Young Filipinos staying home instead of working overseas
- 12 December 2011
- From the section Business
Knox Balbastro, a 28-year-old copywriter, has a modern lifestyle in central Manila.
She was born in the Philippines, and both her parents are Filipino, yet her choice to live in this country is one that many here would say is unusual.
For Knox's entire life, her parents have lived abroad.
Like more than one in 10 of the Philippine population, they accepted more lucrative jobs overseas so they could send money back home to their families.
Knox lived with her grandparents in Manila for most of her childhood, before joining her parents, first in Saudi Arabia and then in the US.
She was naturally expected to follow in their footsteps and stay outside the Philippines - but she had other ideas.
"I tried to consider whether I could fit in [abroad], and I decided: 'No, I don't think I can'," she says.
At her advertising company in Manila, she earns a fraction of what she could earn overseas, but she has no regrets.
"I've always loved the Philippines," she says.
"It's a home for me, because my culture and heritage are rooted here, and it's the place where I can make the most difference."
Knox is not alone.
While the number of people leaving this country is still growing every year, a small but influential group of young Filipinos is making the opposite journey or thinking twice about leaving the Philippines in the first place.
They are lured by family ties, a sense of belonging, and - for many - a feeling that they're needed at home, to help fix the Philippines' problems.
I've met a call centre worker who does not want to follow his father overseas as an engineer, a young woman who's setting up an organic food business, and a charity worker helping children in the slums.
"I think there's a lot to be done for our country, and I think young people have to take the initiative," says Knox.
It is easy to see, though, why more than nine million Filipinos decide to go abroad; they can easily earn double or triple their wages.
According to Rey Tayag, from the Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA), teachers in the Philippines earn 8,000 pesos (£120; $180) a month, and nurses earn even less.
If they accept a foreign job, even as an unskilled domestic maid, the starting salary is at least 10,000 pesos.
At a recent conference for would-be overseas workers in Manila, queues of Filipinos looked with interest at stalls advertising houses, vehicles and investment opportunities - the material benefits of going abroad.
But even these people had mixed feelings.
"It bothers me that I won't see my children for a year at a time," says Arnold Asayas, a seafarer who is leaving this month for another long journey.
"It's worth it though," he adds. "I'm now the part-owner of a business here, and I've bought my family a car."
Others were at the conference to ask for advice about what to do now that they have returned to the Philippines.
Edna Abayansa's husband was an engineer in Qatar, but he is now back at home, trying to make ends meet by running a grocery business.
"He came back for the children," said Mrs Abanyansa. "My eldest daughter kept crying while he was away."
Knox also found it difficult spending such long periods away from her parents while she was growing up.
"We were a very disjointed family - my mum being in New York, my dad being in Saudi Arabia and me being here in the Philippines," she recalls.
As the only child of the breadwinners for the whole extended family, she was very spoiled.
"I would tell people if I got into trouble that it didn't matter - that I was going to tell my mum and my dad."
She recalls a time when she got lost for a few hours while out shopping with her aunt, and how scared her relatives were that she would tell her parents.
Her childhood could also be very lonely.
"I remember being in situations where I wanted my mum and instead of my mum I'd get a box. And it was wonderful the gifts I'd get… but it was kind of empty."
And when she moved abroad to be with her parents, she missed the Philippines - yet when she was back in the Philippines, she missed her parents again.
As the children of overseas workers grow up, there is an increasing awareness that, sometimes, in the quest to earn money overseas, the long separation can end up harming the very people it is trying to help.
"Studies show that children are more likely to drop out of school if their parents are abroad," says Rey Tayag.
"We've also documented a lot of cases of rape and incest - and we've done focus groups with teenagers whose parents are abroad, and they talk of problems with alcohol and drugs."
The government is also keen to do something to stem this huge economic exodus.
One of the first things President Benigno Aquino said to me, in an interview shortly after he took office, was that he wanted to provide more jobs at home so fewer families had to be split up.
Knox used to feel resentful about her parents' long absences, but she now understands and respects their decision.
"They had to do whatever had to be done," she says.
But as part of the next generation - a child of overseas workers - she can now take advantage of the money her parents have earned, and the good education it has paid for - to live a life she chooses.
"I was given the opportunity to do what I want," she says. "This is my choice, and I love it."
"It's not something I have to do so I can support my family back home or to raise us out of poverty, and for that I'm so thankful."