Leaving on a jetplane

I’ve always hated airports. They make me feel sad.

I was at the airport in Manila a few days ago and I could not help but overhear the conversations going on around me. While many were flying out for leisure, a much larger number of Filipinos were traveling to other countries for work. In the few minutes I was queuing to enter the airport, I saw and heard a thousand stories. A couple lovingly embracing before the wife had to enter the airport. A child wailing, clinging to his father’s leg, refusing to his father leave. A mother, tears in her eyes, watching her son disappear through the gates.

A thousand heartbreaking stories.

The Philippines is a labor-exporting country. There are currently over ten million Filipinos working overseas, and one million Filipinos leave the country every year to work abroad. Filipinos, though, are not the largest number of migrant workers in the world. India’s overseas population is 17.5 million, Mexico’s is 11.8 million, and China’s is 10.7 million. A large number of these are most certainly migrant workers. Most of the world’s 164 million migrant workers can be found in North America, Europe, and the oil-rich countries of West Asia.

Work migration is nothing new and has been going on for centuries. I have nothing against migrant workers. In fact, I am one. I also believe that migrant workers can–and do–make positive contributions to the countries they work in. Yet the sheer number of people currently trying to find jobs and working overseas means that governments of “sending” countries (the countries where migrant workers come from) are not creating enough jobs or jobs with “survivable” wages at home. Many “sending” governments create labor export policies instead, and treat people as products for sale overseas. Governments generate income through this by, among others, charging exorbitant government fees for people to be allowed to work abroad and, more importantly, by taxing remittances migrant workers send home to their families. And they don’t even do nearly enough to ensure that migrant workers are protected overseas.

It’s not easy being a migrant worker. For many of us, that means taking out loans at usurious rates or selling valued possessions in order to pay for fees and travel costs. A huge number of migrant workers are victimized by unscrupulous individuals in cahoots with government agencies and public officials and end up being trafficked. For those who are lucky enough to actually get jobs overseas, they face discrimination and unfair labour practices in the workplace. Many do not have the same rights as local workers. Women are at a distinct disadvantage, since they get even lower salaries than their male counterparts and often face the threat of physical and sexual violence from their employers.

Being away from our home country and families takes its toll mentally and emotionally, too. Many migrant workers get depressed or engage in anti-social behavior to compensate. After having been away for long periods of time, many of them come home to find that their children do not even know who they are, or that their spouses engaged in illicit relationships with someone else while they were away.

Instead of selling people as products overseas, governments should create more jobs and increase income at home through agricultural modernization and industrialization. Creating more jobs at home prevents the brain drain that labor export policies create and may, given the correct circumstances, lead to greater economic development at home. Providing high quality education is also a must, as well as increased access to health and welfare services. Domestic labor policies that respect worker’s rights and promote their welfare should also be created and strictly enforced.

I’ve always hated airports because I’ve always associated them with leaving and breaking families apart. But maybe, if we work hard enough, if our governments listen, airports need not be sites of sadness in the future.

Photo: ABS-CBN News