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OFWs: Smugglers of faith and joy

(First of three parts)

With his inimitable sense of humor, Pope Francis called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Rome, especially the women, as “smugglers of faith” in his homily during the celebration at the Vatican of the 500th Anniversary of Christianity in the Philippines on March 14. He thanked the Filipino community who attended the liturgical services commemorating the event for “the joy you bring to the whole world and to our Christian communities.” His Eminence Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, in his response to the Pope, gave statistical flesh to the complimentary words of the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church: “We bring you the filial love of Filipinos in the 7,641 islands of our country. There are more than 10 million Filipino migrants living in almost 100 countries in the world. They are united with us this morning.” I was glad that, thanks to the EWTN TV network, I was one of those united with that small Filipino community who were lucky enough to be physically present in St. Peter’s Cathedral to listen to the Pope’s message.

Before I spell out the economic impact of the more than $30 billion of remittances annually sent by those over 10 million OFWs to their relatives in the Philippines, let me add some anecdotal evidence to support the words of both Pope Francis and Cardinal Tagle. During my recent two-year stay as a Visiting Professor of one of the leading business schools in the world, the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, I had the occasion to travel extensively all over Europe and attest to the fact that Filipino migrant workers in key cities of Europe are indeed “smugglers of faith and joy” to vast numbers of Europeans, whether Roman Catholic or not. Whether they are in London, Paris, Stockholm, Helsinki, Madrid, Rome or Munich, Filipino Catholics among the OFWs are giving life once more to the many parishes in which they constitute a large majority of those who attend Mass on Sundays and even weekdays. More often than not, many of them are the ones who are active in choir singing and other services rendered by lay persons in their respective parishes. In fact, I was amused that during my time in Barcelona, there was a parish that was called the parish of San Agustin during weekdays but during the weekends, especially on Sundays, was referred to as either the Sto. Nino parish or San Lorenzo Ruiz parish. During road shows I had to conduct in Dubai, Qatar, and other cities in the Middle East, the very large presence of Filipino Catholics (together with Indian Catholics) was testimony to the contribution of Filipinos to keep the Catholic faith alive in these countries.

European Catholics are not the only ones who benefit from the attractive human qualities of most Filipino overseas workers. Together with some MBA students of the IESE Business School, I conducted an informal survey to find out some of the reasons why in many occupations that require personal interactions, Filipino workers are usually preferred to others of different nationalities. We found out that in addition to personal hygiene (Filipinos take a shower every day), one of the most appreciated traits of Filipinos is that they always have a “smiling face.” Our people are famous for their soft skills. This fact is even more evident during the ongoing pandemic. In countries where there are significant numbers of Filipino nurses and health workers, there have been top government officials and CEOs who have publicly praised our OFWs in these professions for the great service that they have rendered to the COVID-19 and other patients. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the health systems of a number of these countries would collapse if we were to pull out the Filipino doctors, nurses and other health workers from their respective hospitals, medical clinics, and nursing homes.

Also based on my years of residence in Barcelona and frequent travel to other European cities (I miss them now that all my “road shows” are conducted online), I would venture to say that the “smuggling of joy” is not limited to the health and wellness sector. Whether it is in the hospitality industry, retailing sector (the Dubai airport used to be like a district of Makati with the predominance of Filipino service workers), or in domestic services, the soft skills of Filipinos have contributed significantly to a bright and cheerful environment in many a European community. It is sad that we have recently lost a lot of points in the Gross National Happiness index because of the very inept and unpredictable manner by which some of our political leaders and government officials responded to the pandemic crisis (leading to the unemployment of 4.2 million workers and a worsening of our poverty incidence). I still think, however, that individually Filipinos are among the most hopeful and cheerful creatures in the world today. It would be interesting for some social scientists to conduct research on the role of migrant Filipino workers in putting Finland, Switzerland, and other European countries at the top of the Gross National Happiness index. I would bet my bottom dollar (which is expected to appreciate with the $1.2-trillion stimulus package of President Biden) that without their Filipino service workers, some of these European countries would not rank as high in the Happiness index.

One may ask, however, if our OFWs are doing much to cheer up people in their host countries all over the world (more recent estimates of the Commission of Filipinos Overseas put the number of host countries and territories closer to 200) what are they doing for their relatives and other loved ones whom they have left behind? We can find part of the answer in what happened to the economy in 2020. Because of the very long lockdowns imposed on consumers and business establishments, our GDP dropped by 9.5% for the whole year of 2020. There were doomsday projections like that of the World Bank that predicted that for the whole of 2020, remittances from OFWs would fall by 13%. But thanks to the generosity of these “smugglers of faith and joy,” the dollar remittances they sent home during 2020 dropped only by 0.8%. Without this assistance, many Filipinos at home would have been gloomier and more desperate than they were. We would have ranked even lower in the Happiness index.

There are reasons for even greater optimism for 2021 among those left behind by the OFWs. Despite my own projection that GDP will grow only 4% in 2021 (in contrast with the majority of forecasts that cite 6% or more), remittances for 2021 are seen to settle at $31 billion, up 4% at the least and at most by 7%, according to the multinational bank Morgan Stanley. In a February 2021 report, Morgan Stanley Research stated that the remittances for 2021 will be better than expected and would drive a recovery in household discretionary spending and support the current account to stay in a balanced position. These remittances will prop up the Philippine peso as well as domestic banking, consumer and property sectors.

Indeed, as Cardinal Tagle assured Pope Francis (whom he called “Lolo Kiko”), “By God’s mysterious design, the gift of faith we have received is now being shared by millions of Filipino migrants in different parts of the world. We have left our families, not to abandon them, but to care for them and their future. For love of them, we endure the sorrow of separation.” As we shall see in the subsequent parts of this series, the sorrow of separation is only one of the sufferings our OFWs have to bear to help their loved ones and the whole country survive, recover, and grow during and after the pandemic.

To be continued.


Bernardo M. Villegas has a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Asia and the Pacific, and a Visiting Professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

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