January - February 2008
Mad over money

Coming home

IT’S not easy being popular, but Miguel ‘Mike’ Bolos Jr. seems to manage the fame attached to his name quite well. A 57-year-old entrepreneur, the story of the former overseas Filipino worker (OFW) inspires many migrants who would one day also want to come home for good.

Reputedly the highest paid Filipino in Saudi Arabia, Bolos decided to head home and put up his own business here in 2005. Never mind that he might never earn the same income he had as an accountant and chief financial officer; all he wanted was to invest the money he had earned for 25 years in his hometown of Guagua, Pampanga, a bustling town north of Manila.

Using the managerial techniques he had learned overseas, Bolos now runs a spa in Manila and the first and only mall in Guagua. But it was no easy task, he shares, since he had to learn how to save and invest his money well.

Another returnee, Roderico Cane, also shares how setting up his catsup factory in 1996 required a lot of hard work and discipline. A backyard business that he started in Butuan City in Mindanao, Joy Banana Catsup is now producing 1,000 gallons of catsup per day and has gross annual sales of P15 to P16 million. Cane proudly says that he has the best catsup there is and at the lowest prices — a 250-mg pack of Joy Catsup costs only P4, or about three pesos cheaper than what the multinationals offer.

Not everyone, however, is as lucky.

For one, both Bolos and Cane were already adept at handling finances and knew how to start a business. They are the few rare cases among the hundreds of OFWs who had already returned home. And the government’s inefficient implementation of a proper reintegration program, much less coming up with an effective one, is largely to blame.

In a 2005 policy paper of the International Labor Organization (ILO), it reported that the post-employment problems of OFWs were mainly due to lack of opportunities.

But a law passed in 1995, the Migrants Welfare Act, is supposed to protect them from such troubles. The law reads that the State “does not promote overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth,” adding that it must “continue to create local employment opportunities.”

The ILO, however, said the government has no adequate employment program, and even the pre-departure orientation, which is supposed to prepare the OFW for his eventual return, is ineffective.

But while it reported that the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration and the Department of Labor and Employment did have entrepreneurship and livelihood programs, observers say the programs had little success since barely a few knew they were being offered. Even Bolos and Cane weren’t aware that there was such a program.

As for those who had tried availing such programs, they said the procedures were complicated and the loaned amounts were just too small.

A failed promise

There are also those like Jimmy Avila, a former mechanical engineer in Jeddah, who says he didn’t get help from the government at all, at least not after he got the loan for his machine shop from a government bank.

Encouraged by the OWWA to come home in 1996, with a sweet promise that there were business opportunities for workers like him, Avila resigned from his job. Setting up the shop was pretty easy, he says. “The hard part came when I realized I couldn’t market my products. I didn’t know how to get clients.” (see the PCIJ’s 1999 report, “For Many Overseas Filipino Workers, Home is Where the Hurt Is.”)

Avila has since managed to survive and feed his family with the meager income he earns. He did try to seek help from the government, but he says it couldn’t offer any good options. He, however, remains optimistic. He has in fact sought the assistance of a nongovernmental organization, the Entrepinoy Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises.

With the free business courses the group offers, Avila hopes that he will be able to market the organic fertilizer he will be producing, that is, once he has managed to build the bioreactor, a machine that turns waste into compost. “Hopefully, with funding I can finally come up with my own version of a bioreactor.”

OWWA, however, says that it continues to come up with ways to help the returnees. It has even recently created a National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO) , a one-stop shop for all reintegration programs and services for the government. When asked what it has so far accomplished, the NCRO merely said it was still consolidating all OFW programs and couldn’t give any report yet.

And there is of course the issue of funding. The OWWA has accumulated P9 billion in its trust fund over the last 12 years, but a report says only P45 million had so far been spent.

“The interest alone should be more than enough to fund more reintegration projects,” says Jackson Gan, vice president of the Federated Association of Manpower Exporters, in a recent Philippine News Agency article. Most of the projects, he says, were small-scale stores, advocacy, and seminars.

At the moment, NGOs like Entrepinoy are doing a fine job helping OFWs like Avila, who may not be as business savvy as Bolos or Cane.

There are also organizations like Unlad Kabayan, which can pool in the money of five to 10 OFWs, do feasibility study to determine which business is suitable for a community, and train OFW families to manage the business, teaching them skills like bookkeeping. This type of set-up helps the OFWs cope way before they decide to return home.

“We are squandering a lot of opportunities. OFWs have a lot of money yet we’re not utilizing them properly,” laments Bolos. “But realistically speaking we can’t expect much from government.”