OFWs as heroes

Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina touched a raw nerve when he recently announced that the Bureau of Customs would be randomly opening and examining balikbayan boxes as part of the agency’s effort to curb smuggling. He said that smugglers have been using this iconic door-to-door delivery system to bring in contraband items like illegal drugs, guns and ammunition, highly dutiable merchandise and even disassembled motorcycles. I am quite sure there is solid basis for that assertion.

But critics immediately pounced on Lina on all media platforms, accusing him of barking up the wrong tree and providing corrupt customs personnel yet another opportunity to collect bribes and pilfer other people’s presents. The virulence of the attacks that greeted his pronouncements must have surprised him.

Realizing the sensitivity of the issue, President Aquino himself announced that there would be no random or arbitrary physical inspection of these boxes. Only container vans carrying balikbayan boxes that are shown on the X-ray screen to contain suspicious items may be opened. These boxes, he said, must be inspected in the presence of representatives of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. Still, these assurances have failed to appease the critics. Netizens have launched a campaign demanding a congressional inquiry into the operations of Customs. Some have even asked for Lina’s head.

To be fair, there is nothing in Commissioner Lina’s order that is not already part of the responsibility of his agency. Returning residents go through airport customs and dutifully submit their luggage for inspection. They are required to declare the value of goods they are carrying, and to pay taxes on items in excess of what is allowed for personal use. It seems weird to exempt from this routine procedure the approximately 600,000 unaccompanied balikbayan boxes that find their way into the country every month.

Despite its vulnerability to systematic abuse, this practice has long been rationalized as a minor courtesy given to the nation’s “bagong bayani” (new heroes), all 10 million overseas Filipino workers deployed in about 192 countries in the world. We should be bending over-backward, so the reasoning goes, to make it easy for them to nurture their links to their families wherever they are, instead of adding to the burden of prolonged separation.

Indeed, there are perhaps only a few things that are as emotionally laden as the situation of OFW families. We can never talk about them without referencing the hardships, sufferings and the indignities they must often bear in silence in their places of work abroad. We cannot minimize the emotional vacuum that is created when parents have to go away for long periods just to provide for their families’ needs. We know that not even a monthly balikbayan box bursting with gifts can possibly compensate for the wrenching absence of a parent. It is pointless to argue that their departure is their own decision. What is clear is that the country owes them big.

Just as four decades of OFW deployment has spawned a culture of migration, so also has a whole discourse of guilt and recompense grown around the experience of Filipino labor export. University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Encinas-Franco wrote a fascinating doctoral thesis exploring the nature of this discourse. The argument she develops is compelling: She says that “the state strategically uses and harnesses the kabayanihan of OFWs so as to draw and incorporate labor migrants to the nation-state by way of the remittances they send to their families.”

Yet there is something paradoxical here, Franco notes. “(I)n promoting migrants as ‘heroes,’ it (the state) ostensibly promotes emigration at all costs… Ultimately, it takes for granted sacrifice and suffering as part of the game of overseas work.”

In an ideal world, the personal advancement of citizens should go and in hand with the advancement of their nation. Thus, we may assume that no self-respecting nation would deliberately drive its people away to seek work abroad. That would mean not only admitting its own failure to provide for its citizens, but also depriving itself of the human resources it needs in order to grow. Can billions of dollars in remittances ever be fair exchange for what the nation and its families have to give up as a result of the state-organized program of labor export? I doubt it.

But, having been led to this path, successive Philippine administrations have found it difficult to reverse a policy that Marcos had intended as a temporary solution to the country’s foreign exchange problems. And so, over the last 40 years, we have, in a manner of speaking, freely traded our people in the global labor market, with little regard for their and their families’ wellbeing. No leader of the nation with any integrity can possibly sleep well at night, knowing that millions of OFWs in different corners of the world are worrying that the cartons of little presents they have lovingly packed and shipped out to Manila might vanish in the course of a random inspection. That’s the reason for P-Noy’s intervention.

The unimpeded tax-free delivery of OFW balikbayan boxes seems such a small courtesy—so disproportionate to the $2 billion monthly remittances that keep the Philippine economy virtually crisis-proof—that there’s probably nothing more unpatriotic than to restrict the privilege at this time. The government cannot avoid being defensive when it concerns its OFWs—so long as our leaders think the nation cannot survive without exporting its workers.