OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
Our annual family retreat in Italy culminated in the “eternal city” of Rome, and as we learned from high school, the city of seven hills. The capital of both Italy and the Vatican, Rome is known for having more fountains than any other city in the world. We were surprised to learn from our Airbnb’s leaflet that Fontana di Trevi yields about one million euro every year for Italy’s various charities. Almost every visitor succumbs to that tradition of tossing a few coins in the enormous Baroque fountain designed by Nicola Salvi but completed by Giuseppe Pannini in the 18th century.
Tossing one coin means he will return to Rome. With two coins, he will return and fall in love but with three coins, not only will he return and find the love of his life, but he will also marry!
We wished life was this easy for the hundreds of thousands of our countrymen who are literally marooned in Italy and in other parts of Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They have very little choice. Our own government since the 1970s has failed them by its inability to produce resilient and inclusive economic growth that would have produced enough decent jobs for the fast-growing population. It has reached its limit, that exodus from the provinces to the cities, for domestic industrialization was not entrenched enough. With multiple infrastructure gaps and limited integration with the rest of the economy, the roots of industrialization are weak. In addition, bad governance and weak political and economic institutions circumscribe potential growth, causing so much joblessness, crime and yes, the compulsion to work overseas. And because the blunder of governance extends to education, our workers’ skills are rather puny to secure more gainful work.
In Italy alone, most of the Filipinos are in the eternal city and of course, Milan. They are mostly women and engaged in what the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) describes as elementary occupation, or domestic assistants, some are in the farm while thankfully, more professionals are now populating computer technology and building and construction.
The latest survey by the PSA for 2022 places the total overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) at 1.96 million or some 7.6 percent higher than previous year’s count. Those with legal contracts stood at 1.94 million, the rest are undocumented. We have to admit that at the rate we are seeing more and more Filipinos braving wars and rumors of war to work overseas, the actual numbers could be many times more. That is a clear demonstration of the continuing failure of government to put flesh on its earlier and current Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028 “for deep economic and social transformation to reinvigorate job creation and accelerate poverty reduction by steering the economy back on a high-growth path.”
Shall we just continue to take pride in the $30 billion in annual cash remittances from our new heroes, without doing something about the loss of around one-two million Filipinos, as well as the cost of broken families? And despite the massive reliance on foreign economies to give jobs to our own people, our labor market conditions remain precarious.
Unemployment rate stood at 4.5 percent but underemployment at 10.7 percent continued to be large as of September 2023. Yes, the percentages seem to have eased but we should continue to be concerned about the absolutes. The number of unemployed Filipinos translates into 2.5 million while those who continue to seek more hours of work, or additional jobs, number 5.11 million Filipinos.
And guess where we see the highest annual drop in the number of employed persons? In manufacturing, almost 900,000 less; wholesale and retail trade as well as repair of motor vehicles and motorcycles, over 720,000 less; and agriculture and forestry, about 650,000 less—these are the major economic sectors! Are we seeing more and more hollowing effect in key sectors of the economy? Even youth employment has gone down.
For those seeking better opportunities abroad, they even become prey to unscrupulous recruiters. For instance, media recently reported the alleged illegal recruitment and human trafficking involving overseas Filipinos in Italy. The Philippine Consulate in Milan reported that some 400 job seekers were victimized. We are pleased with some legislators’ press releases that the Philippines should ensure every Filipino, wherever he is in the world, is protected from scams and fraud. They would like to do a Senate investigation in aid of legislation. But the root cause of scams and fraud is not corrected by legislative investigation, but by Congress’ singular commitment to enact laws that would promote good governance and strong institutions as well as lay down the foundation of a strong economy anchored on enlightened industrialization and modern agriculture. These are still in the wish list.
The last leg of our family retreat was a unique experience because of our direct encounter with the genius of Il Divino, the sculptor, painter, architect and poet, Michelangelo Buonarroti, in the Sistine Chapel and earlier, in Florence with his David. But it was made more infinitely memorable by our encounter with our modern-day heroes, our overseas Filipino workers in Rome.
The erudite scholar and teacher at Gregorian University, Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, connected us with the Alza Vita group of Filipinos who listened to my small talk on the Philippine economy and history with great interest and manifest concern. They were more than updated on the latest economic and political narratives, their love for the Philippines unquestionable and unwavering. Some of them are retired with complete pension and health benefits, no practical reason exists for them to be bothered by, for instance, the seeming realignment of political forces here. But their hearts continue to burn for this nation. As they said, “kahit anong mangyari, Filipino pa rin kami.”
If only we could simply toss a few euro coins at the Fontana di Trevi, and wish our politicians will return to their senses, fall in love with our own people and start working for the common good with a marriage-like covenant.