24 April 2015 – Using an elevator in a building along the old street of Rue de Lausanne as a temporary shelter to spend the night, Nellie stood up every time the elevator moved and passengers entered. Penniless after escaping from an abusive employer, she tried to catch more sleep as soon as they stepped out.
That was in the 1980s. She had not yet returned to the Philippines since.
The elements of Nellie’s story, as well as that of other overseas Filipinos, have become strikingly familiar: in the Philippines, the desire to provide for the family is contingent on the opportunity to depart; abroad, the struggle to find work, safety and acceptance – often in that order – eventually unfolds; and abroad still, the reward of finally being able to provide is tempered by separation from the family and a nagging question of when, if ever, the duty to regularly send remittances will stop.
Fortunately for Nellie, she was among those who eventually found a stable income source. As with many overseas Filipinos, the goal was to find constant employment in order to ensure, in turn, the remittances.
Strangers with cash
After the European debt crisis that started in 2009, the ensuing search by displaced workers from the Eurozone for better economic opportunities eventually affected the employment landscape in places like Geneva where, according to some migrants, job-hunting had already become more difficult.
Nevertheless, the salaries of Geneva-based Filipinos, at least before the economic crisis, had brought them relative affluence compared with their counterparts from other overseas Filipino worker (OFW)-destination countries.
This pay gap was very glaring for Malou, whose previous monthly salary in the Middle East amounted to USD200. A victim of maltreatment, Malou decided to leave her employers when they spent a vacation in Switzerland in 2005.
As she and others would later agree with, however, a higher income did not automatically equate with financial freedom.
“We hear many stories from Filipinos who, despite being abroad for several years and being among the fortunate ones who have found a good job with a high salary, fail to save for themselves, their retirement, or their emergency use,” said Ambassador Cecilia Rebong, Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations (UN) and Other International Organizations in Geneva.
A common source of friction between families is the use of the remittance itself. “OFWs want to provide for their families, which is why they will do whatever they can to send money back home. If this means that they will have to scrimp on themselves or work two or three jobs, they will,” explained Ma. Celeste Valderrama, Labor Attaché of the Philippine Mission.
“But at a certain point, they start asking: until when is my obligation to send? Should I continue to include the expenses of my siblings and their families in my budget? When do I start saving for my own retirement?” she added.
Even the idea of retirement can be a cause of anxiety. “I have talked to many OFWs who both look forward to, and fear, the prospect of retiring,” said Philippine Consul General Enrico Fos. “On one hand, they cherish the thought of it. On the other, they feel uncertainty about finding a new source of income or about returning to families whom they have not seen for a long time and who might view them as mere strangers out to distribute cash.”
While financial education is already part of the reintegration program of the Philippine Government and is advocated by many interest groups and private companies, the Philippine Mission in Geneva, through the Consulate General and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), decided to embark on a program that approached financial education from a different perspective.
“Some financial education programs focus on businesses alone and on convincing Filipinos to go home regardless of their ability to start or maintain these businesses. Others are businesses themselves,” remarked Consul Arnel G. Talisayon.
He expounded, “We designed a program that has a strong focus on the link between migration and financial education. We discuss business concepts taking the social costs of migration into account and we carefully balance expectations. Some start-ups fail; some don’t. Some people take risks; some won’t.”
“Inflation and liquidity are explored alongside cultural expectations that put pressure on OFWs to spend every time they go home. Addressing communication gaps in the family is included in discussions about gross margins and the marketing mix,” he elaborated.
The program also provides a venue for participants to share experiences. Like Malou, Nancy worked in the Middle East but received a lower monthly income of USD150.
When she transferred to Geneva in 1993, she made sure not to fall into the temptation of significantly altering her lifestyle, and that of her children, despite the jump in salary.
“Pagdating ko dito, dahil sanay na sila sa maliit na halaga, hindi ko sila binigla. Alam ko na ang mga bata, kapag nakakita ng pera, outing dito, gastos doon,” she stated, emphasizing the need for discipline when managing finances.
Nancy is among those who look forward to retirement with ample savings left to take care of herself and even, to some extent, her grandchildren.
The financial education program has two components. The first is a roving seminar on migration and savings, which is a 45-minute talk about general financial concepts together with the realities of migration, as shared by the participants.
The second is a longer course spanning four weekends. Each weekend session lasts for three hours and covers introductory classes on entrepreneurship, marketing and advertising, financial statements, and other concepts.
“At first, we were apprehensive. Who will attend four weekends with three hours of lectures and workshops?” revealed Ambassador Rebong. “However, we were delightfully surprised with the turnout.”
Since the program started in November 2014, 200 people have taken part in five roving seminars while 119 have successfully completed the four-weekend course. The last batch, composed of 41 participants, graduated on April 12. Additional sessions are scheduled for the year as an increasing number of Filipino groups have expressed interest in participating.
Because the course is recognized by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) as part of its national reintegration program for OFWs, the certificate of completion received by successful participants can be used as a supporting document when they avail of DOLE programs, such as livelihood assistance, that require prior training on financial education and entrepreneurial skills.
For her elderly mother, Lisa is preparing to return to the Philippines within the next five years and is thankful for a course that formally introduced her to financial management. Meanwhile, Faye – who has stayed in Switzerland for 12 years and is young compared with her co-participants – also wants to return within the next two years to settle down and take care of her paralyzed mother.
“Walang tram sa Pilipinas. Walang winter,” the group mused during one discussion, triggered by a comment about how Switzerland was much more economically advanced than the Philippines.
“Pero walang magulang sa Geneva,” the group concluded. END