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Downturn hits Philippine remittances

By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Manila

Job seeker searches for photograph at jobs fair, Manila, 23 Feb 09
Jobs at home in the Philippines and abroad are harder to find

In the Philippines, about eight million people - one in 10 adults - work abroad.

Millions of families depend on the money they send back.

But now a crisis is looming - as the economic downturn means thousands are losing their jobs overseas and being sent home.

Migrant workers are called "the new heroes" in the Philippines because of the contribution they make to the national economy.

The money they send home to their relatives is crucial, paying for food, shelter and education.

But now a growing number - already in the thousands - are being forced home because they have lost their jobs.

Laid-off

Rowena is typical. She is 28 and found work last year as a factory supervisor in Taiwan.

Jeepney, Manila, Feb 09
The Philippines is home, but has never offered enough work

She has already supported her brother through school. She also hoped to save enough to get married.

But in December, just seven months into a two-year contract, she and all her fellow Filipino workers were laid off.

"My plans are shattered and broken," she said. "I spent so much on placement fees before going to Taiwan and I've not earned back the expenses. Honestly I'm shocked."

Rowena is now staying in a hostel in Manila run by a Christian charity, "Scalabrini". Its 80 dormitory beds are all taken.

When I visited, many were out at government offices, filing applications to go abroad. Others played chess in the shade or badminton in the hot white-washed courtyard.

A Biblical text was painted in large black letters along one wall, reading: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

Families are now having a very difficult time... they're worried they'll have to stop sending the children to school
Brother Luis Andres Maya, Scalabrini hostel

Brother Luis Andres Maya, who runs the hostel, says he has noticed a sudden rise in recent months in the number of migrants being sent home without finishing their contracts.

"Many factories are closing and the first ones sent back are the Filipinos," he said. "Families are now having a very difficult time. They're worried they'll have to stop sending the children to school. They depend on the salaries sent from abroad."

High hopes

The competition to go overseas is increasingly fierce. Last year almost 1.4 million people went to work abroad, an increase of nearly a third on the previous year.

I visited the multi-storey offices of the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency, a government department which processes applications.

The corridors bustled with men and women of all ages. Many were attending the agency's daily seminars which advise would-be migrants about their rights in other countries and cover all sorts of crises, including death.

Celerina Avedilla, Manila Feb 09
Celerina Avedilla is one of the lucky ones with a new contract

I joined a group of more than 50 locals sitting in rows on plastic chairs in a white-walled classroom. The tutor urged them to be good ambassadors for their country and to send money home to their families.

Ludy Lhour Tria, 30, was one of them. The next day, she told me, she was flying out to London to work as a technician in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.

It is her second overseas post and she admitted that working abroad involved a lot of personal sacrifice - emotional and physical.

But the money made it impossible not to go. In the UK, she said, she could earn 10 or 12 times as much as in the Philippines.

"I can support my nieces and nephews," she said, "and my parents who are old now and dependent on me."

Celerina Avedilla, 45, was about to leave for Spain, to work as a domestic helper.

It was hard, she said, leaving behind her husband and four children, one as young as 11. But the family had debts.

A few years overseas was the only way she could pay them off and then save to send her sons to college.

Oliver, sacked seaman, Manila, Feb 09
Those whose contracts are cut face huge problems back home

The hopes of these new migrants stand in stark contrast with the sadder stories told by those now being sent home.

Oliver, a gently-spoken man with a round face, told me he had spent most of his adult life working abroad, first in factories in Taiwan, then as an assistant cook on a Greek-owned merchant ship.

In December, the entire crew of 50, including the captain, were told to pack their bags. Oliver was less than three months into a new contract and is now unable to support his wife and nine-month old son.

"I don't know where to find money for milk and food for my wife," he told me. "It feels so bad."

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: The Philippines
25 Feb 09 |  Country profiles
An economy in crisis
16 Feb 06 |  Crossing Continents
Philippines seeks economic rescue
18 Jul 05 |  Business
Skilled workers desert Philippines
07 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Empowering the Philippines' diaspora
13 Feb 03 |  Asia-Pacific


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