Sunday, February 28, 2010

Local woman makes ibos

This woman is preparing ibos, a ubiquitous and cheap glutinous rice snack. (It’s not my favorite, but ibos can be pretty tasty dipped in sugar and with a cup of coffee on the side.) Watching her, I was struck by how simply this food is made and sold: there are no factories involved, no distributors, almost no middlemen at all. She and her husband likely grow and harvest the rice themselves, paying for fertilizer and milling and not much else. When it’s dried and milled, they probably sell it at their own sari-sari or market stall, or use it for other products like ibos.

That’s not to say it’s an easy life being a rice farmer. Rice is cheap – an average kilo (2.2 pounds) costs around P30 or P35, or about sixty to seventy cents USD. Lucrative it isn’t. In fact, I recently scanned a municipal report in my town which stated that many farmers of palay (unmilled rice) have quit the practice because they can’t make enough money. It’s something of a dilemma: the country relies on cheap rice as its staple food (even with many local producers, the Philippines still has to import a vast amount to keep its populace riced up), but if it’s too cheap, the farmers can’t afford to grow it… and that means more reliance on imports.

The Philippines is already in the lamentable position of having to rely on the outside world for too many of its resources. The main problem is with exportation – but not the exportation of goods. What the Philippines is forced to export is rather more valuable and infinitely more exploitable: its own people.

It seems simple enough: Overseas Filipino Workers, OFWs, take the opportunity to travel to more prosperous nations for worthwhile jobs. They send money home. After a while, they make a triumphant return to their homeland and their families’ lives are forever enriched by their selfless time abroad.

But of course it doesn’t work like that. It’s a system that holds so many pitfalls and potential cultural and societal damage that every happy-go-lucky OFW recruitment poster I see now makes me feel a little bit sick. No matter how many smiling Filipinos and plucky jet planes an advertisement incorporates, all I see is the breakdown of a people and a nation.

It’s not just the fact of the matter: breadwinners all over the world leave their families temporarily for the purpose of making money. What’s awful is that here, OFW posts are presented as the solution to the problem of poverty, as if that particular problem is endemic to the Philippines and there’s simply nothing to do but go elsewhere for money.

If foreign work is a solution, it’s one that puts the scales in dubious balance: it’s one that fosters a perpetual state of dependence, strengthens the myth of national inferiority, and – luckily for the politicians – eliminates the need for any actual improvements within the Philippines.

More than that, it’s a societal nightmare. It forces Filipinos and Filipinas who grow up in a family-centered culture to live away from their loved ones. It screws up marriages and introduces STIs back into the country – diseases which are typically underreported, creating a false sense of safety for everyone. OFWs are at risk of any and all forms of exploitation and frequently have nobody to support them. Even the revenue itself works against the culture: many Filipinos have no experience or training with budgeting, so money sent back from OFWs is just kind of… spent.

The temptation is to look at this as a “necessary evil.” But OFWism isn’t viewed as a transitory measure, a way for Filipinos to stay in the black while their country develops its infrastructure to the point that it can actually support its own citizens; rather, it’s an answer in itself. But it’s a political answer, not a real one. In real terms, it’s a crutch. But the crutch can’t be thrown away until the injury is healed, and the healing here goes slow; sometimes things can get a bit gangrenous. And guess who foots the bill for surgery?


Jen said...

You know, I came across your journal on the Peace Corps Journals site, and I found your topic fascinating.

I've recently discovered a cable channel here in the good ol'US called Planet Green. They've had two series so far that relate significantly to the concept of OFW's.

It's the "Blood, Sweat and . . ." series. The first was "Blood, Sweat and Takeaways," the second "Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts."

Each show takes a group of young people from the UK and places them in the lives of the workers who are part of the process of making their favorite fast, cheap things. The point is exposing the true cost of our food and our clothing, which comes to us at low prices, but at the expense of someone in a foreign country.

Both dealt extensively with the idea of OFW's and how difficult life is for someone in that situation.

I'm sure it'll be on DVD soon enough. Look it up. It was really informative for me.

Brandon Holly said...

I have tried to tactfully broach this topic with Filipinos, but it always ends with me kind of agreeing with whomever I'm speaking with in order to keep my bridges free of flames. I totally agree with you. Especially (not to downplay the amount of poverty I have seen here) since I know a lot of Filipinos can get jobs in country, but they have already told themselves they can't get a job here or they see no use in getting a job because they are being supported by some overseas relative.

Frustrating talaga...

Ryan Murphy said...

Jen, I'll definitely look that up. The whole issue was something I heard about back in the States, of course, but I never took much interest in it until I was actually in a country that suffers from its effects.

Brandon, it is a sticky issue and I agree that there's sometimes a lack of motivation to find jobs domestically. But it's hard to blame them when the "Global Filipino" (that seems to be the new euphemism) is treated - in word only, admittedly - like a superhero. Filipinos and, perhaps more importantly, the administration puff up this abstraction of the ideal citizen until it almost seems true. (Ignore the irony of idealizing the citizen who leaves the country.) And pfft, another problem for the government disappears.