You might have seen a recent New York Times Magazine cover story (subscription req.) about Filipinos working overseas. It is a colorful portrait of what life has been like for the Comodas family, two generations of which have worked abroad. The article describes challenges the parents faced in migrating internally from Leyte and Cavite provinces to a fetid slum in the capital, Manila, and how father and children’s subsequent leap to contract work in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates has brought protracted separation of the family, intense loneliness, and risks to personal safety.
The author, Jason Deparle, recognizes the comparatively enormous salaries that Emmet Comodas and all five of his children have earned abroad, but urges us to remember that “competing with the literature of gain is a parallel literature of loss.” Any good journalist lays out the pros and cons of phenomena, inviting readers to reach their own conclusions. But one straightforward fact should stare any reader directly in the eyes: The Comodas family has reached its own decision about whether the gains are worth the losses. They have decided that the losses do not even come close to paralleling the gains, and their conclusion matters infinitely more than yours or mine.
Not everyone trusts the Comodas family’s decision about what’s best for them and their children. The otherwise superb economist Dani Rodrik posted on his blog a short comment titled 'The downside of labor mobility'. He concluded: “What the article makes clear to me is that we have not yet figured out how to make international labor mobility a true contributor to economic development.”
This claim is nothing short of bizarre. If “economic development” is not that which brings enormous lasting welfare improvements to families unlucky enough to have been born in poor countries, then what, exactly, is it? Would additional factory jobs in Manila constitute “development”, even if Emmet were much worse off working there than if he worked abroad? He and his family have answered this question by voting with their feet.
Emmet Comodas’ salary in Saudi Arabia was ten times what he could have earned at home. He and his wife Tita invested the extra pay in food, medicine, and school supplies for their children. Though neither Emmet nor Tita had finished high school, four of their five children now have college degrees. Deparle grimly notes that “Emmet, overseas paying the bills, missed every graduation”. So what? Evidently Emmet and Tita decided that it would be better for their children if Emmet were absent at their children’s college graduations than present to watch them drop out of high school only to perpetuate their family’s poverty. Who are you and I to tut-tut them for this decision? Would you take Emmet’s advice on what’s best for your kids? Or should we have interceded with Emmet’s Saudi employer to limit how much time Emmet could spend in the Gulf? He would most certainly not appreciate our ostensible good will toward his children.
The article also makes much of anecdotes regarding threats to migrant workers’ personal safety. The question is not whether there are risks --- there most certainly are, everywhere, and they should be reduced where possible. Rather, the question is whether the risks to Filipinos in Singapore or Abu Dhabi are greater than the risks to them from gangs near Emmet’s original home in the slum of Leveriza, or whether the risks in Emmet’s ancestral home of rural Leyte are outweighed by those in Leveriza. Leyte is apparently not an Eden of personal security: Something --- the article doesn’t say what --- killed both of Emmet’s parents there when he was young. Both Emmet’s family and Tita’s made decisions about what the relative risks were between a rural and an urban life, and Emmet and Tita made decisions about the relative risks between Manila and life overseas. All of these decisions were made with vastly greater information than you and I have --- or can have.
Emmet and Tita Comodas understand what is best for their marriage and for their children’s welfare. Lasting, unmistakable improvements in that welfare are development of the Philippines, because the Philippines is Filipino families. The opportunity afforded to Emmet and his kids by migration to the Gulf region unquestionably raised their welfare. If it hadn’t, Emmet wouldn’t have signed up again and again for repeated contracts abroad, and he never would have permitted his children to follow suit. Beyond all that, the education his children received can only contribute to building industries and accountable government within the Philippines that will make other Filipino families better off as well.
If temporary work programs like those that unquestionably, dramatically raised the welfare of the Comodas family are not “true contributors” to economic development, I’d be interested to know what “true” development is. If there is a “literature of loss” on Filipino overseas workers, it isn’t being written by Filipinos, who are writing a different literature --- with their lives and their choices.