When migrant labour hurts families

Posted on February 8, 2010.

Tess Bacalla

How does one tell a child that it is for his own future that his mother has to go offshore in search of the proverbial ‘greener pastures’, leaving behind a family that has never known the meaning of separation?

Just what does that assurance mean to a child anyway whose notion of a secure tomorrow could simply be waking up each morning with his mother by his side.

A couple of days ago, I heard about Mikey (not his real name), an extremely smart 13-year-old boy, who was found crying by his teacher during a class break. Mikey was confiding to his friend that his mother, a nurse, would soon be leaving the country to work in some hospital thousands of miles away from home. The thought that he was not going to see his mother over the next 12 months that she would be contracted with her foreign employer was simply unbearable to him.

Hearing about Mikey’s ordeal tugged at my heart and mind. Something is awfully wrong when either or both parents – especially mothers – must leave their children behind in hopes of giving them a better future, I thought to myself.

Every day thousands of Filipinos – driven by poverty of varying degrees – leave the country to work abroad. A significant number are females. Of the 2 million Filipino contract workers who left the country between April and September 2008, 48.3 percent were women.

“Since the early 1980s, there has been a marked increase in the number of women working outside the country,” said Atikha Overseas Workers and Communities Initiative, a non-governmental organisation in the Philippines trying to raise awareness of the social costs of migration as part of its overall advocacy of addressing the plight of migrant workers.

“Nurses and midwives headed for Europe. Domestic helpers went to Hong Kong, Italy, UK, Spain and other countries in Asia and Europe. Entertainers flew to Japan and European countries,” said the NGO in its report, ‘Children’s Response to the Challenge of Migration’.

With more Filipino women jumping on the migration bandwagon, it’s hard to imagine what its social cost is to the family, to children like Mikey, in particular? From what I’ve seen and heard, I’d say the cost is enormous and sometimes irreversible. Studies have shown that when mothers turn migrant workers, the family goes awry – and so do the children.

Hilda Simbulan (not her real name) got the shock of her life when news reached her in Singapore, where she was working as a domestic helper, that her daughter whom she thought all along was pursuing her college studies had quit school since she got pregnant out of wedlock. The distraught mother soon packed her bags and flew home to salvage what remained of her shattered family.

As Mickey’s mother tearfully bids farewell to him, her two younger children and spouse, her suitcase filled with dreams of a bright future for her family and her heart full of sadness, for her 13-year-old, the future has never looked so dim without his mother by his side.