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Departures: Identifying the driving forces behind Filipino migration

It is the state of the economy, not an unwanted admin, that causes a “brain drain” in a country.

The May 2022 National and Local Elections saw the return of the Marcos family to the Malacañang Palace, a historic event for the nation. A common idea that floated around among non-Marcos supporters on social media is to leave the country, with many posts stoking this idea with magazines and cheekily giving tips on which countries to migrate to.

Even Sen. Imee Marcos herself jumped in the discussion, once sarcastically remarking to ABS-CBN News Channel reporter Karen Davila that she was surprised that Davila had not left the country upon hearing news of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s victory. These narratives may give one an idea of a Marcos Jr. Regime-induced “brain drain”.

The complicated world of migration

Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) economics professor Dr. Alvin Ang states that the biggest force that drives the migration of Filipino labor is more economic than political. “That’s not dependent on who’s in power; it’s a global push and pull of labor. The world requires more workers,” he reiterates.

Moreover, he explains that many countries such as in Southeast Asia and the Middle East are always looking for more skilled workers, and thus, the demand for Filipino labor will always be there.

Apart from the said demand for labor abroad, supply circumstances in the Philippines itself can push people to leave. DLSU Department of Political Science Assistant Prof. Dr. Allen Surla adds that the high population of the country in relation to the relatively small size of its economy means that there would often not be enough job opportunities for all who graduate from college, forcing them to leave the country to find better work.

“We’re supposed to be pushing for more employment in the Philippines, but the economy is simply not able to generate enough jobs. And we’re even hit by a pandemic so they can be even more constricted [in their opportunities]. So we may have more problems with unemployment and underemployment soon,” he elaborates.

Surla also notes the migration of Filipino workers is not always a bad thing. Remittances from these labor migrants form a vital part of the Philippine economy. Personal remittances brought the country a total of USD34 billion in 2021, equivalent to around nine percent of the country’s gross domestic product that year. Personal remittances being the income of migrant workers that is transferred to their families in the Philippines.

In a globalized world, Ang emphasizes that one cannot truly stop migration. In fact, barring someone from leaving the country is a violation against the human right to work and to live wherever they wish. However, for him, it is still important that the government considers how one can build a country that will help create fair opportunities for those who choose to stay behind.

“The only question now is how will you be able to convince people to stay and [to] be part of nation building. It is a critical element that any government can actually do,” the ADMU professor stresses.

Rebuilding a nation

To both Ang and Surla, the best way to convince people to stay in their country is to develop a better environment for them to be in.

“So in the Philippines, if you’re talking of labor migration, before you can do anything—push or pull people from migrating—you need to create an environment where there’s enough labor. The absence of [a good environment means that] you have no right as a government to impose a policy on [the movement of] labor migrants,” Surla stresses.

Meanwhile, Ang explains that Filipinos tend to leave the country not only due to economic reasons, but also due to social ones. There are Filipinos who prefer the social climate like customs, attitude, disposition, and the general lifestyle of people in other countries. Before Filipinos migrate, they ask, “What will make me stay in the Philippines?” and plan for their departure months or even years ahead.

He elaborates that while improvements in the socioeconomic climate of the country will not prevent migration entirely, it can still reduce the number of people inclined to leave by creating opportunities that attract people to stay and to serve the country rather than work abroad.

For Ang, creating an environment attractive enough for people to stay in is the more doable method as compared to forcing the Philippine economy to keep up with the more developed economies that migrants wish to move to. He elaborates, “What is the environment in the Philippines that will make them stay? If it’s a question of the economic [environment], definitely the pay and economic differential will be too big. You have to bring in other factors.” The ADMU professor furthers that these factors include the social and environmental aspects of [what he is describing]—things that the government “can do something about” such as “providing better peace and order, healthcare, education, stability of continuity, political stability, continuity, and freedom of expression.”

Surla adds that there must be a reevaluation of the strategies of the government. He suggests that priorities of the government should be reevaluated such as focusing on modernizing and developing the agricultural sector of the Philippines, seeing that it has wasted potential. While the Philippines is primarily an agricultural country, the sector is too traditional and improving on it can create more job opportunities and can keep the economy of the country afloat, the political science professor notes. He compared how Vietnam remained afloat during the pandemic by exporting rice to the Philippines, which focused too much on business process outsourcing, making the majority unemployed. 

“We are an agricultural country and we try to be something else–a [business process outsourcing] country. And now we’re hit by a pandemic, so [many business process outsourcing employees are] now unemployed.”

He stressed how the Philippines had misplaced priorities and did not use country’s advantage in the agricultural sector.

“Agriculture is something that is modern and advanced, and it will bring in more revenues, and it will create more employment…We need to put more [prioritization] on science and technology. If you don’t put money in science and technology, there is simply no way for us to reshift the path [toward] agriculture,” Surla adds.

Ang also points out, “Market forces alone dictate that there will always be people who will go to work abroad, because the pay differential is just attracting people out.”

Whether the improvement of social or of economic climates would prevail, overseas Filipino workers continue to weigh the pros and cons of returning home. As both Ang and Surla agree that it does not matter who is seated in the Malacañang, the question of “What will make me stay in the Philippines?” will weigh greater.

By Deo Cruzada

By Maggy de Guzman

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