Filipino migrant work exacts toll on children left behind

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune / December 25, 2008
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MANILA - Dolores Gerong's one wish this Christmas is to be back in the Philippines with her three children.

She is driven by more than holiday sentiment. Nearly two years ago, she left her country to work as a maid in Hong Kong, becoming one of the millions of Filipino migrant workers scattered around the globe.

The three teenage daughters she left behind need her, she says. Her husband cannot help: He has been working as a driver in Saudi Arabia for the past 14 years.

"I'm worried each time my sister, who lives with them, tells me they often stay out late at night, spending money that I worked hard to earn on frivolous things, and not performing as well as they used to in school," Gerong, 35, said by telephone from Hong Kong. "I need a serious talk with my children."

Gerong's anguish is a familiar refrain in the Philippines, where nearly 9 million people - 10 percent of the country's population - have left to take jobs overseas. These industrious migrants are willing to endure separation, sometimes for years at a time, to help support families back home.

Their contribution is also appreciated by their government. Migrants' remittances, valued by the World Bank at $17 billion last year, are credited for keeping the fragile Philippine economy afloat. In recognition of their value, the government has stepped up vocational training and other programs to enhance Filipino workers' attractiveness on the global market. Concerns have been voiced over how the current financial crisis could affect overseas employment.

But questions are increasingly being raised about the social costs of this heavy dependence on absent workers, especially now that the majority are women, most of whom are mothers who have left their children behind.

According to several recent studies, the "feminization of migration" is exacting a steep toll.

Filipino men have long gone abroad for jobs, mainly in construction and seafaring. But in the past two decades the ever-rising demand in the developed world for English-speaking caretakers - nurses, nannies and domestic servants - has opened the door wide for Filipino women. They are now found in great numbers in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Southeast Asia, notably Hong Kong and Singapore.

They are increasingly less likely to be found back home in the Philippines, caring for their own families. An estimated 6 million Philippine children are growing up now with at least one parent absent because of migration.

That the absent parent is now usually the mother has resulted in "displacement, disruptions and changes in care-giving arrangements," Vanessa Tobin, deputy director for programs at Unicef, said at a conference on migration in Manila in September.

Adolescents seem especially hard hit. A study released this year by the nonprofit Asia-Pacific Policy Center in Manila indicated that children between 13 and 16 are the most affected, with many dropping out of school, experimenting with drugs or getting pregnant.

Indeed, one of Gerong's great concerns now is that her eldest daughter has a boyfriend. "It upsets me that I am not there to see her through this," she said.

Rosemarie Edillon, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Policy Center, said, "It is worrisome that children in this age group, which requires the most adult attention, are actually the ones being neglected."

In its study of 120 households in several villages in the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the group's researchers found that children with at least one migrant parent had a higher incidence of common health problems like ear infections or scabies.

"You would expect that they would have the money to buy medicines, but there's only so much a grandmother can do," Edillon said. Many children of migrants are left in the care of a grandparent or other relatives.

Rebecca Lucero, who left her 3-month-old son behind 18 years ago to work at a Holiday Inn in Dubai, decided to go home to the Philippines for good in 2000, when the boy was 10. It was a decision that Lucero said nearly erased the guilt she had felt when she left Patrick in her mother's care. (Her husband, Rodrigo, is still working in a hotel in Dubai.)

"I am really glad I returned just when Patrick was entering his teen years," Lucero said. "Now, I can watch him grow up and guide him. I have been playing catch-up since I returned, but it is all worth it."

In Lucero's neighborhood, where 75 percent of the more than 1,000 households have at least one parent working abroad, steps are being taken to address the impact of migration on children.

Few work harder at this than Nimfa Melegrito, who runs Sammaka - a Tagalog-language acronym for the Organization of Migrant Workers and Their Families - from her home in a slum area of Quezon City.

Melegrito, 62, is herself a former migrant worker - she spent 10 years as a dressmaker in Saudi Arabia - and feels that her family paid a price for her absence. Although she was able to send money back, she was less involved in the lives of her children, none of whom finished college as she had hoped. Melegrito is convinced that "things would have been different had I been around to care for them."

Melegrito and her organization are trying to help migrants' families cope with their many problems.

"Teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, poor grades - name it, and we've faced it," she said.

A top goal is to provide training and placement for better-paying jobs in the Philippines, to wean migrants' families from their heavy dependence on remittances from migrant relatives, Melegrito said.

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