"Why stay here and earn nothing?" asked Ben, one of my classmates at EMT/Paramedic school, in Manila. In the States, paramedic is not a particularly well-paid job. Most American paramedics would be shocked to find out that Ben already graduated university with a BS in nursing.
"Nursing is the most expensive major," said former paramedic Fran Aycocho whose daughter just complete the first year of her studies.
The salary for an RN in Manila is about 5,000 pesos per month. Why would anyone go into debt, and struggle through a brutal academic program only to earn less than $150 per month? The answer, quite simply, is that nursing is the number one way of getting out of the Philippines and finding a well-paid job in another country.
Eighty percent of the Philippine population earns less than two dollars per day. As a result, even jobs as caregivers, which typically pay one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars per week look attractive to families living in poverty.
In the US, Filipino nurses earn more in one day than they do for a whole month in the Philippines. Naturally there is a tremendous amount of competition for these coveted overseas jobs. To find professional employment overseas, Filipinos have to be more qualified than the other applicants. This means studying and more studying.
Of the 28 members of my paramedic class, 19 are nurses. Their hope is that when they apply for the lower position of paramedic they will be chosen over other, less-qualified applicants. Many Filipinos dream of emigrating to America, but for simple dollars and sense, the Arab world is the place to go. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, a Filipino paramedic can earn more per month than most Filipinos earn in one year. They also receive free accommodation and meals.
The OFW or overseas Filipino worker, has become such an institution, such a permanent fixture in Philippine society, that they actually have their own category on the arrival cards at the airport and pass through a separate line at immigration.
"Everyone knows when you are an OFW, so you have to watch out or they will rob you." Said Frank, remembering his own days of returning from Saudi Arabia with months worth of cash in his pockets. "The taxi driver might detour down an alley and have his friends rob you. You have to be careful!"
When I lived in Hong Kong, I would walk through the park every Sunday and see thousands of young beautiful Filipinas. Most were working as caregivers, nannies, or maids, and Sunday was their only day off. Not wanting to squander their meager salaries at the malls, they congregated in Hong Kong’s many parks, eating picnic lunches and catching up with their friends. In HK I was even invited to join the Filipino workers union, who informed me that Filipinos are now one of the largest ethnic groups, comprising more than 150,000 people. In other countries, it is even more extreme. In Qatar, for example, Filipinos make up 30% of the population.
Some of the men had well-paying factory jobs or worked as drivers. Drivers earned a decent wage. But many women, working as domestic help, were underpaid and often abused both sexually and physically. When asked why they would be willing to leave their homes and suffer in isolation in a foreign country, they all said the same things. "You can’t earn any money in the Philippines. And, I need to help support my younger brothers and sisters."
Surviving amid endemic poverty
The poverty in the Philippines is shocking. Even well educated, hard working people, who dress well and come to the city to study or work, face economic issues...