Filipinos learn to think outside the box on putting money to work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am

THERE IS THIS terrible but very telling joke about a mother-daughter tandem of Filipino domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, although they could have been based in Singapore, Rome or any one of innumerable, interchangeable postings.

One December, the daughter sent a huge box home to her family in a tiny, thirsty town in the Philippines.

In local parlance such cargos are called balikbayan boxes, named after Filipino expats who return to the motherland after a long stint abroad loaded with pasalubong - the accretion of their years of economic exile.

The box was huge - about three by six feet, and three-feet deep - and contained the well-preserved fruits of the two women's labours: tinned cans of sardines and meatloaf, bags of cookies and candies, variously sized footwear and garments, bottles of fruit juices bubbling perilously close to their use-by dates, knick-knacks and ornaments such as picture frames, candle-holders and lamp shades.

The box was accompanied by a letter from the daughter, with its litany of directives on which item should go to whom, and how this manna from Hong Kong should be divided among the members of the clan.

'And by the way,' went the daughter's letter, 'under the tinned sardines and meatloaf you will find a layer of blankets and curtains. And under them you will find, carefully wrapped in a polyester bed sheet I bought in Shenzhen, the body of Mother.'

'She died last week and I thought it would be much cheaper if I sent her body along with the pasalubong in just one balikbayan box. And the cargo people were very kind - they gave me a discount!'

The tale is, of course, apocryphal - although its tone of morbid desperation somehow perversely captures the experience of most overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs as they are bureaucratically known.

And yet, as an economic phenomenon, the OFWs can be a rare example of how free markets and minimum government intervention can work.

The history of the OFWs is closely linked with the country's American colonial experience early last century, when shiploads of Filipinos found their way to the canneries and plantations of Hawaii and Guam.

Under the Marcos regime, their ranks swelled. Desperate for US dollars to plug and pay its corruption-fuelled deficit and foreign debt, the regime promoted the export of Filipino talent in the 1970s, first to the oil fields and refineries of the Middle East and then to the world's maritime lanes and medical centres.

Every day, according to government figures, some 2,500 Filipinos leave the country in search of jobs. And every year, their numbers grow by 3 to 4.5 per cent.

By next year, about eight million Filipinos - or one in 10 of the country's 84 million people - will be working abroad, each sending home an average of US$1,100 a year.

The total OFW remittance is expected to hit US$8.5 billion for this year - 10 per cent of the country's gross national product - making the Philippines the third-largest recipient of remittance income, after Mexico and China.

The government has hailed the OFWs as the New Heroes, as their remittances help pay for imports and obligations related to the country's foreign debt - about US$56 billion. And while the government's budget deficit is expected to hit US$3.5 billion, the Philippines will enjoy a current-account surplus of about US$2.5 billion, thanks largely to the money sent home by the OFWs.

Yet, due to the government's outdated policies and the disincentives of a highly regulated and fractured economy, most of the OFWs' remittances are wasted on retiring usurious loans and doomed business ventures.

Given the country's backward capital markets and investment infrastructure and the insulting deposit interest rates offered by commercial banks, most OFWs prefer to invest their hard-earned savings in petty businesses including convenience stores and taxis, jeepneys or sidecar-equipped motorbikes - all of which lack economies of scale and are taxed to death by the government.

As a result, instead of a multiplier effect, remittances create hardly any wealth back home. Some of their petty ventures may employ two to five people, but at well below the minimum wage, let alone allowing for medical insurance or retirement benefits.

OFWs must be given the tools with which to make wise investment decisions. One area where this freedom of choice - and the ability to make an intelligent choice - has been exercised beneficially is in the property market. OFWs can choose from an array of housing projects from private developers, with the mortgage backed up by either a government agency or a commercial bank.

Unsurprisingly, Philippine developers are now aggressively marketing to OFWs in Canada, Australia, the US, Singapore and Hong Kong.

OFWs are a thinking lot. Despite the occasional jokes about their gullibility, they do make calculated risks, which may involve high stakes borne out of their desperation.

OFWs' ability to go for potentially higher returns is now being felt in Hong Kong, where the ranks of Filipino maids are dwindling as most of them opt for better paying medical-services jobs in Ireland, Canada or Australia.

And instead of shipping pasalubong boxes, most of them now prefer to send their families gift certificates or shopping vouchers that can be exchanged for more affordable goods in the Philippines. And so, as we enter the New Year, let us praise the humble balikbayan box, for its days may be numbered!

Jake van der Kamp is on holiday