Leaving the Philippines in Search of Jobs

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The bleakest place in Manila is the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration building. It's filled everyday with long lines of people waiting to get approval to leave their families in order to pursue jobs abroad.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

You know, putting a human face on often faceless masses is a central part of reporting. As NPR's Michael Sullivan found out, getting an individual story often takes a lot of heart.

Here's his Reporter's Notebook from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: There's a building in Manila I must have driven passed four or five times when I was there last week, and it made me incredibly sad every time. It's called the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration.

Some countries export oil or gas or other natural resources, the Philippines aggressively exports its people and business is booming. The agency Web site seems proud of the fact that a record number of Filipinos left for jobs overseas last year - more than a million.

The POEA is where they come for the paperwork that allows them to leave. It's not far from the monument of the People Power Revolution that brought down the dictator Marcos a lifetime ago when, for a little while at least, many Filipinos thought things would get better.

The building is always packed with merchant seamen, engineers and health care workers waiting patiently for the papers that are their ticket out. Some want out, the young ones in particular, and many of them look excited and a bit nervous, just like people anywhere about to get their first taste of adventure abroad. But most of those in line, to me at least, looked weary and resigned at the thought of spending several months, several years, even several decades away from their families.

Four hundred dollars a month is enough to lure some abroad, not much to us, but a lot better than they could do here. And some lucky ones - professionals, nurses, doctors, engineers - can make 10 times that much. But when you ask those in line if it's worth it, often they just tear up and say nothing, embarrassing both them and me.

I may be a little hypersensitive to all these. I've missed my share of family birthdays and school plays, but I haven't missed the birth of a child or the death of a loved one like some of these people have. But they keep going abroad. And the money they sent home is a lifeline not just to their families but for the national economy too.

Economist Emilio Antonio says all this comes at a steep price.

Professor EMILIO ANTONIO (Economics, University of Asia and the Pacific): A lot of children growing up without father image or mother image, and that's very bad. But, you know, beggars cannot choose. That's the most accessible way to survive for many.

SULLIVAN: And that explains why about 10 percent of the population is now working abroad, roughly half in the U.S. You know them, that nurse or doctor at your local hospital, the waiter or cook on that cruise you took last month to Alaska or the Caribbean. They're always smiling and cheerful and unfailingly polite, but trust me, most would rather be somewhere else.

SIMON: NPR's Michael Sullivan.

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