Mai Anounevo

MANILA Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)–Serma Chozas, 51, spent five years in Kuwait working in a garment factory until she returned three years ago to her home in St Pablo City, south of Manila.

Now the former overseas worker is a general manager of Koop Bulikabayani, a bank that she and other activists launched in 2003 to provide lucrative investment opportunities for Filipinos returning from overseas jobs. Funds deposited in the bank are extended as loans to other returning workers to help them start their own businesses.

"It’s great to be back home and also to have a stable job that helps me to pay my bills without having to worry about tomorrow. Now I will not have to leave the Philippines again," says Chozas, who worked in in a garment factory Kuwait for five years till she returned and became involved with Atikha.

Filipino migrant workers such as Chozas are a pillar of the national economy. More than 9 million Filipinos–1 in 10–work in foreign countries. The money they send home each year amounts to more than $10.7 billion and these remittances represent around 12 percent of the gross domestic product, the overall measurement of a national economy.

With women 60 percent of this group–many work as nurses, domestic workers or entertainers–the spotlight has fallen on policies and programs to bring them home to families, communities and professions that suffer by their absence.

A provision in the U.S. immigration bill that passed the Senate last week, for instance, opens immigration doors to overseas nurses, a move that some fear will simply displace the U.S. nursing shortage to lower-wage countries such as the Philippines. The legislation now awaits action in conference committee, where negotiators will attempt to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions.

Turning Foreign Wages into Local Jobs

To lure migrant workers home and keep them there, activists are looking at ways to use foreign wages to strengthen the local employment base. While overseas workers send more than 50 percent of their salaries to their Philippine bank accounts, most of the money above the required minimum is immediately withdrawn, a 2005 Asian Development Bank study showed.

"Foreign earnings are used by migrants to provide material goods such as building lavish houses, education, return debts or lent to relatives rather than invest to create stable livelihoods," says Filomeno Aguilar, a social scientist at Ateneo De Manila University.

The bank where Chozas works–a sturdy wooden structure nestled in the sprawling green mountains that surround in Batangas, south of Manila–was launched by the nongovernmental group Atikha, which means "save and invest" in Tagalog, the local language. The bank serves as lynchpin for Atikha’s efforts to use remittances to fertilize local jobs.

Startup funding of $70,000 for the bank was collected by Atikha from overseas workers.

Staff at the Koop bank earn an average monthly salary of $200. Although that’s not a lot, bank managers say many workers would prefer to take a stable and comfortable job at home than endure tougher conditions overseas.

Women Start Shops and Farms

The Koop bank at this point has extended loans to 178 workers who have returned from overseas employment and several groups that have launched pilot projects to create income opportunities for overseas workers. Beneficiaries of the loans and programs are mostly women who have set up shops, organic farming or other agricultural projects. "The bank aims to assist overseas Filipino workers to develop new livelihoods by becoming entrepreneurs," says Mai Dizon Anonuevo, a founder and executive director of Atikha. "By providing economic and social support we help them to be economically self-sufficient in their own country."

One of Atikha’s newest projects was launched in January to market soap based on virgin coconut oil and coconut fiber. It started with an initial capital of $60,000 raised through remittances and employs a staff of 10 people. Anonuevo says it is too soon to project revenue for this year.

Anonuevo, an energetic friendly woman, is a former migrant worker herself. She worked as a teacher in Germany for six years while her husband and young family stayed in the Philippines.

Anonuevo, Choza and others founded Atikha in 1996 to provide economic and social services to homecoming workers. Atikha organizes and directs programs with the support of remittances and funding from various Philippine and international foundations.

Fostering Family Relations

In addition to providing jobs and investment opportunities for returning workers, Atika also conducts projects to help children and other family members understand what mothers and daughters go through in their overseas jobs to provide them with financial stability.

In one project, children learn about their mothers’ lives as overseas workers. "Often the mother does not talk about how hard she had to work to support her family so," says Anonuevo. "Through role playing the children learn that she has to wake up at dawn to cook and clean for her employer and how much she misses her family as she struggles to cope in a foreign country. These workshops foster closer ties in migrant families paving the way for greater acceptance of the mother or daughter when she returns home."

Anonuevo says returning female migrants often enjoy heightened status in local communities where many Filipinas are reared to be wives and mothers.

"Returning migrant women find themselves in a complex situation. After years of living independently in a foreign country on their own, it is not easy to slip back to traditional role playing again."

Suvendrini Kakuchi is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Japan. She covers Japan-Asia relations extensively.


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