Not a mere option

BY MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

What saved us from the economic meltdown that spooked many a stable economies across the globe?

*Sound leadership? No.

*Strong economic fundamentals? No.

*Rule of law, more so in a nation of stable rules and meritocracy? No.

*A fortress-like center that held through a decade of failed leadership? No.

That the leadership was sound and governance was efficient existed only in the minds of the outgoing leaders—part-lie, part-myth that has to be spread around for posterity. Even the Marcoses still feel they left a legacy of greatness and why can’t the Arroyo administration do the same.

More, there is small base that is receptive to these prevarications. There is also a big chance that history books may just cut and paste from this body of myths and lies. There is really nothing unusual about leaders writing their own version of history. Shorty from Iran even leads the pack of Holocaust deniers.

But none of these can trump the truth. Our savior, or rather our saviors, are our overseas Filipinos. You can call them expats, you can call them OCWs, but the name hardly matters.

In yet another Hail Mary lob, the country’s overseas Filipinos worked their hardest during the clutch moments—when the world’s largest economies teetered on the brink of another Great Depression because of greed, lax regulation of exotic debt papers, investment bankers running amuck, capitalism gone awry. Last April alone, they sent in close to $1.5 billion.

How they did this—propping up the economy during the toughest moments—is by now familiar. Overtime, slave work, blood and sweat and tears. Nurses in North America took 16-hour work shifts. Construction workers in the Middle East moved those gantry cranes to build those skyscrapers 24/7. Domestic helpers all the more pandered to the needs of the royalty they served.

Seamen would scrub ship hulls for hours without complaint. The food and beverage crew would smile through the most whimsical demands of their tipping cruise passengers. The crew of trampers would stoically sail the routine sea lanes off Somalia.

Then, collectively, they would “Western Union” the money back home, undaunted by stories of philandering wives and husbands and children skipping school for meth sessions.

Nothing broke the hearts and the income-earning disposition of our overseas Filipinos. I don’t think describing them as “modern-day heroes” would suffice in describing what we owe them and what they mean to the country.

In an awesome feat at the close of 2009, figures showcased the magnitude and depth of their sacrifice. Overseas remittances—instead of dropping as it was in the case of Mexico and et al—actually rose in a time of a gloomy global recession.

There has been no story of collective heroism now that is greater than the story of our overseas Filipinos.
This is the context wherein most Filipinos would say: I agree with President-elect Noynoy’s pronouncements 99 percent of the time but have to disagree with his statement that overseas jobs should be a mere option for Filipinos and not the mandatory ones.

Then, they ask the president-elect this: Are there remunerative jobs for returning overseas Filipinos?

Instead of regarding overseas jobs as an “option,” the new administration should intensify the marketing of overseas Filipino workers and craft a program designed along the recommendation of former Clinton labor head Robert Reich in his book “ The Next Frontier.” Reich said these are “training and retraining” designed along in-demand and globally competitive skills.

While transitioning from an OFW-centered economic lifeline to a truly prodigious domestic economy teeming with well-paid jobs is a “must” program for the new government, there is no stop-gap lifeline other than OFW remittances. We keep repeating this sad thing but it is true—FDI and merchandise export receipts combined are even less than yearly remittances from OFWs.

We like this ideal of a booming domestic economy to take place. We really want to see the day when overseas jobs are an option, not the main economic lifeline of the country.

But the hopeful future cannot substitute for the harsh present.

Right now, we have no option but to stick with overseas deployment. The agenda should be to up the ante and focus on the marketing of globally competitive workers. If we can train cadres of professional managers fit for the board rooms of the Fortune 500, why not? If we can train technical people to man the centers of innovation at Silicon Valley, why not?

Our only policy option in labor during the transition period should be this: we should train the next-generation Filipino OFWs to be the next Vikram Pandits and Indra Nooyis.

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