Was working abroad for a quarter of a century worth it?

Posted at 08/08/2009 11:37 AM | Updated as of 08/08/2009 5:20 PM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 1" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from Cordaid, an international development organization based in the Netherlands. The book contains a collection of 12 stories of the realities of migration as experienced by overseas Filipino workers and their families. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online

It was by accident that I worked abroad. My younger brother asked me for placement fee. Unfortunately, he was illegally recruited, so I ran after the recruiter. As payment for my brother’s being gypped, the recruiter referred me to an employer in Saudi for a job in accounting.I was immediately interviewed and hired, without going through POEA. Since I already have a passport, I was able to leave for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in a week’s time.

I left for KSA in February 1980 to work for a small-sized Saudi-owned travel agency as an accountant. I was 27 years old then, completed a BS in Accounting. I have been working as an accounting clerk all through my college years until I left for Saudi Arabia. I have just taken the Board Examination the year before. I was already in Riyadh when I heard I passed.

I was young and idealistic. I wanted to work like I’ve been working professionally here in the Philippines and do things in KSA the way things are done in the Philippines. But I found out that Saudis are too hands-on and by nature do not trust others. At first, I did not realize that I had to keep a low profile especially since I come from a Third World country. They expected me to do only as I was told.

The first two years of my employment was worst than I could imagine. I was very miserable mainly because of the clash of cultures.  Fortunately, before the two years were up, I was able to find another employer.

When I was about to leave my first Saudi employer, he must have realized my worth and capabilities in spite of our bad start since he tried hard to make me stay on.

Early Years in Saudi Arabia

Many Kapampangans are migrant workers, in Manila or elsewhere in the Philippines or abroad. Hence, when I decided to work in KSA, working abroad was a common thing in our province.

What made me decide to work abroad? My salary was not enough to buy a house and lot and send my children to good schools. Few OFWs then would have long-term plans because Saudi jobs are very temporary. One usually gets to work for one renewal of a contract, totaling to about four years, then one need to look for another job. I was one of the few who worked there with practically no break for 25 years.

After my vacation, in the Philippines, in March 1982 I worked as an accountant in GAMMA Services LTD., another Saudi-owned but Western-managed company, which is into health care management. It was a progressive company and I was able to show my best. I rose through the ranks, first as senior accountant in 1983 then as accounting manager in 1985, as assistant corporate comptroller based in the head office in1987 until I retired in 2005.

While with GAMMA, I was also involved with its various companies and subsidiaries and was always a part of the opening crew or start-up team assigned to organize the finance and accounting department of its various projects so I went around and traveled a lot. As such, I held the position of Chief Financial Officer in the interim and stayed on until the project stabilized. When they hired my permanent replacement I went back to the home office.

My Children
When I left for Saudi, my two girls were four and five-year old, and later I also had a son. I think I did not fail as much with them, except for the fact that I was not there when they were growing up and when they needed a father most. I thought that since there were many children like them with fathers working away from home, either in Manila or abroad, they were kind of psychologically prepared to miss me.

Even when my children were still young, we traveled together often, around Asia, in the US as well as in Europe. I was able to send my two daughters to good schools. They did well academically. One of them completed a BS in Hotel and Restaurant Management. She is now married to a dentist, has two kids and she put up a drugstore. The other daughter completed a BS in Pharmacy and has electronics and internet business interests.

The problem I encountered with my children was in relating with them when they were growing up. They would be spending money left and right, as if to punish me. One was more responsible in handling financial matters, but our separation may have affected her adversely. For instance, to date she has not gotten married. The other daughter really maximized the credit card I gave her while she was studying abroad.

I think my daughter Michelle can better appreciate now this issue of migration and its social costs. She is now a professional. It is easier to say now that she wished mothers would not need to tell their children they have to work abroad to buy food and to send them to school – it is a lot easier for someone who is not financially poor or suffering. But we do not live in an ideal world. Definitely, they enjoyed the luxuries my work abroad provided them. It is definitely different from those who cannot afford such luxuries.

I know of OFWs who return to the Philippines for good only to be back in Saudi after six months, crying that it was difficult to tighten up belts and their children themselves told them to go back abroad.

My Relationship with my Wife

However, I failed as a husband. My wife and I got married in 1975, while I was still studying. It is possible that at that time my wife already had some feelings of insecurities. These feelings intensified because of our longer separation and lack of communication or miscommunication.

At that time, the main form of communication was letters and it took a month for letters to reach and get reply from Saudi. Telephone calls were expensive, costing $5/min. In fact, the best communication channel for a Kapampangan OFW is the “padala” or the “OFW postman” with OFWs and their partners networking sufficiently that every week, at least one OFW is leaving or returning to Saudi. With promotion that is not common for OFWs and for whom, compared with Westerners, it is tougher to achieve and therefore one’s performance has to be glaringly better, I became very busy with work forgetting to communicate with her.

I was away for two years for my first contract and could take vacation only once a year in my early years with GAMMA. After ten years, I was coming home more frequently, but I think it was too late to repair the damage in our relationship. I think I took my wife for granted, neglected her and failed to address this problem soon enough.

During our vacations with our children, I think my children were feeling miserable when for a tiny thing my wife and I would argue and fight. I felt we were just wasting money on our vacations.

Later on, our relationship further deteriorated and became so intolerable. It was like for as long as she holds our marriage contract she could not give up and continued messing up with my life even if we were actually separated because she has some “right” over me.

Thus, there was no choice but to part ways. In fact, the children helped finalize the separation. They talked to their mother and advised her to move on with her life. Much later, we got our marriage annulled. I think the children took it well. It was for the better for all of us and we all now enjoy peaceful coexistence.

Self-Development

I am a natural and fast learner. Even if there is not much opportunity to develop and advance oneself professionally in KSA, I learned to use the computer on my own in the early 80s, which helped me tremendously to succeed in the company.

To progress in my job, I had to learn international financial market and the financial derivatives which were still new in the 80s. I applied these knowledge in my job in the company, and as a result I got to shine in the job which is not an easy thing to do for someone from a Third World country.

KSA is very particular about nationality, whether Westerner, Asian and Middle Easterner. The employers’ qualifications are biased for Western qualifications as manifested in their different pay, different regard and greater respect for Western people.

To prove to my employer that the educational qualifications of Filipinos are just as good as any others, I corresponded with the University of Illinois to have my Philippine qualifications recognized. Fortunately, they gave me the equivalence and was allowed to take the US CPA State Board examination in 1995. I passed, and got accredited and therefore became “Western-qualified”. Thus, when I was managing the Finance Department of a big hospital, I was considered as good as any “Westerner.”

Interactions with the Filipino Community
Earlier in my career, I traveled a lot so while the Embassy Officials and Filipino leaders knew me, I was not visible in Filipino community affairs and organizations. However, being an executive in a big company with thousands of Filipino employees, it was unavoidable that I had to mingle with the Filipino community. I came out of my shell during the time of President Estrada when I joined e-Lagda. I became totally immersed in the community during the Overseas Absentee Voting campaign.

When already financially better off in the mid 80s, I started helping my hometown, particularly my high school, the Betis National High School in Guagua, Pampanga. I contributed financially to improve some school facilities (e.g. basketball court, rooms.). I also arranged for the shipment of books from the US through the Books for the Barrios Program.

Later, I gave scholarships to high school students and college students. These college scholars, from poor but deserving families and who have to pass qualifying exam, only had to study and did not have to worry over their tuition fees, books, uniforms and school materials and were given P3000 monthly allowance for their transportation and miscellaneous expenses. My daughter, Michelle, managed it for me. In return, they had to maintain 1.75 grade average. I also had scholars whom I did not even get the chance to meet in person like the scholar from Bulacan, endorsed by Center for Migrant Advocacy, who graduated cum laude.

I also donated to social programs like the Bahay Kalinga in Riyadh and the Bantay Bata. I once paid for Bahay Kalinga’s TFC subscription and provided tools and materials (e.g. computers, sewing machines, pots and pans, etc.) for its livelihood training program. The Bantay Bata used my donation for its anti-child abuse program. I also provided medicines for the embassy’s medical missions. I supported individual medical cases like cancer patients and contributed tickets for stranded OFWs needing repatriation.
I come from a poor family. This is my way of paying back society – my way of showing my appreciation for what I have accomplished.

Is it Worth Working Abroad?
Was working abroad worth it? I do not know. At my personal level, I know what I got out of it and what I achieved. I know I tried hard and proved I could do it. I worked hard in my profession and I think I was a financial success. But my marriage and my children suffered. But life is not all that perfect.

Hence, to me, working abroad doesn’t seem really worth it. If you were to ask me, I think it is still best to work here, close to one’s family. This is the best situation because money is not everything, especially for women. It is tough enough for a family when the father is not there. It is even tougher when it is the mother who is not around to hold the family together.

In terms of our country, ideally, we should find jobs here. There should be no need to go abroad. At the same time, people should be free to make choices, to travel and to find jobs when there are none here. But the social costs are just too great. The greatest advantage of working abroad then seems to be the financial gains.

OFWs should maximize their stay abroad. They should not waste their time and resources because they can do something, in fact a lot, with their time abroad that can contribute to their early return to the Philippines. They should continue learning and improving themselves so that they do not have to work abroad forever. They should maximize their stay abroad because they are paying such a high price for it. They should preserve and not squander their earnings (e.g. on consumer goods like electronics, cell phones, and signature goods).

They should save and invest their earnings well so that when they return home they would not have to start from zero. Savings no matter how small will eventually amount to something over time if done consistently and invested wisely.

Based on my experience, I would enjoin the OFWs now to exert everything possible to preserve their families at all costs. Knowing then what I know now, I would have done things differently to preserve my own. Despite the distance, the OFWs should try to be as close to their children as possible so that they will not become delinquent children.

It appears to me that the risk is high and the probability is great that the children may not grow up like those with both parents around them most of the time. In which case, is the social cost worth it? Most OFWs would say they had no choice.