Social Costs of Overseas Employment

Orly Mercado

Posted on January 2, 2007

A mother-in-law’s concern

We were saying our goodbyes after a short holiday vacation in Manila. As we were giving last minute reminders to our household helpers my wife remarked that one of them would soon be going overseas. Like us, and her sister who works for us while we are employed overseas, she joins the record-breaking more than a million Filipinos who are finding work abroad each year. My mother-in-law who is a retired dean of a college of social work reminded us of the social costs of overseas employment. She was concerned about the two kids this future overseas worker was going to leave behind.

My wife and I have discussed this issue before. While it is undeniable that there are social costs of overseas employment, poverty in itself exacts its toll on the family. The desperation and hopelessness that unemployment brings about can fray even the most loving family relationship. On the other hand, we have seen families lifted out of abject poverty by a breadwinner who struggles heroically in a foreign land.

Foreign currency remittance of overseas workers are vital to the Philippine economy. And while abroad, our workers also learn from the experience. We do not deny that there are horror stories of unfortunate victims of abuse by employers and unscrupulous labor recruiters. On the balance, our workforce becomes more and more competitive as they acquire new skills. And with the growing number of overseas workers from other developing countries flooding the job market, honing old skills and acquiring new ones can spell the difference between acquiring and missing opportunity. It is for this reason that the Philippine government’s recent decision to raise the basic pay for household helpers sent abroad may have been ill advised. The intention may be good. Experience however teaches us that these are matters best left to market forces. Like price control on goods, the benefits may be temporary at best.

Where government intervention may be more welcome is in the scrapping of placement fees and stricter supervision of recruitment agencies and accreditation of employers. There are temporary sacrifices that have to be made in the name of overseas employment. My mother-in-law’s concern about mothers separated from their children is well placed. In the end it is all about cost and benefits and how long the separation will be. It is for this reason that I always listen to my mother-in-law and to her daughter as well.

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