Why is this interesting? - The Balikbayan Edition

On work, sacrifice, and a tangible link to home.

Colin here. Remittances—the money and material sent from people working abroad back home—are a big part of how the world functions. A migrant laborer goes and seeks work in another country where economic conditions are better and sends a portion of their pay, often a large one, to families at home. Figures from the World Bank peg this market at around $551 billion per year. But behind the numbers and figures are stories about family, sacrifices, and context behind the things they send home. 

The California Sunday, a great read and a favorite of WITI, recently did this with the sizable Filipino market. The article was written by associate editor Joy Shan and photographed by Xyza Cruz Bacani,  a former domestic worker who recently published We Are Like Air, which tells the story of female migrant domestic workers, including her own mother, working and living in Hong Kong. As Shan describes in the piece:

The promise of better wages overseas has lured tens of millions of Filipinos to work abroad. In fact, since the 1970s, the government has encouraged its citizens to go overseas and send home remittances, which make up nearly 10 percent of the Philippines’s GDP. Around half of these expats — known as balikbayans, a Tagalog word for “to return to one’s home country” — are women who serve as caretakers, nannies, and housekeepers. Seldom able to journey back, the migrant workers send balikbayan boxes, some 5.5 million a year. In places like Hong Kong, where many now live, balikbayans huddle on sidewalks and in plazas of the Central District, where the cargo companies are located, packing gifts and sundries gathered meticulously over months: canned food and bulk detergent, shoes and chocolates and secondhand electronics. Weeks later, the packages arrive at their families’ doorsteps.

Why is this interesting? 

Ten million Filipinos work abroad, with an additional one million leaving each year. That’s a big number in a country of 100 million. And it is mostly women. Data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency confirms that Filipino men make up less than 40 percent of the nation's overseas workers. A study done by the non-governmental Center for Women's Resources noted that working abroad had become the “only viable option for many Filipino women given lack of economic opportunity at home.” 

The women often go to richer places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and the US and work as caretakers, cleaners, maids, and other professions, regularly under taxing and even criminal conditions. In Hong Kong, as required by labor law, the women are required to “live in” with their employers, often in one of the densest and space-constrained places in the world. But, despite this hardship, they are dubbed by the government as “modern-day heroes” for keeping the Philippine economy afloat

The money and resources they send home are a vital injection into the economy. But, aside from cash, they also send large shipments—a modern manifestation of a care package—called “balikbayan boxes,” that can keep a family afloat or elevate their living a bit. Think of a nice pair of shoes that would have been cost-prohibitive at home, household goods, or even just small treats. 

The government of the Philippines doesn’t tax these shipments, and there’s no weight restriction. Sending a box is a gesture of love: 

Levy Echano, 38, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, packs her box in the corridor outside a cargo company’s office. “I send soap and toothpaste so my husband doesn’t have to worry about buying things for the house and for our kids,” Echano says. “Sometimes I even buy coffee and Coffee-mate here, even though it’s available in the Philippines. My family says the money I spend on the delivery is a waste and that I should just send money. But sending a box feels different. You get tired from saving, but when they open the box and are excited, it removes all your tiredness.”

The scope and scale of these balikbayan boxes have also created their own economy of sorts. According to the piece, today, there are roughly 700 sea freight forwarders transporting balikbayan boxes from 57 different countries. Also, the packaging and preparing of the boxes are an event themselves, since many of the families the workers look after don’t allow them to store any goods or pack boxes in the home. Out of this necessity, some of the cargo companies offer a few months of free storage to allow items to be sent to accumulate, before being packaged up, put on a boat, and sent back home. (CJN)

Drink of the day: 

I first spotted this drink at the excellent Otus Thai Kitchen in LA. It’s a Japanese made sparkling Yuzu juice drink. Described as “brightly tart with a lush floral fragrance, the Kimino Yuzu Sparkling is made in Japan from whole, fresh-pressed yuzu fruit mixed with sparkling water and cane sugar.” I found it not too sweet, refreshing and sophisticated. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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