopnost odjet do zahraničí) základem „filipínského snu”. Migrace se tak stala nedílnou součástí fili-pínské kultury. Jaké jsou hlavní rysy této „migrační kultury“? Co je jejím hnacím motorem? Je to kouzlo neznámého nebo je migrace vynucená neúprosnými fakty, tvrdou životní realitou a osudy plnými frustrace? Mabini Batangas jsme navštívili v době globální ekonomické nejistoty. Proto se následující otázka nabízela sama: Jaké důsledky měla ekonomická krize a z ní vyplývající pokles poptávky po migrující pracovní síle pro filipínskou ekonomiku, která je založena na migraci?

 A visit to an “Italian village” in the Philippines

“We Filipinos see property ownership as a major achievement. It marks you as a successful person. The bigger, the better of course”, explains Susan, who has been working in Rome, Italy, for more than ten years and has just returned to her village of Pulang Anahaw in Batangas, a province in Southern Luzon. The people in the neighbouring villages know Mabini Batangas as “Little Italy” because of the big and colourful houses, each perched on a hill along a narrow road only fit for one-way traffic. Susan takes me up the hill to a wider and paved street, which goes to a Catholic chapel. She shows me a stone marker, which informs the reader, in elaborate words, that this road was build as a collaborative effort from the village women working in Italy.

Recently this village has gained national attention, thanks to media coverage, and has become a symbol for the way migration has transformed Philippine society and culture. For generations, ‘makapag abroad’ (being able to go abroad) has be the essence of the Filipino dream. Encouraged by the state, which depends financially on the stream of money from the Diaspora, many young people prepare themselves systematically for a career abroad. In a background interview conducted prior to my visit of Mabini Batangas, Ms. Maybelle Gorospe, Director of Planning at the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) describes the consequences in this way: “Migration has become a part of our culture; a culture of migration.”

What are the characteristics of this culture and what is the driving force that has led to its emergence? Is it the lure of the unknown? Or is migration driven by hard facts and stories of hardship and frustration at home?

Written and researched in a time of global economic anxiety, another question was self-evident. What consequences did the economic crises and the resulting decrease of the demand for migrant labour have for the migration-based economy of the Philippines? How did the crises affect the culture of migration? Is the global economic recession at all directly linked to this big picture and what has been the ‘coping’ mechanisms and processes of both the migrants and the state?

The good life is imported - Migration Culture as Social Phenomenon

Philippine migration has a long history. When reviewing this history’s historical depth, one has to keep in mind that Filipinos have been travelling comprehensively already in times before the state was conceived. The ‘national heroes’ of the country with the likes of Dr. Jose Rizal, Gregorio del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena have gone to Europe to gain experiences that their country has not been able to offer under Spanish colonial rule. Although Philippine textbooks would give emphasis on these great men ‘educating’ themselves perhaps to romanticize their greatness, nevertheless they had to earn a living through their ‘day-jobs’ as copy writers, news editors, doctors, freelance writers in order to keep up with life overseas. There was even a long running anecdote of ‘Enrique’ — the native, whom the Spaniards brought with them in their initial discovery of the islands, being identified as the ‘first Filipino to travel across the globe’. He was never heard of, afterwards. Thus, this anecdote would end: ‘he migrated to Spain’.

Mass migration began as early as the early 1900s, particularly to the United States. Since 1898 till World War II, as an American colony, the Philippine Republic exported labourers first to pineapple plantations in Hawaii and California and later also to processing plants in Washington and Alaska. Philippine post-war history can be, from the point of view of migration, divided in several phases. The 1960s were a period of deployment of professional workers, who went mostly to Northern America and some European countries, while the exporting of contract workers (OCWs, or Overseas Contract Workers) began a decade later under then-Marcos government’s newly-established Labour Export Policy (LEP). Popular destinations for this type of employment include the Middle East for Filipino men to work in the construction industry, and affluent Asian countries for Filipina women, who work mostly as domestic workers or entertainers.

The presence of a large Diaspora, limited opportunities at home and the active support of migration by the state, turned migration into something increasingly popular. In a 2003 nation-wide survey conducted among primary school students from 10 to 12 years of age, 47% of the respondents expressed their wishes to work abroad someday . In 2004, an average of 2,500 Filipinos left the country daily for overseas employment,  a figure that only covers deployed personnel and not counting a huge number of the population who enter their country of destination as tourists, some of whom may be lucky in securing a work visa after a few weeks or months, and others who resort to overstaying their visas.

It is possible to distinguish three types of migrants in Philippine context: the permanent migrants, who usually migrate because of family reunification; the temporary labour migrants, whose main purpose can be tied to economic motives; and the irregular migrants, who are either undocumented (in terms of conflicting purpose upon entry) or illegal. Present statistics indicate that there are more or less eight million Filipinos working temporarily or living permanently abroad . That is 8.5% of this year’s projected population of 94.01 million.

Migration’s impact on the culture and mentality of the Philippines, where “overseas connections” have turned into a status symbol, is evident in everyday life. A good illustration for this provides the local film production, as there has to be an ‘overseas factor’ in all films -- either directly or indirectly.  It seems to have become something like a social norm or even the measuring rod for success whether someone is able to demonstrate that he knows - or is related to - a ‘Balikbayan’ (a permanent migrant-returnee) or an OCW (Overseas Contract Worker). The list of indicators for migration’s impact on Philippine culture is of course much longer: There are, for example, television programmes that make money out of milking this ‘overseas’ connection ’ Another example are household products and commercial brands that have been tailored to cater to these emerging needs of a new second-class household: migrant workers and their families.


Arguably the single most important constituent of the culture of migration is the stream of money from abroad. In Mabini Batangas, our Italian village, this money has not only enabled the construction of large houses, but also changed social structures and norms. At the kitchen table of Lola Myra, an old lady who lives on the paved road close to the chapel, the enormous costs of the recent fiesta are still a hot topic in the daily conversations: “We spent more or less 2 millions of pesos (35,000 Euros), on that fiesta. We had two bands, and several local artistes. There were a lot of people and some of the Balikbayans (returnees) were here”. I ask how such high costs were shouldered by the village. The people at the table are quick to reply: “It was from the associations. We heard there’s this big association of residents from this barangay in Rome and then there were also individual contributions from the returnees”.

In the Philippines, permanent migrants outnumber labour migrants by a few thousands. However, it is the latter that contribute most (together with irregular migrants) to the national economy, contributing a significant amount to gross national product (GNP) through remittances. Filipino migrant workers rank one of the highest in the world in terms of returns and remittances and it is no secret that thanks to this financial return, the national economy has been kept afloat over the years (13% of Gross Domestic Product), contributing higher than Foreign Direct Investment.

In economic theory, remittances were long seen as a mere by-product of the migration process. The work of Odon Stark and other economists in the 1980s and 1990s led to a change of perspective. While the individual migrant may still be seen as the main agent in the migration discourse, these newer works stress the presence and influence of households or larger societal units. Performance or behaviour of individual migrants in the absorbing labor market, Stark explains, may be largely accounted for, not just by their skill levels and endowments, but also by the preferences and constraints of their families who stayed behind. These shifts in the theoretical discourse seem particularly well justified in case of the family-centric Filipino culture. The importance of migrants´ concern for those left behind - parents, children and the wider family - is mirrored in many of my interviews with returning migrants, in which I here often hear statements like: “Isn’t this why we’re doing this — for our children?”

Questions on the motivation for migration were brought up in a discussion with some caretakers (grandmothers, aunts) of the ‘left-behind’ children, whom I met in another village of Batangas: “That’s why I was telling the children to study well, so that they’ll be like their mother!” says an elderly woman who has been taking care of her grandchildren for six years, ever since her daughter left for Greece to work in a hotel: “My other child, she finished a course of medical technology, she’s intelligent. That’s why I tell her other siblings to study well”, narrates Marie of her daughter who is working in Rome, Italy, as a caregiver. This form of ‘underemployment’ is common for university graduates such as Marie’s daughter. Positioning her daughter as an educated, smart woman in both formal and informal interaction with others, what may seem to be pity and frustration at first may turn out to be pride and the ability to face reality.

Back in Mabini, the topic of the discussion in Lola Myra´s house had switched to the pluses and minuses of migration. The old lady’s voice beams with pride when I ask her about her children. They are all living overseas with their respective families—two in Italy and the other in the United States: “I didn’t want to go with them because I’m scared to ride on airplanes”, offered Lola Myra when I asked her whether she’s been to any of those countries.” It turns out that also the other family members in the house have their own ‘immigrant connections’. One of the people in the room is Nina, a young lady who is a distant relative of the family. Like her parents, she intends to go through the same path after finishing her studies. “The problem with those who are left behind is that they become very dependent. They are only waiting for the next scheduled remittance. They are very lazy“. Our conversation is interrupted by a young man, who enters the round with the information: “Today´s exchange rate is 58 pesos!” “Here you see!” the girl makes her point jokingly: “That’s the only thing they know—waiting for the exchange rates!”

Supporting Networks and Institutions

At another corner of the village is a make shift shelter fronting a small grocer. Here the villagers sit and talk about each other’s lives and how their day went. Quietly listening to their discussion of the elders is Mira. I ask her whether she is also from Rome. She replies no, as she has been working at a factory in Sardinia for five years. She just came back to Mabini for a month-long vacation: “Life is harder now in Italy, especially as the European economy is struggling,” she contributes to the discussion. Single and in her 30’s, she is at the beginning quite reserved in talking about how her route as a migrant. “It’s easier now, for anyone who intends to work in Italy. There are more connections now in terms of recruitment. And costs are relatively cheaper. It used to be that, prior to departure, you had no idea how high the costs were. People were commonly victimized by illegal recruiters. Now, it’s usually people whom you know, those who went there earlier, that recruit people from our village”. Mira then narrates how, for her first overseas stint, her family had to shell out half a million pesos (8800 Euros) in order for her to leave for Italy. “We were in debt for more than a year. But I’m luckier perhaps. Our neighbour’s first foray into working overseas was a disaster. The family was tricked by this ex-seminarian who ran an illegal recruitment agency. It’s a good thing he left the church. All her money lost! They weren’t able to get him; they even filed a police report”.

While migration remains a risky and unpredictable business that requires the luck of the individual and mercy by the receiving state, the existence of networks somewhat alleviates the risks and unpredictability. Mira owes much to the fact that migrant networks are stronger and more advanced now, thanks to technologies like sms-messaging and the internet. Ready information that passes through these media, it seems, create transparency and real time updates in the recruitment process. “Now, you only need to spend around Php 100,000 (1,750 Euros, compared to Mira’s 8,800 Euro placement fee, five years ago), as you can be recruited directly through direct contacts in Italy. The routes became more varied so these agencies have more competition.” It is also through these migrant networks that a sizeable percentage of remittances are being funneled to the beneficiaries, bypassing the formal means of sending money to the Philippines. Informal forms of remittance are especially prevalent in Italy with migrants seeing economic sense in sending money through a colleague who is leaving for the Philippines soon: “The remittance centers charges are high. So instead of giving this money to remittance centers, we can give the same amount or less to whoever is coming home soon. Then our families will get our padala (remittance) in Euro.”

As demonstrated by the example of Mira, most migrants from villages like Mabini Batangas depend on the support of various networks to master their way to places in Italy and other developed countries. Mira´s story, like the stories of many other migrants and their family members I was able to interview, highlighted the important role of the family as figures in the process. Negotiations, such as offering support by a family member to the migrant and the cultural trait ‘utang na loob’ (indebtedness), play part in framing the interdependent relationship that fuels the process.

However, it is not only informal networks that help potential migrants find a job abroad but also Philippine state institutions. Stahl (1986) describes the Philippine structural institutions in international mobility as significantly developed within the region. Having the tradition of involvement in international labor migration and currently sending workers to more than a hundred of countries, it has a highly sophisticated framework in regulating and supervising these movements.  The Philippine Overseas Economic Administration (POEA) acts as a regulatory framework of support for pre-departing contractual labour migrants, while the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) looks into reintegration and repatriation — more in anticipation of migrant return. Both agencies are attached agencies of the Department of Labour of Employment (DOLE) and are limited to membership. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on the other hand, aside from issuing the main travel document (passports) and legitimizing certification, performs diplomatic functions, being the main government agency in a migrant’s country of destination. While the earlier agencies are mainly for labour migrants, this state entity deals with all citizens of the state, permanent residents and irregular migrant workers. Through the trade bureau of the embassy, prospective sectors are also identified.

“We work in a way that the embassy will write a recommendation for the country they are in as a possible market for Filipino workers. Then we (POEA) will have to look at the country situation ourselves”, explains Ms Gorospe, Director of the Planning Branch of POEA. “There was one time that we were asked to look into this situation somewhere because it was recommended by the embassy in that place. We went and didn’t find the place conducive enough for our labour migrants. While we have a corrupt government, theirs was worse. We didn’t push through with the recommendation.” I inform her that there has been development on the recommendation and that there are currently Filipinas in that particularly country, who work as domestic workers. Ms Gorospe answers with a shrug of her shoulders. “That’s the problem. We can only act on our institutional mandate. If a migrant decides to go on his or her accord, then there’s nothing we can do about it”.

The receiving state on the other hand is at the other end of the process and serves as the finalizing agent, deciding on whether an individual satisfies the state requirement for entry. From what I have gathered in my interviews in Mabini Batangas and other places in the Philippines, this merits a different process altogether and is more emotionally charged than the initial decision-making. A matter of luck, as others may describe it. The embassy of Spain and the Netherlands, for example, will entertain any form of transaction only on an appointment basis. And in order for an appointment to be scheduled, one has to call a toll number that charges Php 36-40 (more or less 0.50 cents Euro) per minute. The call initially is forwarded to a trunkline, and waiting time to be connected is very long. The relative success of getting connected (reaching a real person on the line and being able to book the appointment) on the first try is also slim. “I have spent five thousand pesos (85-90 Euros) worth of mobile phone calls already and still have no appointment”, says Corazon, a Filipino-Hispanic, who was frustrated already, “appointments have to be scheduled a month in advance, or, as schedules are already full, even a month earlier.” Another woman, Lisa, is close to tears: “I simply asked for a favour from my cousin, to call for an appointment. Through him I got information on the date and the time and what I needed I bring with me. I was not given any reference number. My God, why can’t they be a bit considerate? I am scheduled to leave next week, now they have to reschedule everything.”

Times of Crisis

Places like Mabini Batangas are the very beginning of the global supply lines that deliver flexible and cheap workers from regions with limited economic opportunities to places of affluence and economic growth. Like in thousands of other villages across the globe, migration might be for the people of Mabini Batangas the only realistic choice if they want to secure some share of the global economic wealth for themselves and their families. Obviously, it is a choice that comes with a price, as it brings about hardships such as the long-term separation of families or the insecure life as an undocumented migrant. Such negative aspects notwithstanding, the massive use of this choice has transformed both the society of the village and, on a larger scale, the Philippines. However, in view of the current global economic turmoil, one question is evident. How vulnerable is this strategy in a period characterized by a globally shrinking demand for labour?

Luckily, the Philippine’s domestic economy was hit less hard by the economic crises than other countries in Europe, the United States and other, wealthier Asian countries. Whilst economic growth was unimpressive already before the beginning of the recession, the statistics show no significant change after the crises began. Yet how did the crises affect those Filipinos who are working abroad? One indirect indicator for the economic crises´ impact is results of recent surveys, which show that migration is seen by the Filipinos as a much less attractive choice. In 2006, 30% of Filipinos expressed their desire to migrate.  This number has gone down to 20% in 2008. In the second half of 2010, not more than 9% of the population expresses such a desire. . With no clear signs of rapid global recovery, it seems unlikely that the world economies will take in more foreign workers any time soon. However, the picture becomes more complex if we look at the crises´ impact on various social groups and professions. While the crisis severely limited the chances for professionals, the impact is hardly felt in the field of domestic work and care. Here, demand has never gone down and supply never runs out. Domestic work and care being among the most typical professions of Mabini Batangas´ “Italian” workers, the crisis is not really the big topic of the villagers’ daily conversation.

However, the crises did not, of course, spare everyone. Some Filipinos were unable to depart on trips they had been planning for a long time, others even had to return earlier. Ms Gorospe provides the example of a company that was recruiting nurses and caregivers for the UK: “The agency we subcontracted was able to fulfil the order. There they were, more or less a hundred healthcare professionals bound for the UK. Some of them had had to quit their jobs, some had to sell their properties. Then comes the bad news, they can’t go. And now they have to wait. Imagine the frustration and the agony. They gave up almost everything. What’s left for them, then?” Ms Gorospe also recalls the situation of thousands of Filipinos who feared loosing their jobs due to the downsizing of the electronics manufacturing industry: “A few of them were sent home, but that was just single cases. Most of them are back in Taiwan, with different employers.”

A particular problem is the anomaly of overproduction of educational institutions, which specialized on the needs of foreign economies. One example for this is the nursing profession: “Imagine every year, how many nurses graduate. Not all of them get jobs right away. Some may even be unemployed for two years or so,” says Professor Glenda Vargas, Dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila: “The nursing education became a milking cow for some educational institutions who just wanted to exploit this lucrative market.” Vargas was referring to former specialized institutions that later on ventured into accommodating courses entirely different from their specialty, such as the nursing health sciences, as well as rampant fly-by-night nursing schools. “We, as part of the practioners and institions in the field, had to step in. The quality of the profession is at stake.”

A chance conversation with a cab driver frames this perspective more directly. Bong, in his late 40’s and a family man of four children, just recently decided to operate and drive his own cab. He opens up about his youngest daughter’s current period of disappointment, as she has been unemployed for two years: “At first we thought, with that nursing degree she will never have difficulty in finding a job. Apparently, this country produces so many nurses and it’s not that everyone in the industry is retiring soon” he laughs at the idea. “Her elder sisters all finished with degrees which we thought earlier, had not much of a use. But both of them are doing well. How will we know, I am just a cab driver (he mentions later on that he used to work as an automotive mechanic for twenty years), and their mother is just selling goods. We had no idea this would happen when we decided to let her enter nursing school. She’s even a board passer”. When I asked him about working overseas, “We thought about that only recently. I told her that perhaps her luck can be found in a different country”.  

At the end of my visit, Susan shows me around her house, which features five bedrooms, a large living area, and a porch in a landscaped garden. She looks pleased and proud of her accomplishment. Indeed, it was a nice house that she invested highly in. Adorning the wall are pictures of her parents, her siblings and herself when they were younger, her nephews and nieces. A picture of her younger years in Rome shows her looking very fashionable, clad in black, sitting on a stool in her room. “My bella days”, laughs the single 40-year old. Her father passed away before her house was built, so it is her mother who lives alone in this big house of hers. I quickly ask her who is staying with her mother now, to which she smiles: “me”. “So, you have returned for good, then”, I ask. To this Susan laughs as if I was joking: “I wouldn’t have money after a month, so I have to go back and earn again. I only rest for a month then go back to Rome. I will work as long as I can. That’s how I afford a big house. And a one-month vacation”.