New Internationalist

Transfer the problem

Issue 392

The money that migrant workers send home to their loved ones through official channels is now double the amount of world aid. But banks have been slow to respond – as this story by Yvonne Chua illustrates.

Yvonne Chua
An inspiring story – workers like Gabino Opalec (above) have been able to transform the lives of himself and his family through sending home remittances while working overseas. The payments have enabled Gabino to buy this bus, a home and an education for his family. Yvonne Chua

Bani, a town 420 kilometres northwest of Manila, produces what many say are the sweetest, reddest and juiciest watermelons in the Philippines. But farmers in this 237-year-old municipality live at nature’s mercy. Last year torrential rains fell until January, ruining their harvests.

Gabino Opalec calls Bani home, even though he never wanted to be a farmer. He began to understand why Bani inhabitants seized the chance to work abroad only when he got out of college and was hired by the local water district as a bookkeeper in the early 1980s. ‘I couldn’t even buy what I needed, let alone help my family,’ he says of his 360-peso ($6.80) monthly salary.

In 1982, the job market in Saudi Arabia was still wide open. On his father’s advice, Opalec applied and landed the job of a mechanic, maintaining trucks in the capital, Riyadh, for the giant Japanese firm Daihatsu.

Now 48, Opalec still works as a mechanic but now in the oilfields of Yemen for the French-American company Schlumberger. The days of renting old, musty houses for his family are over. Home today is an airy three-bedroom, split-level bungalow sitting in a prime location along the highway. He has put most of his five siblings through college. All his four children now attend a private Catholic-run school. He operates a 56-seater passenger bus that plies the profitable Dagupan-Bolinao route. And he owns six other big pieces of land, including a one-hectare ricefield and a beach lot.

His life as a migrant worker has not been without its downsides. The search for better pay has taken Opalec to four countries: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The hazards of his job – including potential exposure to the toxic hydrogen sulphide in the oilfields – are only too real. He has missed his children’s births and birthdays, Christmases and New Years. But Opalec has seen his monthly income grow over the years from $550 to $1,500, most of which he religiously sends home. ‘It’s worth it,’ he says. ‘Had I stayed, nothing would have happened to my life.’

About 3,000 Filipinos like Opalec leave the country every day, hoping to find work abroad. A tenth of the country’s population of 85 million now works overseas. They make the Philippines the third-largest migrant-sending country in the world, after Mexico and India. The payments that they send home to their family and friends – called remittances – totalled $11.6 billion in 2005: 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Opalec now sends his remittances through the formal banking system. But it wasn’t always this way. Early on he, like many overseas Filipino workers, relied in part on informal channels by entrusting the money to a town mate who was heading home, or bringing the cash home himself on a visit. Opalec says workers also send their remittances through individuals, groups, associations, and even courier companies and cargo forwarders, which are unlicensed to engage in such activity.

Bank services are becoming more relevant to overseas workers. However, the Asian Development Bank estimates that informal or unregulated channels still carry almost half of the remittances to the Philippines. Indeed, OFW International Holdings, an association of about 600 overseas Filipino workers (mostly employed in Saudi Arabia), says the money flowing through alternative channels could be almost double the official figures.

OFW International Holdings president Norman Gacula says there are many reasons why informal channels are still preferred. Banks are inaccessible – some Filipinos have to travel 200 to 300 kilometres to send their remittances. Bank rates are higher. Western Union, for example, charges $13 for $100 remittances and $68 for $1,000 remittances while informal channels charge a low flat rate; some as low as $5. Many bank transfers take two or three days compared to just one through informal channels. Workers can also get credit through the informal channels for emergency payments – something they can never get from the banks.

There is a sophisticated network of agents who are known to and trusted by migrant workers. Transactions can go as low as 1,500 pesos ($28) to as high as 500,000 pesos ($9,400). Gacula says the average is 20,000 pesos ($376) per month.

The huge volume of remittances has enticed banks to upgrade their services. By 2004, 16 of the 44 Philippine commercial banks dealt with remittances, servicing workers in 30 countries. Some banks, for example, now do door-to-door deliveries. Still, they can do more beyond trying to corner the market. Many still don’t provide loans or assist workers to manage their hard-earned money. As a result, workers often find their savings quickly depleted by, for instance, a family at home who squander the proceeds. This is why Gacula and his group feel it is about time overseas workers opened and operated their own bank. But that’s another story.

Yvonne Chua is an award-winning journalist who is the training director at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

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