Their way

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Friday, January 17, 2014

IT is almost funny in hair-tearing kind of way to hear the Philippine government announce the hiring of foreign workers for hard-to-fill occupations. Especially since the exodus of our nation's skilled workers who also leave behind their families and loved-ones continue without let-up.

Take the case of X-factor Israel winner Rose Fostanes and her winning rendition of the classic "My Way." Many Filipinos in the country and all over the world celebrate her victory as proof of the overseas Filipino worker's indomitable spirit - precisely the x-factor that made her standout from the set of contestants. But behind every such narrative is a story of heartbreak and sacrifice which we tend to gloss over or if we do recognize it, appropriate it for the easy triumphalist conclusion.

It is not easy working in a foreign land especially since the job that one occupies are hardly the secure and high-paying jobs that these countries secure for their own nationals. Instead, Filipinos all over the world assume second class citizen status usually at the mercy of their employers.


The story is familiar to all of us. Filipinos take their chances abroad knowing fully well that there is a possibility they will come home in caskets or that they will come home to broken marriages and families. Thus, for every success story like Fostanes is also a string of desperate narratives such as Delia Maga's and Flor Contemplacion's and more recently the hundreds of workers trapped in Saudi Arabia with problematic statuses.

In classes I am handling, I always ask the students who among them have parents or relatives working abroad. And always without fail, more than half of the class raise their hands. Many of the young in this generation do not have notions of regular family dinners as Filipino families break themselves up to make themselves economically-viable. When 10 percent of the nation's population are taking their chances elsewhere, then that is undeniable evidence that something is amiss.

That is why the announcement that foreign workers are welcome in a country reeling from perennial joblessness and as a result stages the imperatives for a continuing exodus of its educated citizens to foreign shores where lower-tiered jobs without security and protection await, sounds like a bad joke.

It is at once an indictment of the labor export policy encouraged by various governments since Philippine independence and at the same time exposes the utter failure of the public education system. Bereft of any solid plans for national development, government has fiscally relied on the sizable revenue generated from remittances. And following the imposed policies of multi-lateral financial institutions, they have overseen the shrinking of public institutions of higher-learning.

Coinciding with this announcement is the plan to synchronize the academic calendar with that of our ASEAN neighbors. Instead of the semester to begin on June, our education managers plan to move it to August essentially to attract foreign nationals to enroll in our schools. These two developments, the hiring of foreign workers and the synchronization of our academic calendar with our neighbors, are indications of the direction where government wants to take us.

That road’s destination is clearly the further liberalization not just of the education sector but also of the economy. We should now anticipate the closure of State Universities and Colleges in favor of a profit-oriented private education sector hungry for a new revenue base from the tuition of foreign students. With the K-12, our young will be shipped abroad immediately after high school addressing the demand for cheap labor overseas while the white-collar professions in the country shall be occupied by foreign nationals.

All of these sound like a tired refrain. Academics and progressive groups have been shouting themselves hoarse about the neoliberal direction of the Philippine government and its detrimental effects to its citizens since the 60s. But the obvious lack of appreciation of the consequences of these imposed policies by those in power one administration after another only tell us of the unchanging nature of our political economy. We remain elite-led and subservient to neocolonial interests.

That is why Fostanes’s rendition of My Way, triumphant as it may seem, actually rings like a sad and mournful tune in the context of these hidden realities. Indeed, the overseas Filipino worker triumphs in such harsh difficult conditions abroad and many have earned the right to sing about their victory over fate as the song eloquently expresses. In the same vein, the construction worker singing the same song in the local beer joints have also somewhat triumphed since with their meager pay check he can afford the five peso charge for singing the song sans beer.

It is no wonder then why so many get emotional and sometimes even get killed in this country singing this song. Seen from this perspective, it is actually a pyrrhic declaration of the Filipino’s struggle both here and abroad. The Filipino has no choice but to chart his or her own way because our elite and our government always have their way.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 17, 2014.


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