[Election special] Recurring episodes beside growth: Overseas work and the families who cope

 

PLARIDEL, BULACAN—Jimmy Rivera is clutching a metallic structure that, when pushed, strolls him along inside a grocery store found near their home in Bacoor, Cavite. He doesn’t push that grocery cart often with half-Chinese wife Belinda, in a span of 27 years.

Seafarer Jimmy Rivera, 51, is about to set sail for the nth time. While he'll vote in the May 13 elections, he wishes Filipino workers like him will never go out anymore--for his family's sake. (Photo by Serine Alejandro, The Filipino Connection)

Seafarer Jimmy Rivera, 51, is about to set sail for the nth time. While he’ll vote in the May 13 elections, he wishes Filipino workers like him will never go out anymore–for his family’s sake. (Photo by Serine Alejandro, The Filipino Connection)

He’s a seafarer, and Filipino merchant marine fleet (over-330,000) are the world’s biggest by nationality. These workers are used to pushing and operating bigger metallic fixtures that make ships move across seas.

Since six-to-nine month contracts annually are staple fare for seafarers like the 51-year-old Rivera (a handling specialist on board), so are his vacations that make him catch up with his beloved family. Children Emmanuel Mari, 18, and Carmela Theresa, 17, are now studying at Catholic universities, and Jimmy will bring them there even if De La Salle University and University of Santo Tomas are over six kilometers apart in traffic-prone Manila. He will then fetch them when class hours end.

“It’s important to persevere in (your) studies,” Jimmy always tells his children, “so that one day, you’ll know what to do in life.”

Jimmy knew what he did when he was once studying: the former kargador at a fishing port prodded his father Rogelio to let him go to Manila, from Iloilo City, not just to study but to “start a new life there”. “My life should not end here (in Iloilo City).”

Seafaring by Filipinos may naturally be an overseas job when one wants to earn higher pay (seafarers working for domestic ships reportedly earn minimum wage, or slightly higher). But no matter the noticeable economic growth that the Philippines is enjoying in recent years, the search for higher pay elsewhere —not here— continues to prod the jobless, discontented Filipino workers.

Heading into the 40th year of a Philippine labor code that carried policies on overseas employment and that opened the floodgates for today’s 10.4 million compatriots scattered worldwide and in all seas, the Philippine growth story entered an interesting twist after the 2008 global economic crisis: The developed world continues to plunge economically, but the Philippines managed positive growth.

Development analysts have workers like Rivera to thank: their billion-dollar remittances never abetted.

 

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Thinking that today’s Filipino growth episode will lessen the overseas jobs search, it didn’t: the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s data showed that deployment of migrant workers has not declined since 2003 (1,778,056 sea- and land-based workers were deployed last year).

Rivera’s tales of familial separation between the breadwinner, himself, and the ones left behind —narratives that permeate in many Filipino families— have yet to temper.

Some nine years away from retirement, and with children still studying, Rivera is yet to stop seafaring. “I have high blood now so I take maintenance (medicines),” he says.

He’s about to be lonely again, working at a ship, “thinking about the children’s future.” The mobile phone and the chatting programs the Internet brought about at least connect him with Belinda, a Marian devotee, and the kids frequently. Luckily, he says, “nandun pa rin iyung bonding namin (our family bonding is still there).”

On the ship, though, there’s the multicultural adjustment. Other nationalities are Jimmy’s co-workers, and then find Filipino seafarers whom he can trust (as well as encounter those who are jealous at each other). You are just in one ship, and you all do the same type of work, says Jimmy. “at gusto mong makaiwas sa gulo, kaya’t iintindihan mo na lang. Kaso iyung iba, hindi ka naiinitindihan. Ang gagawin mo na lang talaga lumayo, kasi pangangalagaan mo iyung trabaho para sa pamilya mo (You elude trouble, so you just cope with the situation. But others don’t get that. So what you do is walk away; you have to think of your family’s future).”

But he can’t run away from episodes of racial discrimination on board. “Madalas iyon —iyung sinisigawan ka, tapos mataas ang tingin minsan sa sarili niya, mababa tingin sa ibang lahi.” So he talks with them diplomatically, or even tempering his disagreement with superiors. “Matatalo ka lang talaga. Ang mahalaga dito, mapangalagaan mo iyung trabaho mo (You will only lose in the end. So in the end, you secure your job).”

So he finds joy when he comes home. Belinda’s his “captain,” asking him to drive her to the grocery store, then carry the grocers. And the studious children? “I will wake them up, and will bring them to school.” They should be three kids, he says, if not for Belinda’s miscarriage (told to him while he was on board).

Jimmy’s journey with seafaring started upon his resettlement to Manila (his father was stabbed in an incident related to jueteng). Then without much money, his uncle Ernesto influenced him to seafaring while he was taking up the five-year electronics engineering course. So the shift to an associate marine course was the passport for the former fish port kargador to try out overseas work.

“I was actually taking up engineering when my uncle pushed me to be with him in the company he is working for,” said the former drunkard. “I shifted to associate marine, still not knowing where life would take me.”

 

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Had there been jobs with gainful incomes here, said Rivera, life would have not taken him to an ocean-plying vessel. Unemployment and underemployment, as well as “lesser” wages —even under Aquino’s watch— still propel the Filipino overseas exodus, says political scientist Dr. Jean Franco of the University of the Philippines.

There still “jobless growth,” says Franco, adding that today’s workers assess whether salaries with local employers vis-a-vis pay from abroad “is worth leaving their relatives behind”.

Can’t government find a way to add more jobs here, Rivera asked. But for now, Rivera’s blessed —and feels blessed— with the economic gains from his seafaring: a house and lot in Cavite, and children who are in two of the country’s top private universities.

Yet there’s still the familial separation to contend with, not just by Rivera but by many Filipino families who embraced overseas migration, says Franco. While there are cases of family problems arising from overseas work, the Riveras are fortunate, says the patriarch, that the family’s coping with migration all together.

Then there’s God, with Rivera admitting that he was not of the religious type when he was young. But since his migration —to Manila, and

Like many overseas Filipino workers, Jimmy Rivera relies on faith to cope. He says his work on board a vessel has been a blessing, so when he comes home after a contract, family time and conjugal prayer matter for him. (Photo by Serine Alejandro, The Filipino Connection)

Like many overseas Filipino workers, Jimmy Rivera relies on faith to cope. He says his work on board a vessel has been a blessing, so when he comes home after a contract, family time and conjugal prayer matter for him. (Photo by Serine Alejandro, The Filipino Connection)

eventually to ocean-plying vessels (Jimmy’s about to leave soon, heading for the Port of Spain)— up to his marriage with Belinda the Marian devotee, Jimmy embraced gratefulness to the Creator.

More so when he’s at sea: He always wears a brown rosary bracelet, inscribed with the words “Divine Mercy” (the first word in the horizontal part of the cross, and the second word in the cross’ vertical side). “Up until I have my own family now, there was not a day when I never prayed.”

 

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About SERINE ALEJANDRO