Financial Literacy Campaign and Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)

by Arnel G. Talisayon*

Human Dimensions of Financial Education[1]

A Filipino who desires to work abroad typically gives only one answer when asked why he or she is willing to leave the family for a potentially difficult and lonely job outside the country: “Paramaka-ipon.” (“To save.”)

Abroad, five years later, with a take-home  pay amounting to more than the equivalent  salary of a highly skilled professional working  in Manila, the response to the same question is ominous. Still bereft of savings, and without a fallback career in the Philippines, the worker is forced to remain abroad while waiting for an apparently elusive financial stability.

The social cost of migration is hard to ascertain, especially when migration is seen  as an economic need, not a career option. Migration has been around for as long as humanity existed; in modern times, and in the context of the Philippines, migration generally assumes the form of at least one member of the family working abroad to provide financial support to those back home. Sadly, the breaking up of families becomes an inevitable consequence of migration as any of the father, mother, son or daughter becomes part of a foreign nation’s workforce for an indefinite period of time, or until the worker has “saved enough.”

The implications of this setup are manifold. Therefore, for any Financial Literacy Campaign to be effective in the Philippines,  it must take into account the real social impacts of migration and the cultural defaults of Filipino families as at least one of their members depart for work abroad. For instance:

•  Because of unsound financial management, many Filipinos have no savings even after their contracts abroad have expired. Many decide to stay in the foreign country illegally and work odd jobs. Since they do not have the legal protection guaranteed by proper visas, they are prone to abuse, their welfare is often compromised for a lower-than average pay, and they live in constant uncertainty for fear of being rounded up by immigration authorities. Some undocumented workers enter the foreign country as tourists.

•  Underemployment among Filipino workers is prevalent.  Majority of Filipino factory workers in South Korea, for instance, are college degree holders. Some are professionals—engineers, teachers, writers—who decide to engage in blue collar jobs because of the lure of a higher salary. Brain drain in the Philippines is a recurring issue.

•  Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) often complain that, in the end, it is the bond of the family that suffers. Stories about children growing up with an absentee father or mother abound. Because children grow up materially satisfied and accustomed to the idea of migrant jobs, they form a new generation of individuals whose end goal is to leave the country for greener pasture abroad, hence creating a cycle and mindset of foreign-work dependency.

•  Studies by the International Monetary Fund reveal that many of the families left behind in the Philippines refuse to find work of their own and rely merely on remittances. Perhaps because of guilt for being away from their families, workers also tend to acquiesce to the material requests of their relatives, from top-of-the-line mobile phones to entertainment systems. A so-called temporary middle class is thereby created. Once the migrant worker returns home, the main source of income vanishes, and the material acquisitions are sold below cost. The family languishes in uncertainty, until the same, or another, family member goes abroad again.

•  There is a tendency for migrant workers to support not only their respective families, but their extended families as well. A tightly knit clan—an indispensable feature of Filipino culture—becomes a breeding ground for dependency as several families rely on one or two main breadwinners to support their utility bills, schooling, house construction, hobbies, and other expenses.

•  Somehow, remittances, no matter how big, are never enough. Domestic spats can revolve around one sentence: “Where did the money go?”

A successful Financial Literacy Campaign, therefore, needs to address not only literacy levels but, more importantly, the mindsets of the workers and their families. This is easier said than done and will require constant coordination with the workers and their families. Mindsets are deeply ingrained and paradigm shifts challenging to come by. Yet the seeds of changing behaviors are already planted in the minds of foreign workers—they themselves know, every time they work long hours and miss their families, that change is necessary. They simply need guidance in enabling change.

Of course, no financial literacy campaign will succeed without national financial infrastructures and support mechanisms in place. The Philippine Government, through agencies such as the Central Bank of the Philippines, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, the Philippine Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Department of Foreign Affairs, has come up with programs specifically catered to OFWs. These include hedging facilities to help protect against the fluctuations of the exchange rate, attractive insurance packages, support systems for start-up SMEs, entrepreneurship courses, a greater selection of remittance options, unit investment trust funds and other investment schemes.

Ultimately, the Financial Literacy Campaign must be aware of the very human dimension of financial issues. It must understand the cultural defaults of the nation, and work through these parameters to effect change. The Financial Literacy Campaign is not so much about the money, as it is about the integrity and pursuit of a better life of the individual and his or her family.

Note: Arnel is a Foreign Service Officers II, assigned as Consul and Second Secretary at the Philippine Embassy in Seoul and coordinates the Financial Literacy Campaign (FLC)  to OFWs in South Korea. The FLC was initiated in 2008 by then Consul and Second Secretary Juan “Jed” Dayang, Jr. with the Philippine Overseas Labor Office-OWWA’s then Welfare Officer Esperanza Cobarrubias and  retired Commercial Counsellor Edgardo Garcia.  The FLC continues to be the flagship project of the Embassy under leadership of Ambassador Luis Cruz. 


[1]  See original publication at:   Arnel G. Talisayon, “Financial Literacy Campaign and the Filipino People,” Embassy News(2008), http://www.philembassy-seoul.com/forms/Vol_1_Special_Issue.pdf.

Photo Credit: http://finlittv.com/2011/05/financial-literacy-program-for-ofw-families-crucial/

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