*Keynote speech delivered at Mandarin Oriental last June 23 during the launching of the YOUthink session of the Department of Labor and Employment and the National Youth Commission
Good morning, honorable speakers and resource persons, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.
I would first like to congratulate the Department of Labor and Employment, the National Youth Commission, and other partner organizations for this successful launching of the first ever YOUthink sessions.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my views about a very important topic. I understand that you broke tradition by allowing a young person, instead of senior officials of the department, to keynote this gathering. I appreciate the gesture and the risk you took by choosing a young activist-legislator to discuss the youth-employment-migration issue.
Let me begin with a question: Do we really understand the Filipino youth today? We can cite numerous statistics about the young population, for example – the Philippines, which has a predominantly young population, also has the highest overall unemployment rates in East Asia and the Pacific Region. It also has the highest rates on unemployment among the youth, according to a 2003 study by the World Bank. Young Filipinos are twice as likely to be unemployed than those in older age groups. This condition was further worsened when the economic recession kicked in because of massive retrenchment and lay-offs.
Young workers are at a disadvantage given their lack of experience vis a vis the lack of job opportunities. Every year for the last decade, at least 300,000 new graduates are added to the labor force, and consequently, a majority of them figure in the increasing unemployment statistics.
In January 2008, the government reported that 50 percent of the unemployed 2.7 million belonged to age groups 15 to 24. Of these, 461,000 or 35 percent were able to graduate from college, while an estimated 700,000 unemployed youth either finished high school or at least reached undergraduate college levels.
Indeed, these numbers clearly illustrate the seriousness of the problem. However, I think these numbers do not present an adequate description or they fail to contextualize what the young are really thinking and feeling today.
I am young, well, compared to my colleagues in Congress, I am young. But I cannot confidently assert that I belong to the new generation. They speak jejemon; my batchmates prefer the Kris Aquino version of cono taglish. They are emo; we prefer to be called existentialists.
Let us try to understand the youth aged 15-24. The oldest of this age group was born in 1986 while the youngest was born in 1995. How old were you in 1995? Or should I say how young were you in 1995? The output of today’s event will change the lives, hopefully for the better, of the new generation. Let us think of them and their future during the plenary session.
It is imperative that we first recognize how the young are interpreting the world because the last thing we want is to alienate them. We can’t offer solutions that do not address the particular needs and desires of our youth. There is the danger of assuming that what is good and effective for our generation will be easily accepted by our youth today.
So what are the key events and ideas in the past 15 years that could have influenced the worldview of our youth?
First, this generation grew up believing that the labor export policy is a permanent and natural economic policy. They believe that migration is the only way they can fulfill their dreams. Isn’t it tragic that a generation of Filipinos is holding on to a believable fiction that life is always better in other countries?
Second, this generation was exposed to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. These have shattered the people’s confidence in the economic system but I believe that these economic shocks have also further encouraged young Filipinos to look for jobs in other countries where companies are in need of cheap labor.
Third, the rise of the service sector is best exemplified by the booming Business Process Outsourcing industry. Working in a BPO firm is now a popular career option for young Filipinos who do not want to leave the country. But many young workers in this industry are not aware of their labor rights and they even think that they do not experience labor problems just because they receive above minimum wage salaries.
Fourth, the spectacular decline of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors has led to dwindling number of available jobs in the country, especially in the rural areas. Filipinos in the provinces are flocking to the cities in search of jobs and economic opportunities. Just think of Manny Pacquaio – before he became a boxing legend, he went to Manila to escape poverty in General Santos.
Because of perceived low income derived from farming, more and more Filipinos are leaving the agricultural sector to join the urban population. This is unfortunate since we are an agricultural nation. What is surprising is that while we are experiencing low productivity in the rural areas, young Filipinos seem to be experts in expanding their agricultural estates in Farmville.
Fifth, the basic education curriculum was revised in 2002. What is the impact of this revision on the skills training of students? Did it equip our young people with proper knowledge and experience to survive in this competitive world of ours? The new president wants to overhaul the schooling system and maybe he can also order the review of the curriculum in our public schools.
Sex education, renamed as teen wellness program, is now part of the curriculum. Consumer education, climate change, human rights will also be taught in schools. What new topics should we propose to make our students productive citizens in the future?
When I was a college freshman (in 1996), the most popular course offering in the country was computer science. Computer schools mushroomed throughout the archipelago. Today, the number one course preference of students is nursing. Why? It is obviously linked to the high demand for health workers in other countries. The academe-industry relationship must be reviewed.
Sixth, the first wave of large-scale emigration began in the 1970s. Let us assume that the workers who left the country during this period are already retiring and will return soon. They are the parents and relatives of the new generation I am talking about. The return of the senior citizen OFWs will put pressure on young Filipinos to look for high paying jobs and most likely they will also seek employment abroad to replace their parents and relatives who have already retired. The Philippine government, therefore, must step up its reintegration and retraining programs for returned overseas workers.
Seventh, the internet and mobile technologies. This generation is sometimes called the networked generation. They can’t leave their cell phones at home and they surf the web everyday, at least for those who have internet access. On the plus side, it has expanded economic and social activities in the country thanks to more accessible communication devices. On the negative side, it has permanently affected the writing skills, study habits, and reading proficiency of students. It has also reinforced the individualist tendencies of young people who always want to be seen by all on Facebook.
Allow me to review and highlight some of the points I mentioned earlier.
During my undergraduate years (and that was more than a decade ago), the migration of Filipinos workers was referred to as brain drain. Then economists began to preach about the positive impact of migration. Braid drain became brain gain, brain circulation, ot brain exchange. But in recent years, the exodus of Filipino health workers – doctors, nurses, midwives, and health educators – has shown how migration can almost disrupt the delivery of basic social services in the country. I agree with former Health Secretary Jaime Galvez Tan when he described the phenomena as brain hemorrhage. From braid drain to brain hemorrhage; meaning skilled workers are already leaving the country in alarming numbers.
In Japan, the concept of lost generation is related to the economic crisis in the 1990s which produced a generation of young Japanese with no full-time employment. Using the economy as a yardstick, can we describe migrant Filipinos (from OCW to OFW) as belonging to the lost generation? They are talented Filipinos who are forced to wander in other countries to pursue their dreams. Can the dollar remittances compensate for the loss of our skilled human resources?
The labor export policy also created another lost generation – the children of OFWs. They grew up while their parents are far away. Parenting in these modern times is accomplished through letters, telephone conversations, and internet chat. Often, OFW parents shower their children with consumer goods to ease the guilt of leaving their families. What is worse is that children of OFWs will grow old thinking that earning money and fulfilling a dream can only be realized by migrating to distant shores.
I believe that the long-term solution to youth unemployment and the best alternative to migration is to strengthen the domestic economy. Jobs, livelihood, vibrant national industries. The new president should review the country’s economic policies which yield good economic numbers like GDP growth but contribute little in alleviating the plight of poor Filipinos. If rich countries are adopting trade protection measures to support their local industries, why can’t we do the same?
Jumpstarting the local economy is not the mandate of DOLE alone. It is the national government which should address the need to mix sound economic planning, relevant education, efficient health system, and sustainable development when formulating national policies.
Young workers are often discriminated in the workplace. Many are subjected to different forms of harassment in offices. Most of the time, young workers do not complain for fear of losing their jobs. Docility can also be traced to the youth’s ignorance of labor laws. What we can offer to young people is information about their labor rights. We can help them assert these rights in the workplaces. We can teach them the value of forming unions and associations to advance their collective interests. This is no longer an easy task since the dominant ethic today is to pursue individual interests. The rise of the service sector produced a new breed of young professionals with little or no sense of collective solidarity.
We also have to think of creative methods to get the attention of the youth. Everyday they are bombarded with all kinds of data, both serious and silly, when they access the internet. We should try to present the topic of labor rights in such a way that it will make them briefly forget Justin Bieber and the cast of Glee.
(According to Pierre Bourdieu,) unemployment is a form of structural violence in society. It deprives individuals the right to have a meaningful life in the present by making the future uncertain. It isolates individuals from the community which prevents the formation of solidarity.
It is not just about creating new jobs for the young that really matter. The concern of everybody, both the public and private sectors, both young and old, is to decide as a community whether we want to continue living in a society where a big part of the population is denied the chance to contribute something substantial to the progress of the country. We should also ask ourselves whether it serves our interest, in the long run, to continue sending away the best and brightest of our young generation.
There is always the expectation that something new is going to happen every time a new leader emerges. But change is impossible to achieve if we do not assert the kind of change we want for our country. The challenge then is to start working for the change we really want, and the change we really need.
*Thank you Sarah for contributing ideas and relevant data in drafting this speech.