More than Remittances: Tackling the Social Costs of Migration

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Filipino migrant workers have been, for the most part, the driving force of the Philippine economy. With 8.7 million Filipinos in 239 host countries, the Filipino has truly become a global and cosmopolitan populace. Since the first wave of migrant workers left Philippine shores in the 1980s, total remittances have increased from $1Bn to $10Bn in 2005: a ten-fold increase in roughly 25 years. This rate continues to increase as remittances reached an all-time high in 2010, amounting to almost $19Bn dollars.

Domestic worker carrying her employer’s child (Photo by S Mitra for ILO)

Domestic worker carrying her employer’s child (Photo by S Mitra for ILO)

However, the economic benefits that come with a steady increase in migrant workers and remittances come with a corresponding social cost: one that has rarely been discussed in terms of policies on labor and education. What used to be a band-aid remedy for the lack of employment opportunities here in the Philippines has become the lifeline of the national economy.

“I think it’s high time to tilt the balance of the discourse and now move on to the social aspects, social cause, and social consequences of migration,” Dr. Caridad Sri Tharan of the Miriam College’s Migration Studies Department explains. Recognizing this gap in discourse, Miriam College’s Women and Gender Institute (WAGI), in cooperation with United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), refocuses the discourse on migration by conducting an exploratory study highlighting the social costs of migration in four countries, including the Philippines.

In a public consultation, WAGI presented the summary of their Philippine survey to the public. In submitting the preliminary results of their survey, WAGI hoped to consult the public regarding the direction the study has taken, and seek suggestions from the public sector on how the study can be further improved.

In presenting the project background and framework of the study, Prof. Aurora Javate-De Dios, WAGI’s Executive Director, hinges the study on the prevalence of migration in the Philippines. “The migration issue in the Philippines,” she says is “quite central to our lives, and to the life of the nation.” She further expresses her belief that the status quo of migration can hardly be considered temporary, as was the original intent of the OFW scheme, since it has been in place and has considerably kept the Philippine economy’s gears going for the past 40 years.

However, because of this contribution to the economy, De Dios surmises that there is “an emphasis, an inordinate focus on remittances.” To fill in the gap in literature, WAGI came up with a study that emphasized the social costs and outcomes of migration, and integrated these social costs and outcomes with the bigger picture: linking them to economic and political aspects of migration here in the country.

Dr. Alvin Ang, head of the Center for Social Research of the University of Sto. Tomas, provided depth and context to the discussion as he presented his previously conducted study entitled “Remittances: Migration and Development in the Philippines.” One thing about migration and remittances, he says, is that it is “difficult to separate migration and remittances because the phenomenon is migration, and remittances, the outcome.” This presents a confusing problem in related literature: “It seems that remittances are more important than migration, but the truth is that the challenge is in migration,” he says.

According to Dr. Ang, there has been no consensus on the pure benefits of migration, based on the existing literature. “But there are really benefits, and there are really costs,” he says, and so there is an attempt on their part to segregate the economic benefits and then look at the social costs. His study focused mainly on the macroeconomic benefits of migration and its corresponding costs by looking at how migration has affected society, especially the family, in terms of relationships among its members.

Dr. Ang’s presentation was followed by Dr. Nanette Dungo of Miriam’s WAGI, who is also formerly a professor of sociology in the University of the Philippines. She provided the summary of the results of WAGI’s study on the social costs of migration, which aims to zero-in on the effects of migration on the micro-level by focusing on the families migrant workers leave behind here in the Philippines.

The results of WAGI’s study tackled the emerging issues encountered by families left behind, many of which concern the relationships between the members of the family. The Filipino family has begun to experience a change in structure, roles, and norms, as plural authority coming from older relatives seem to confuse the children who are left behind, following a rising re-configuration of family structure and processes. Parental absence is also an issue as the parent-child relationship takes on a virtual form, relying mostly on mobile communication and the internet.

There is also an “intergenerational care deficit” on three levels: on the spouses, children, and elderly of the family as wives, mothers, and daughters leave the country to work abroad. On the other hand, women who are left behind experience both empowerment and disempowerment as they increase control of household resources while being burdened by multiple roles as they make up for the absence of a family member.

The effects of migration on children are no less kind, as they focus mainly on communication issues. Children who seemingly have an open and cordial relationship with their parents online sometimes have problems communicating with their parents in person. The children’s relationship with their guardians while their parents are away also presents challenges to the definition of the family in a number of different ways. One is, while they may respect their guardians as figures of authority, the guardians may experience some difficulties in exercising this authority because the children still look to their parents as having the final say. On the other hand, the relationship between parent and child may also be compromised as children may develop a stronger affinity to their guardians: the role of the parent in the child’s life being reduced to mere formality and a matter of legal documents.

Given all this, perhaps the most striking of the study’s results is one that concerns the Filipino’s view of ‘quality of life.’ The perception of the quality of life appears to be at the midpoint of the 10-point scale, with Filipinos preferring the perceived security of having a job and having basic needs fulfilled rather than having the insecurity of not being employed. The impact of migration of the Filipino’s quality of life then appears to be moderate.

During the open forum, members of the audience expressed their appreciation for the study’s focus on the social costs of migration. Several suggestions were made on how to further improve the study in terms of its methodology and approach but, at the end of the day, there was a general sentiment that there should be more studies such as the one pursued by WAGI that fills in the gap between economy and society.

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