Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

This article, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" by Teresita Cruz-del Rosario was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on July 17, 2008 (Manila time). Dr. del Rosario has given Barangay OFW her kind permission to re-publish this article. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. You may reach her at
From nanny-cum-cook-cum-laundry-woman in an Asian city, Maria promptly plunged into work in an export garments factory eight years after her return home. Wages were better, work conditions allowed her one-day-a-week off, and there was handsome overtime pay. Her life as migrant worker was irretrievably over.

Then one day she fell mysteriously ill. What started as a suspicion that she inhaled too much cotton dust from cutting fabric ended with a much deeper malaise, diagnosed six months after a cough that wouldn’t go away. She had contracted the HIV/AIDs virus.

She was promptly thrown out of her home that she helped build and sustain through eight years of monthly remittances. Her husband remarried and her children put her in a government hospital that has since become her home. Along with other patients, like her usually migrant returnees, she is hidden from view, a secret scourge that society has wished away into non-existence.

Maria’s mini-narrative mirrors the vulnerabilities that somehow disappear in the reckoning of advantages to both labor-sending and labor-receiving countries. Remittances and strong labor demand remain at the top of a list of economic justifications for why governments would adopt, however unofficially, the export of labor as government policy.

Yet it is also a central feature of the global labor market that the majority of foreign workers are young able-bodied women, hardly equipped with the socio-cultural-psychological resources to navigate the complexities of the global marketplace. Like Maria, many of them fall through the global cracks. Those who suffer from extreme misfortune plunge into a deep dark hole, unable to redeem themselves.

Some countries have stepped up to the plate, however. Sri Lanka, for one, has negotiated bilateral agreements with a Jordanian insurance company to provide cover for all Sri Lankan domestic workers. The costs borne by Jordanian employers are reflected in model contracts that embody all contractual obligations between employer and employee. Similar arrangements are currently being worked out with the Kuwaiti government.

Recently Thailand entered into bilateral agreements with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to manage the logistical arrangements involving 50,000 to 100,000 guest workers. This move aims to curb illegal migration through registration, and provide better monitoring and surveillance of cross-border migration. Such agreements are however silent on migrant labor’s rights or social protection measures available to them.

Singapore’s open admission that its continuing viability as a city-state hinges on constant labor importation translates into a series of policy and programmatic interventions to entice foreign workers to join the Singaporean workforce at all levels. Training for skills upgrading is an option to domestic helpers who can acquire a diploma as a nursing aide.

At the high-end of the labor market, Singapore allows professionals to apply for permanent resident status within three months, a recognition of their worth to the Singaporean economy, and a policy move to retain professional labor.

Most labor-sending countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines require pre-departure training for migrants, provide protection shelters for migrant workers in designated countries, and have institutionalized an overseas welfare fund to provide insurance benefits to workers and their families in case of death, repatriation, partial and total disablement. Membership in these funds is mandatory; hence migrant workers are automatically covered even before they have left for their work destinations.

Maria’s predicament, however, remains unresolved. Current social insurance schemes miss out on various other contingencies that afflict migrant workers the world over. The majority of complaints center on issues of non-payment of salaries, breach of contract, onerous conditions of work and cultural adjustment problems.
Workers arrive in these countries stranded, left to their devices when agencies in the receiving countries fail to show up at the designated pick-up points. Others are officially employed to work in single homes yet are asked to double-up at a family-owned restaurant or clean up a mother-in-law’s house. The worst cases forcibly end up in their master’s bed for sexual favors and much like Maria, their brutal predicaments are known only much later.

For those fortunate ones whose migration experience was all-around trouble-free, their return home is a tale of sudden insecurity. They have provided for everyone but themselves, accumulated no savings, despite long careers overseas. A long line of children, nephews and nieces would have grown up and been educated on remittance money, the family home refurbished, the land title fully secured and paid for, the sari-sari (convenience) store abundantly stocked with monthly shipments of goodies.

But the migrant worker returns home with only a suitcase of clothes and perhaps a television set purchased at the duty free shop in Dubai. Relatives teeming at the airport await a final dole-out of leftover cash. The migrant worker’s first day at home is a wash-out.

To date, there is no pension or forced savings scheme for migrants. For while countries with aging populations worry about the availability and longevity of social security funds and depend on migrant caregivers, there is little thought given to migrant workers’ desires to retire from overseas work someday. Yes, Virginia, migrants become old too.

Perhaps these additional social costs should be factored in when charting supply and demand curves in the global labor market equation. More pointedly, time has come to put more balls in migration governance.

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