Q&A: Overseas Filipinos threaten to withhold remittances to protest corruption
By Odette Keeley, New America Media
(Editor’s Note: Protests against corruption in the Philippines erupted last month over a “pork-barrel” scandal, in which a wealthy businesswoman colluded with high-ranking government officials to siphon off 10 billion pesos [$233 million USD] from public coffers. The corruption, which spanned a decade and involved more than 28 legislators, came to light in July. Hundreds of protestors rallied in Quezon City yesterday, expressing outrage over officials allegedly misappropriating public funds to enrich themselves – money, they say, was made through the labor of Filipino workers in the country and abroad. These laborers pump back tens of billions of dollars into the country’s economy by sending remittances to family members back home. Activists have called for an international zero remittance day on Sept. 19 in an attempt to flex their political muscle through their pocketbook.)
NAM News Anchor Odette Keeley spoke with Francis Calpotura, founder and executive director of the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), with offices in Oakland, California and Manila. The group advocates for the rights and welfare of overseas workers.
Odette Keeley: The Philippines is infamous for government corruption, so what makes this scandal different and why have protestors chosen to withhold remittances as a way to express anger over government corruption?
Francis Calpotura: I think in general folks are outraged by the pork barrel scandal in the Philippines. Everyone knows that this happened, but that finally when it was brought to light – the extent of it, and the duration that it has been going on, reinforces the worst speculations that people have about the Philippine government. And people are manifesting that outrage in a lot of different ways, including this call by Migrante [International] on Sept. 19th. as a way for OFWs [Overseas Foreign Workers] to register their complaints about this intolerable exposure that has happened in the Philippines. The ZRD protest is part of the continuing exploration of how to match the economic power of the Filipino diaspora with political influence. Overseas Filipinos have played contributing (at times, central) roles in key struggles, such as ousting the dictatorship in the 1980s to the passage of Overseas Voting Act in the past decade. So I am sympathetic to this ongoing exploration [of] how to wield power and influence by this sector.
Keeley: Do you think the number of Filipinos supporting the campaign by withholding remittances will be extensive?
Calpotura: There’s no question that people want to act on this anger, and one of the ways that they can do so… is around their economic power, or the leverage that their economic power brings. If there’s one thing we are sure about, it is that the economic impact of migrants is a fundamental and profound influence in the Philippine economy. It constitutes at least 15 percent of the GDP [gross domestic product] of the Philippines … and it’s only increasing as the years go on.
Keeley: If participation on Zero Remittance Day were high, what potential impact could that have on the country’s economy?
Calpotura: According to the latest data from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas [an agency of the Philippine government], there [are] … over 10 million Filipinos outside of the Philippines at this time, in about 183 countries.
Four million of the 10 million reside in the United States, most of whom are not contract workers. They’re mainly immigrants, who have chosen to at least permanently stay in the U.S. as their new residence. The vast majority of overseas Filipinos… are, for example, in the Middle East or in Europe or in Australia. [They] are in those places [on] a 2-3 year contract, and then they have to go back to the Philippines after that contract is over.
The data that I have on remittances to the Philippines is about $23 billion (USD) that went through the Central Bank of the Philippines in 2012 alone, and that increased almost 10 percent from 2011.
If that withholding of remittances happened around the world, if you took $23 billion and [divided] that by 365 days, then you would get about $63 million for each day on the average. But the trick here is that in fact they will just send their remittance the day before or the day after the scheduled ZRD protest.
Keeley: Is there an estimate of the amount of remittances that Filipino professionals and immigrants in the United States might be sending to relatives back in their home country?
Calpotura: The most systematic study was done by Prof. Joaquin “Jay” Gonzalez III at [The University of San Francisco] about 5 years ago. He estimated that about 63 percent of Filipinos in the Bay Area send money at least eight times a year and the average amount is somewhere around $250 each time. There are about 40-50,000 Filipino newcomers that come to the U.S. from the Philippines every year. So that number keeps on growing. Newer immigrants, or those who have been in the country for about 15 years or less, tend to send back home more consistently.
Keeley: Even though the Philippine government taxes remittances, Malacanang Palace [ the Philippines’ White House] said the campaign would do more to hurt families in the country than the government. What is your reaction to this?
Calpotura: It’s a debate about whether people are going to withhold their remittances. Yes, they might withhold it for that one day, but their obligations to their families is such that they will send their money to their families. People send once a month, twice a month or in the case of Filipinos in the U.S., an average of eight times a year. In line with that, I take issue with what Malacanang Palace has said, it doesn’t mean that if people withheld what they would have sent in that one day, that they’re not going to send it. It’s not punishing the family. What Malacanang tries to minimize is that overseas Filipinos are trying to find how they can match their economic power with political influence. I consider this an important impulse that folks are still trying to get their footing on how to have a significant and profound political impact that’s commensurate with their economic clout.
Keeley: Will the Zero Remittance Day protest be effective though if people can just send their money a day earlier or after?
Calpotura: The ZRD protest is a symbolic act that seeks to give expression to the anger and frustration of Filipinos abroad on the endemic corruption of our political system. One clear manifestation of this corrupt system is to rely on labor export as the government’s signature development policy in the past 40+ years. So Filipinos overseas have paid for this corrupt system with their bodies. They know it too well. So I can understand Migrante’s call for withholding remittances in one day, as a way of unified action, as an exercise in collective unity, that can send a message. But to equate that with being able to change the course to what has happened in the Philippines and can reverse what has happened, to me it doesn’t amount to that, because the practical impact of what they’re doing, is not really going to have the intended result in the Philippines.
It doesn’t really centrally address the corruption which is the issue at hand. If the [tax] which is levied on remittances coming into the country by the Central Bank of the Philippines has direct ties to the pork barrel funds in question, then I can see the leverage it generates. But it doesn’t. Pork barrel funds are part of the overall budgeting process of government revenue collected from multiple sources. If you starve the government coffers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be taken out of the pork barrel funds. It might be taken out of more “undeserving” or “politically expendable” programs for the poor, for example.
Keeley: Are there other actions that overseas Filipino workers could take that you think would be more effective to protest government corruption?
Calpotura: I’m hoping for a campaign that targets the most egregious violators of this scandal…to look into what they own in the Philippines and abroad, including investments in real estate …and [other] industries that directly rely on diaspora dollars, for example, shopping malls, cellphone/telecom gadgets, car dealerships, condo developers… and call for a genuine boycott of these companies.
Keeley: The Philippines is known for high levels of government corruption. What makes this latest scandal different and why was it a tipping point?
Calpotura: Sobra na. Tama na. Palitan na. (This is too much. This is enough. It’s time to stop this.) This was our demand during the Marcos dictatorship. It’s a similar sentiment that has surfaced 37 years later. It has also been stoked by…Philippine President Aquino III in going after former President Arroyo and other public officials accused of corruption or wrongdoing in government. I think these recent high-profile examples of championing anti-corruption and government transparency has raised the floor of what people expect of their politicians. This latest episode, with its brazenness and high-level corruption, has broached the cultural tipping point of what Filipinos expect of their public officials.