OFW Leverage

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on February 24, 2011

Successive Philippine governments have extolled the virtues of finding work overseas. The reasons are simple. First, the Philippines—largely due to decades of economic and regulatory mismanagement motivated by greed—can’t attract the foreign investment required to generate sufficient jobs for its fast-expanding population. Second, overseas foreign workers (OFWs) send extraordinary sums home to support their relatives.

The Philippines’ central bank—Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—estimates that 10 million OFWs—about 12% of all Filipinos—sent home almost $19 billion in 2010. This bonanza, which has fueled a consumer real estate and retail boom, comes at great social cost. Children grow up without at least one parent for most of their childhoods. Married couples living far apart from their partners over painfully extended periods frequently drift apart. A culture of entitlement pervades the social maelstrom, undermining productivity.

Last week another vulnerability became apparent when two Chinas—our giant sovereign neighbor and its so-called “renegade” province—separately held OFWs hostage to pressure Philippine government officials who rely on the masses maintained by OFWs for political support. In 2008, China’s courts convicted and sentenced to death two women and a man with Philippine OFW bonafides of ferrying football-sized caches of heroin to Xiamen and Shenzhen.

The impending death sentences were cited by Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III as the principle reason his government boycotted the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremonies late last year, which honored China rights activist and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo. With close to 700 Filipinos—mostly OFWs—being held for drug offences around the world, it’s fair to ask how many more moral and political principles the administration will offer up to save them.

Filipinos are naturally sympathetic, even when the objects of their sympathies deserve to be punished, in part due to a mentality one observer characterizes as “victimization:” Anytime a Filipino is attacked by a non-Filipino, he or she is considered a victim. In the case of the three drug couriers—called mules for good reason—sympathy is rather easily rationalized. Here are three desperately poor individuals struggling to support their families, looking for a break because their government can’t manage its economy properly. Despite the risks, when the chance comes for a windfall, it is willfully taken.

Of course, with potential rewards comes potential risk. If drug runners are eager to accept rewards for illicit deeds then they must accept the consequences when things go badly. For government officials, ironically, there is little risk involved in helping the three convicted OFWs. Rather, the political liability lies in not helping to save the lives of these seemingly undeserving individuals.

There is a caveat to that argument, however. If Mr. Aquino had not granted the gift of visibility to the three condemned Filipinos, their executions likely would have passed largely unnoticed. I’m not sure the opportunity to trade death for life in a Chinese prison can be considered a benefit of visibility, but Mr. Aquino is a clear beneficiary. Regardless of what happens now, his actions have almost certainly upped his already high political capital at home.

China is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, and Taiwan is its fifth. But about one percent of the Philippine population—somewhere around 90,000 OFWs—work in the island republic. According to reports, they support about half a million Filipinos. So when Taiwan is unhappy, so are Philippine government officials. After all, there is about $2 billion in remittances at stake and a sizable block of votes.

And Taiwan was upset last week after Philippine authorities arrested 14 of its citizens and 10 Chinese nationals on drug-trafficking charges, and then deported the lot to China in what appears to some as yet another act of appeasement. It’s not that Taiwan wants its drug lords back necessarily, but if they are to be punished, they want them to be punished in Taiwan, not China, where punishment is likely to be swift and severe.

China wants these individuals because they are alleged to be involved in smuggling illegal drugs to its affluent cities, not Taiwan. They or individuals like them are probably responsible for inducing OFWs to act as drug mules. They are bad people, and certainly seem an odd excuse for a diplomatic row with the Philippines, or even China. Nevertheless, Donald T.C. Lee—who heads the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines—reportedly threatened “the rights” of OFWs in Taiwan before heading home to protest the deportations.

In both instances, Mr. Aquino dispatched high-level emissaries to plead the cases of the OFWs, demonstrating their economic and political influence at home. While most OFWs are economic if hapless heroes, allowing conditions to be sustained that demands they be so is not.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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