WikiLeaks: US sees Filipino migrant workers as social 'safety valve'

by Jojo Malig,

Posted at Aug 30 2011 10:11 PM | Updated as of Aug 31 2011 08:39 PM

WikiLeaks: US sees Filipino migrant workers as social 'safety valve' 1
Millions of Filipinos have left the country to find better-paying jobs abroad.

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines would be a boiling cauldron of poverty and social unrest if it were not for the millions of Filipinos heading overseas to work in higher-paying jobs, according to a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks. 

Cable 05MANILA1808, titled "The 'Masa' as a Political Force," said social unrest in the country had yet to reach its tipping point.

"The export of OFWs provides an enormous political-economic safety valve for the Philippines; not only by providing needed hard currency for the domestic economy, but also by exporting large numbers of ambitious individuals from the 'masa' who might otherwise combine to force acute social-economic issues such as persistent poverty and unemployment to the political front burner and to take a pre-dominant political role against the entrenched elite," it explained.

The embassy memo, dated April 20 2005, is among the more than 3,000 cables on the Philippines that were released on the Internet last week by whistleblower group WikiLeaks.

The cable revealed how politicians, left-leaning groups, and even religious groups attempt to use the underprivileged and impoverished sector of Philippine society to promote various causes.

However, the poor "will likely remain politically marginal, especially with so many of its potential leaders heading off every year as overseas Filipino workers," it said.

The cable said the poor sector of society has "the numbers, but poverty and lack of education are constraints upon translating this into effective political representation and power."

"The extent of poverty and poor governance helps explain the enduring appeal of the CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines] as well as newer leftist groups," it said.

It quoted Joel Rocamora from the Institute of Popular Democracy who noted, "until now, the masa has shown the capacity to bring down a government, but not to build up a government."

On 'brain drain'

Another cable,  07MANILA193, meanwhile, questioned the Philippine government's labor export policy as a development strategy.

"Though no one in the Philippines is talking about exporting labor as a development strategy, this is effectively what the country is doing," the cable said. 

"Foreign remittances are the most dynamic sector of the Philippine economy, and have been for some years now," it stressed. 

"As qualified airline pilots, engineers, mechanics, nurses, doctors, and teachers leave the Philippines for lucrative jobs abroad, it is crucial that a broadened, high-quality education system provide new, well-trained workers to take up their positions in the Philippines.  So far, that is not happening," it added, highlighting the "brain drain" in the country.

The cable, sent by then US Ambassador to Manila Kristey Kenney, said Washington should not be surprised that the Philippine government encourages Filipinos to work abroad and remit their earnings despite labor shortages affecting some sectors.

"The steady flow of remittances improves the country's balance of payments and international currency reserves and strengthens the peso.  Overseas work also mitigates the effects of one of the highest population growth rates (2%) in Southeast Asia.  With so many working overseas, there is less pressure to invest in infrastructure and services in order to keep up with the growing population," it said. 

However, the diplomatic memo said continuing departure of experienced professionals and instructors places many sectors in the Philippines at risk.

"Basic education, particularly in math, science, and English, needs additional investment to increase the number of qualified workers and instructors in sectors at risk for brain drain and labor shortages.  Thus far, the GRP has not made the necessary investment in education to allow the country to benefit fully from its otherwise excellent workforce," it added.

New breed of OFWs

The cable said compared  to previous years when OFWs were low-paid service providers and unskilled workers, such as household helpers and construction workers, the Philippines is producing a new breed of OFWs.

"Professional and technical workers comprise almost 38% of OFWs, up from 31% in 2000. Production workers are now 22% of the overseas workforce, down from almost 37% in 2000.  The demand for OFW employment is at an all-time high," it said.

However, the decision of skilled professionals heading for greener pastures abroad has resulted in local sectors suffering manpower shortages.

These include the Philippine Air Force, which reported that 54 of its pilots resigned in 2006 to pursue work as commercial pilots. 

"Air Force pilots, attracted by higher pay and better benefits are mostly leaving to work for the national carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL), which offers senior pilots $4,000-$7,000 per month including benefits and productivity pay.  Other local carriers offer pilots only $2,000 to $3,000 per month.  However, foreign commercial airlines are offering experienced pilots up to $12,000 per month.  As a result of the pay disparity, more than 120 pilots out of the 700 qualified to serve as captains, have left the Philippines for overseas jobs since 2000," the cable said. 

"The problem extends beyond pilots, though.  Over the past six years half of the 3,000 Filipino aircraft mechanics have left the country," it added.
"Demand from carriers in China and India is expected to continue growing. The demand for experienced Filipino pilots will increase even more following an International Civil Aviation Organization requirement that all international pilots, radio operators, and air traffic controllers pass English proficiency examinations," it said. 

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) tried to stem the tide by requiring pilots and aircraft mechanics to give their employers 6 months advance notice before leaving to work abroad.  The airline industry also lobbied heavily for more dramatic action, such as a 3- to 5-year ban on foreign contracting of these professionals.

Salary disparity
The healthcare sector is also affected by the labor migration, according to the embassy memo.

"Since 1994, over 100,000 nurses have left the Philippines to work abroad, about 50,000 in the last five years.  Because of this outflow of nurses, many government-funded rural hospitals have severely reduced midwife services," it said.

The cable revealed that salary disparity is driving Filipino nurses to head overseas.

In the Philippines, doctors in public hospitals are paid up to $800 per month while nurses receive up to $115 per month.  "By contrast, overseas salaries for nurses can exceed $5,000 per month," it said.

As a result, many Filipino doctors are seeking work overseas work as nurses, according to the memo.

The cable also predicted future labor shortages in the education sector, as many of the country's best and experienced teachers leaving to work abroad.

"Salaries of teachers in urban areas currently average $3,000 per year while salaries offered by US recruiters average $36,000 per year," it said.

"Many teachers are also leaving to work as nurses and domestic helpers," the cable added.

"Recognizing the potential negative effects of the loss of the country's most skilled teachers, the Government plans to upgrade the skills of math and science teachers remaining in the country through in-service training and mentoring.  However, this may increase the marketability of these teachers for overseas jobs and thus contribute as much to the outflow as to the quality of Philippine education," it said.