Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Brain Hemmorhage

[Note: This piece was finished Christmas of 2004 and published 2005 in Sun Star Davao.]

Haven’t you noticed? Filipinos are slowly conquering the world! But not with conspicuous guns and bombs and missiles like what the Americans did with Japan, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. All over the world, we Filipinos are cleaning thousands of homes a day from Dubai to China to Amsterdam. We are laying pipelines in Siberia, constructing buildings in Taiwan, mining diamonds in Angola, teaching English in Korea, entertaining in Japan, ‘care-giving’ and ‘nursing’ in America and Canada, and sailing ships in all the world’s oceans. About 8 million of us or one tenth of the country’s citizens, support our families back home by working overseas – and singing, cooking, caring and sweet-talking our way into our employers’ hearts.

It’s easy to see why the Philippines has become the world’s largest source of migrant labor in the world – even larger now than Mexico. It’s because Filipinos smile a lot, are very patient, extremely hardworking and speak good English. Everybody loves us. (But like Sarah Balabagan, we have a zero tolerance for abuse – so don’t ever think about it!)

Time Magazine’s October 4 issue reports that Bahrain’s Prime Minister employs some 50 Filipinos in his own household. He is so fond of the woman who manages them all that he sends her home to the Philippines on vacation every year accompanied by a bodyguard.

There’s that other success story about a 30-year-old Filipino domestic helper who ended up marrying her 60-year-old billionaire Australian employer to the chagrin of his grown up children. He died a couple of months later but she lives on happily filthy rich ever after.

My cousin’s mother, who is a teacher, is currently working as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia for one of the King’s royal cousins. It’s a big household, she says, with various maids of different nationalities to do the cooking, washing, cleaning, and taking care of the children. The maids do everything, even if what their employers need is right in front of them - a glass of water across the table or a book on the couch just an arm’s length away.

Despite her employers’ demands to be served ASAP and their fetish for absolute cleanliness, my auntie is quite happy. She never gets shouted at or mistreated or sexually abused. (Thank God.) She even gets to go on a yearly vacation with the family to England and Las Vegas and visit the Universal Studios and Disneyland!

The mother of Jude, my friend, is also working abroad as a store attendant in Washington D.C. His mother left while he was still in high school and he hasn’t seen her for 10 years. She makes up for her absence by regularly sending her family a huge balikbayan box full of chocolates, medicines, books, clothes, shoes, etc. And every Sunday she calls the house to check up on her children.

Now that the last of Jude’s five brothers is about to graduate from an expensive private school, Jude is urging his mother to come home. She too misses them terribly and can’t wait to hold her granddaughter for the first time. But she says sayang ang pamasahe and she’d rather stay and continue sending money home.

I can’t begin to count how many friends I have whose parents work abroad to send their children to Nursing School who will later on most probably send their children to Nursing School too. Nurses now leave the Philippines at three times the rate at which they matriculate and enter the work force! This story of economic struggle, multiplied thousands of times over, is the story of the Philippines.

Our country of 80 million has a 14 percent unemployment rate and one of the highest poverty indexes in the world (nearly half the population subsists on less than $2 a day.) But now the focus has shifted to the Philippine middle class who also want to get out fast. Doctors, entrepreneurs, managers of big companies, bankers, restaurant owners, disc jockeys – everyone’s taking up Nursing. And the reason is simple: low pay.

In a global salary study done in 2002, the average Filipino nurse earned just $139 a month at home compared to $650 in Singapore, $982 in Saudi Arabia and $1,666 in the United Kingdom. Even Elmer Reyes Jacinto, a doctor who topped the annual medical board exams, wants to move to New York to become a nurse.

But not everybody who is studying Nursing feels the same way. I know plenty of Nursing students who would rather take up Engineering or Mass Communication or Architecture but can’t because they’ve been ‘forced’ by their parents to take up Nursing. The poor dears can’t stand the blood and the gore and the stink.

Fran, a Nursing graduate, tells me horror stories of hospitals with only a handful of nurses to take care of some 1000 patients because all the senior nurses have left to be nurses abroad. This is definitely not a ‘brain drain’ anymore but a ‘brain hemorrhage’!

Experts say however that it’s okay for Filipinos to leave by the droves because by 2005, the population might balloon to 130 million and halting the flow of migrants could make the country explode.

To prevent this ominous ‘bang,’ Newsweek reports that the government continues doing what it does best “licensing workers headed overseas, collecting fees for each departure, regulating a mushrooming labor-brokerage industry and tasking its diplomats to protect a burgeoning expatriate work force based on 56 bilateral treaties with host nations around the world.” This very profitable ‘business’ ensures that every year, Filipino workers pump into the country more than $14 billion!

Perhaps that is why when extremists recently took a Filipino truck driver hostage in Iraq, GMA immediately agreed to withdraw our tiny contingent of soldiers there to win his release. Now, everybody is still waiting for the release of Robert Tarongoy, a Davaoeno, who is being held hostage in Iraq.

Tarongoy slipped out of the country without the knowledge of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). So in an obvious effort to save face, Davao City Hall has announced that it is conducting a house-to-house survey to determine how many persons have gone to work abroad. It has even put up an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) center to help those returning home with problems from their respective jobs.

It kind of reminds me of the past when every now and then, returning OFWs are met with much fanfare at the NAIA and presented with a big cash prize. (For what? For doing their bit in Filipinizing the world of course.)

How times have changed indeed. Only a couple of years ago our government was shamed by its inability to create enough good jobs to keep its people at home. Now, the mentality is: “If you don’t leave this extremely poor and mismanaged country, you must be crazy.” Even my classmates have lost hope! Kim, my best friend, is taking up Nursing and George is studying care-giving while I’m still here teaching English to college students.

I’m crazy I know. Maybe I’ll come to my senses and go abroad to clean other people’s homes and take care of other people’s children when I’m broke and married and have 10 kids to feed.

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