‘Kabayan,’ they greeted me, the Filipino word for fellow countrymen and women. It brought me comfort to find a fellow Filipino in a Middle Eastern country I was visiting for the first time. Later in the day, when I went to the city to exchange some dollars for local currency, I saw more Filipinos, my beloved Kabayans.
They were everywhere, sweating in the scorching desert heat, toiling a living for their loved ones at home. I saw them behind the wheels of the hotel’s shiny black Audis, behind bank counters, inside exhibition halls of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, inside the hotel’s luxurious spa and in the hotel’s lobby lounge.
Two hours from Doha, in the industrial city of Ras Laffan, I boarded a hulking black LNG tanker and saw them staffing the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the ship’s crew.
Overseas Filipino Workers, they all are. Our government calls them unsung heroes and rightly so, because the dollar remittances they send home keep the economy afloat. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), recent data shows that remittances from overseas Filipino workers rose by six per cent to $1.68 billion in February from $1.59 billion in the same period last year.
The BSP expects 2013’s total remittances to grow by five per cent from 2012’s figure of $21.4 billion.
According to government statistics, there are 2.2 million overseas workers scattered all over the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and the US.
For many of these overseas Filipinos, however, working abroad is no paradise because they are separated from their children. Indeed, the social cost is high; children have to grow up without one or both parents.
Groups that promote the welfare of migrant workers have been calling on the government to provide gainful opportunities in the country so that Filipinos do not have to seek jobs abroad.
Migrante International secretary-general Gina Esguerra says the government must change its labour policies so that people can find job opportunities at home and wouldn’t be forced to leave for abroad.
What is happening, she says, is that the government is too focused on promoting labour export policies – or policies that encourage Filipinos to work abroad – instead of providing better job opportunities in the country.
And yet, the unemployment statistics in the country are stark and telling. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), the unemployment rate was nearly unchanged in January at 7.1 per cent compared to 7.2 per cent in the same month last year.
Furthermore, the NSO noted that the number of unemployed Filipinos rose slightly to 2.894 million in January from 2.892 million a year ago.
The numbers tell a sad story, as sad as the stories of overseas Filipinos who long to be with their loved ones instead of toiling in distant lands.
But this is the story of my many kabayans, millions of them, scattered around the world. They long to come home but for many of them, such a dream remains elusive.