What is it like being an OFW

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (commonly abbreviated as the CRC) is a human rights treaty which sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.   As indicated in the CRC, the “family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding” is paramount for the “full and harmonious development” of a child’s personality.  Every parent knows this and dreams of co-habiting in such a situation.  So, what if the family environment is skewed and not the perfect blissful notion of what a family should be?  Will a child’s personality be equally skewed?

To many, a normal family unit is made up of a father and a mother and their children. However, life throws many curve balls and parents are often forced to re-invent the conception of a normal family so as to ensure or, at the very least, hope for the “full and harmonious development” of their children.

A classic illustration of the above occurs when one or both parents are employed overseas. In a country where unemployment is a colossal and ongoing fact-of-life, working in a foreign country and the resulting remittances, offers a way out of omnipresent poverty.  Overseas work helps in decreasing Philippine unemployment as well as feeding, sheltering and clothing entire households.

In short, because of an entrenched poverty, Filipinos view overseas work as the only alternative to escape from debt and hopelessness.  OFW’s (Overseas Filipino Workers) will travel to foreign nations, legal or not, to escape the dark cloud of poverty and they often do without considering the possibility of suffering inhumane abuse from foreign nationals or worse, jail.

OFW in Numbers

The  Overseas Filipino Worker phenomenon is a dynamic and a rising sector of Filipino society. The exodus of Filipinos to foreign nations began in 1974 and has yet to show any signs of slowing down.

According to a study entitled Migration and Filipino Children Left Behind, the Philippines is a major supplier of labor migrants to more than 100 countries and roughly 1 out of 4 Filipino children are left behind by their parents. In the 2015 Philippine Statistics Authority survey, the number of OFWs who worked abroad had reached approximately 2.4 million. This figure consisted of  Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) – the ones with existing work contracts and who comprise 97.1% of the overall OFWs – as well as the remaining 2.9% who  work overseas without any contract (more than likely illegally).

According to the above survey, the total remittance sent by OFWs was appraised at 180.3 billion pesos (3.8 billion USD). These remittances included cash sent home (135.6 billion pesos), cash brought home (37.3 billion pesos) and remittances in kind (7.4 billion pesos).  The majority of OFWs sent their remittance through banks (62.2%) while the rest through agencies or local offices (4.0%), door-to-door delivery (2.4%), friends or co-workers (0.1%) and through other means (31.4%).

What are OFWs thinking?

Most Filipino migrant parents like to believe that the intimacy of relationships is not essentially fixed by physical proximity but is determined by the willingness of parents to fulfill their duties  and, therefore, migration is part of how parents’ duties are fulfilled for their children.  They leave the household and sacrifice their time with their children out of love. While these parents find it difficult to separate from their children, they make the sacrifice in order to “provide for the child’s material requirements.” Therefore, it is important to note, that Philippine households view overseas work as a method of attaining economic goals because of the money transfers that the left-behind family receives.

Do Children Understand Why Their OFW Parents Have to Leave?

Many parents working abroad assume that their sons and/or daughters fully understand why they have to leave; that their departure is for the children’s benefit as well as their future.  Having said this, it is worthy to note that when parents leave young children, the children more often than not, have no clue where there mother or father are working or even what work they are.  In other words, there is an obvious lack of intimacy and bonding from an early age.

Do children really understand why their parents leave? Do they really feel more privileged and more fortunate compared to other children because their parents are working abroad? Are they really in a better social position than others?

I do wish to emphasize that the OFW split families are not split because of divorce or death.  The marriage, in most cases, is still intact.  In Canada, for instance, even though parents are divorced, each parent still plays a significant role in the upbringing of their children and most importantly, sees their children daily or very often. The OFW situation is totally dissimilar. They leave for very long periods of time and their children can, or more likely will, be psychologically affected. No one can argue that a young child will fully understand why Mommy won’t be reading bedtime stories at night or why Daddy won’t be going to Saturday’s football game.  The fact of the matter is that very few well-adjusted children will choose a bigger home over their playmates and the majority of children would prefer to have their parents hug them and let them know that everything’s alright.  No matter how much an OFW wants to believe that Skype offers some type of intimacy or bonding…it doesn’t.

What Psychologists Say

Clinical psychologists theorize that children, especially school-aged children, need more attention from parents, since this is when fundamental psychological development begins. While it is important to give a child his/her basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and education, it is equally important to give love, a sense of belonging, freedom, fun and immediate acknowledgement of achievement.

What we’re seeing in the OFW familial culture is that, whether out of guilt or not, OFWs are inclined to gift their children the latest models of cellphones, toys and other unnecessary material options.  The expression, “buying love”, is bandied about secretly. Although children enjoy these presents, they have more pressing need for a “complete” family.  They would prefer to have both parents present at special occasions; or a father to talk to about an intimidating classmate; a mother’s shoulder to cry on whenever a teacher has been unusually frightening; someone to help choose a dress to wear during the prom and someone to ask tips from when the recent crush’s attention is not forthcoming.

Children of OFWs are prone to emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems. It has also been observed that many OFW children are becoming self-doubting and drug dependents. In addition, most of the OFW children have become so materialistic and spend their parent’s money on gadgets and internet gaming from lack of guidance.  The remittance is being wasted on self-absorption.

Basically, migration of one parent or both is a very agonizing time for children and can trigger destructive emotions. In the case of an absentee father, children may develop gender identity problems which become more apparent as they mature.

The following is a short list of issues that OFW children share:

  1. Values are twisted towards materialistic goals
  2. Are much more likely to use drugs or alcohol and/or commit delinquent behavior than children with two active at-home parents.
  3. Are much more likely to have gender identity issues
  4. Have an increased risk of divorce
  5. Are more likely to be physically or sexually abused
  6. Are more likely to show rebellious activity towards one or both parents

The Truth Is…

Money is essential.  It can buy the basic necessities and pay for children’s schooling.  However, money is not everything.  While no one can argue that money can buy life’s comforts and luxuries, money is not the glue that bonds a family together.  There are millions of families that lack money yet they stick together and have lifelong loving relationships. As the Beatles once penned, ‘money can’t buy you love’.

However, let’s not dump all the blame on OFW parents; they have made a very difficult choice. Such choices, for the most part, are made out of desperation and emotional exhaustion. Considering the government’s apparent inability to create adequate jobs for its people; the reality that the jobs available in different industries do not match most applicants educational qualifications, and the “padrino” culture still prevalent in the country, most Filipinos are pushed to seek greener pastures in faraway lands.

For those who are still toying with the idea of working overseas or those who have already made the decision, think hard and deep on the consequences of your choice. Leaving your families does not only mean being separated from your children, it also means incurring additional costs as you will need to find someone to care for your children. You need to think of the most viable options and living arrangements so that the children you leave behind will not feel the full vacuum that your departure has created.

Our children only have us, their parents, to lean on. Let’s not leave them fend for themselves and make them regret that they were born into a world and a life they didn’t ask for.

Written by Gemma Minda Iso

Gemma Minda Iso, a freelance writer for over 12 years, has published one book and is about to launch her second. She does project-based in-depth research works for foreign clients, writes a column for a local newspaper and speeches for government officials and private company executives. Currently, she dabbles with her events management start-up and is kept busy with her Toastmasters International-related activities.

Photo credits:

https://www.posibl.com/news/education/play-building-blocks-lifelong-learning-children/

http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/02/27/1557221/pinoys-saudi-arabia-told-remain-calm

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