Overseas angels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am

It is late afternoon on Terminal 2 of Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, and passengers of Air France flight AF192 to Manila are gathering at the boarding gate.

As the crowd builds up, one thing becomes noticeable - hardly any Caucasians can be seen. When it finally takes off, the Airbus is so packed with Filipino passengers that you would be forgiven if you thought its code, AF, actually stood for 'All Filipino'.

The passengers are not tourists returning from vacation; they are employees coming home from work. The 14-hour ride on the Airbus is the long commute for scores of Filipino seamen, programmers and domestic helpers who make their living in Western Europe.

Every day, thousands of Filipinos shuttle between Manila and all points of the compass. Those flying out - more than 2,000 daily - head for work, those flying in are taking a break from it.

The government estimates that more than seven million Filipinos - nearly 10 per cent of the country's population of 80 million - work abroad. A couple of million are immigrants who have changed citizenship, but almost all send money to relatives back in the Philippines.

Their money has kept the country alive. One government official estimates that remittances from overseas Filipino workers total about US$9 billion (HK$70.2 billion) a year. Another official thinks the number could easily be double that, which would make Filipinos the country's top export.

This started in the 1970s, when the oil boom in the Middle East created a massive demand for construction workers and domestic helpers. Skilled, hard-working and reasonably capable in English, Filipinos soon carved a niche in the Middle East, where more than a million of them continue to work.

Plagued by a wretched, elite-dominated economy and venal politicians, more and more Filipinos went abroad.

The latest government figures show Filipinos work in 132 countries, holding down jobs ranging from domestic helper to medical specialist.

Though it has extolled overseas foreign workers as heroes, the Philippine government for years acted as if it were ashamed of the traffic in bodies. Only now, after 16 years of wrangling, is it passing a bill letting them vote abroad. Only now is it factoring in their contributions. According to Central Bank governor Rafael Buenaventura, 'remittances have been a factor for providing a healthy balance of payments position'.

What the government should really do, of course, is build up the economy so people would not have to go abroad. However, given a poverty rate of 50 per cent and unemployment of 10 per cent, this is not going to happen any time soon.

But it is a safe bet that when Lufthansa's daily LH745 flight to Frankfurt flies tonight it will have its quota of workers making the long commute.