NGO offers alternatives to overseas migration
by Gina Mission

Unlad Kabayan: Orienting OFWs in all aspects of the rice trade.

ike an addictive substance, all that is needed is a "try-out" taste before one needs or wants another shot. And another. In the words of May-an Villalba, Unlad Kabayan’s executive director, it’s a "cyclical trap" that renders the players almost totally helpless. "You keep going back," she says.

___Overseas migration, while definitely a boon to the Philippine economy, is an artificial antidote to an ailing system, according to NGOs working with overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). It camouflages the real unemployment problem of the country and at the same time, projects a false image of upward economic mobility to the migrants’ families. And for the migrants, Villalba maintains, it is a "pathetic experience."

___"After the first contract, OFWs return home where they would stay and ‘rest’. After a certain period of time, their money runs out and they remain unemployed. So they would apply for overseas work again, sometimes even selling the appliances they bought abroad to spend while negotiating for the next contract. When the second contract expires, they’d go home and the same pattern is repeated." This is how Leny Tolentino, a lay missionary in Japan, describes the ‘cyclical trap’ that OFWs are caught in.

___And like drug dependency, the cycle has to be broken.

___But the Philippine government, Villalba claims, has responded to the problems of migrant workers in a reactive way while pursuing a more aggressive labor export policy. Even President Joseph Estrada conceded that the country cannot absorb all the retrenched OFWs. He has told them to look for other jobs elsewhere rather than come back home. Worse, there is hardly any protective measure for OFWs abroad.

___"Philippine Overseas and Labor Offices exist only in some 22 countries and are inadequately staffed as the government itself admits," Villalba laments. "Migration hides the huge unemployment problem of the country. And unemployment is merely a reflection of structural problems," she adds.

___Unlad Kabayan, along with the Asian Migrant Center (AMC), Kanlungan Center Foundation (Kanlungan), Kapisanan ng mga Kamag-anak ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Kakammpi) organized last December the "Rights and Roots Campaign and Regional Consultation on Migrants’ Savings for Alternative Investment." The campaign gathered 60 grassroots migrant workers, unionists, migrant families, advocates and support groups from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines. Expectedly, the "re-integration" scheme came out as the means to prepare migrant workers for their eventual return to their countries and at the same time, help create self-employment for the OFWs.

___Re-integration, as defined by the group, refers to the "planned return of migrant workers, after a conscious effort to accumulate savings and an equal effort to invest in micro enterprises at home."

___"Overseas work is unstable - being menial, gender specific, low-skilled and highly temporary. Foreign countries precisely hire overseas workers because they are not compelled to provide more than token protection to foreign workers. They are accorded no union rights, no legal protection from gross exploitation and little accident compensation," declares Unlad Kabayan.

___But since the government is allegedly turning a blind eye to these problems, Unlad Kabayan insists: "Filipinos themselves must struggle to build up their own capital and to promote alternative investments and alternative jobs." It is for this reason that the organization turned to savings mobilization, building of savings associations among migrant workers and alternative investments at home as the "long term solution to the problems of migration."

___Such alternatives compose the organizations main programs. Unlad Kabayan promotes savings awareness through education and training seminars for migrant workers and their families. It trains OFWs and their families on starting and managing small enterprises by conducting various courses on feasibility study making, financial planning, book keeping, market networking and cash flow projection. These courses are intended to assist OFWs in deciding whether and when to start a business enterprise. For the undecided, the organization also provides business counseling.

___The group has set up relationships with local cooperative and rural banks to enable migrant workers to access funds for their enterprises. It gives credit assistance to OFWs and their families for agricultural production, for micro level agro-industries, organic farming and rice trading. It also manages the savings of returning migrants as well as their families. The organization has 94 partner beneficiaries and has put up micro enterprises such us grocery stores, agrivet stores, rice trading, piggeries, poultries and others, in Mindoro, Davao City, Metro Manila, Cagayan Valley and other locations nationwide.

___With the Asian financial crisis lingering and the OFWs’ future in other countries uncertain, Villalba hopes that more and more migrant workers realize the need to invest their earnings wisely. "The organization as well as its networks in other countries are doing massive recruitment efforts to introduce migrant workers and their families to the re-integration scheme as well as the alternatives to migration that our programs offer," she reveals.

___The projected establishment of enterprises at home, according to the group, helps create new jobs for returning OFWs and their families and communities, and prepare them for the time when overseas employment and dependency are suddenly terminated.

___Through these programs, which Unlad Kabayan has initiated since 1996 and have become model for other labor sending countries in Asia, the organization hopes to bring home migrants with "dignity, and as early as possible, so as to reduce the hazards they may be exposed to overseas."


Photo: Courtesy of Unlad Kabayan

CyberDyaryo | 1999.02.11