Michael Duque is a nurse in the accident and emergency department at a London hospital. Six years ago he left his home in the Philippines to seek his fortune abroad.
Michael Duque left his home and family to work abroad
As a nurse in Britain he earns about £24,000 (US $47,000) a year; doing a similar job in one of the top hospitals in Manila, the Philippines capital, he would be earning just £1,800 ($3,500).
He is one of some eight million Filipinos living and working overseas.
The money they send back in “remittances” – about $15bn in 2006 – is vital to the Philippines economy.
But there’s a substantial cost involved as well, for Philippine society and for the individuals involved.
The personal cost lies in long-distance family separation, something familiar to generations of Filipinos.
It makes her crazy and stressed; she gets jealous
Every month Michael sends up to £600 home to his family: wife Glenda, daughter Ella, aged 7, and son CG, aged 4. They live well on it, in a house in Manila’s suburbs.
Glenda, who trained as a nurse herself, is now a full-time mother. And Michael, like many exiled Filipinos, is paying not only to support his family but to educate the next generation of overseas workers: Ella goes to a local private school.
But Michael has worked abroad ever since his daughter was born, originally in the Gulf and for the past four years in the UK.
He keeps in touch by phone and e-mail and via the videophone on the computer and he gets home perhaps once a year to see the children.
But he misses his kids growing up and he misses being a father to them, he said.
His absence puts a strain on his relationship with his wife as well: “It makes her crazy and stressed; she gets jealous,” he said.
The children miss their father too. “Sometimes they say: ‘I want my Dad,'” Glenda told me when I interviewed her in the front room of their house, as Ella conscientiously did her homework on the sofa beside her. “Especially her, because she is the favourite of her father.”
Glenda looks after children as husband Michael works abroad
Ella is a solemn child: in the two hours we were in the family’s home I didn’t see her smile once and she scarcely said a word.
I didn’t see her younger brother at all: he threw a tantrum and stayed upstairs, screaming and slamming doors as soon as we arrived.
The Duques’ story is a familiar one. Everywhere you go in Manila you meet people with relatives abroad – hardly surprising when 10% of the population count as OFWs, or “Overseas Filipino Workers”.
They work as nannies and domestic servants, as construction workers, as seamen, as nurses and doctors. The Middle East used to be the prime destination; now many OFWs are to be found in the US, Europe and, increasingly, in other Asian countries.
Wages and salaries are so low in the Philippines that it often pays highly-trained professionals to accept much lower status jobs abroad: there are stories of headteachers getting jobs as nannies and doctors retraining as nurses.
Most of those who work abroad can be described as middle class: the rich have no incentive to leave, the very poor lack the education or the money to buy schooling and air fares.
But this haemorrhage of talent is bleeding the Philippines dry of badly-needed skills.
Dr Delen dela Paz is a community health physician attached to one of Manila’s top hospitals.
She claims that 11 government hospitals and about 1,000 private clinics have closed in the past few years thanks to the shortage of nurses and doctors.
It’s a challenge for the Philippines government, which gives every appearance of encouraging overseas workers. Special courses are laid on for those hoping to work abroad and they enjoy fast-track status at airports.
We attended a glittering ceremony at the presidential palace in Manila, where President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo handed out awards recognising the achievements of overseas Filipinos.
The recipients included a London-based dance and music group, Lahing Kayumanggi.
Its chairman, Lito Maggay, is the child of an overseas worker: his mother left to work in London when he was young, leaving him to be brought up by relatives in the Philippines. He was 17 before he was able to join her.
But despite the hoopla at the palace and despite the money they send back, the government denies actively encouraging the export of labour.
Arturo Brion, labour secretary in the Arroyo administration, says the outflow is a fact of life, given the disparity between wages in the Philippines and abroad; the government’s policy is to regulate it (for instance by licensing recruitment agencies) and to help and protect OFWs.
It organises family circles for those left behind and encourages contract workers to return home eventually, rather than becoming permanent migrants.
Arturo Brion says the government is trying to address the problem
He also denies there is a shortage of nurses – though he concedes that many of the more experienced have left. It’s a problem the government is trying to address. How?
Through incentives, he says, before adding that it would be premature to discuss the details.
The reality is that the outflow of workers is a reflection of the lamentable state of the Philippines economy.
The country, once among South-East Asia’s richest nations, missed out on the economic boom enjoyed by regional neighbours like South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan, not to mention China.
While they have attracted inward investment on the strength partly of their low labour costs, the Philippines has failed to develop enough attractive, well-paid jobs at home and has ended up exporting its cheap labour to other countries.
Enterprising Filipinos will continue to seek work abroad – even low-status work in domestic service or as carers – for as long as that remains the case.