For years, beginning in the late 1980s, Carmen Nuguit routinely carried three foreign currencies -- US dollars, Saudi riyals and Japanese yen - to exchange at often-shadowy dealers in the Malate district of Manila. Remittances from her older sisters working in Chicago, Riyadh and Shizuo Ka, they arrived through couriers or intermediaries outside the banking system.
She would scout for the highest rate among the dozens of roadside money changers in the district, nearly all of them Muslim Filipinos, and worry about being shortchanged or robbed. For her and thousands of other dependents of overseas workers, it was as though banks did not exist and receiving money from abroad was a furtive business.
“I had to be alert, and would count my money twice before leaving a shop,” she recalls, “in case the fast hands of a shopkeeper had pulled out a hundred note or two.”
These days, Carmen, a government employee, still receives remittances from her sisters. But instead of going on expeditions to the black-market back streets she now glides past glass windows of branded clothes in an air-conditioned shopping mall -- usually one of the 13 “supermalls” of the SM Department Store chain strewn across Metro Manila.
“I don’t always shop after changing money,” says Carmen. “But you know how Pinoys are with cash.”
Huge shops like SM, the Robinsons chain and the Glorietta and Greenbelt malls in Makati, the country’s financial district, have largely replaced the roadside moneychangers of old, a tribute to the growing affluence of those dependent on the foreign earnings of their loved ones and a sign that the overseas worker is far from a passing phenomenon but is instead a bedrock of Filipino survival and even prosperity. Inside these complexes, alongside trendy boutiques are foreign exchange dealers, remittance agencies and automated teller machines eager to serve.
Most of the malls have been built, upgraded and expanded only in the past decade. They mirror the changing trends in money transfer in the country and Filipinos’ spending activities. They’ve given rise to the uniquely Filipino word “malling”, as opposed to mere strolling, in a city where there are few safe public spaces or parks. Here you can shop, eat, watch movies, play video games and even pray at designated Catholic prayer rooms and chapels inside the malls.
They also reflect the Filipino diaspora.
“They’ve dispersed (to work abroad) so we could go malling; we could go malling because they’ve dispersed’,” says Ellen Gorospe, a housewife whose husband works as a sous-chef on a large cruise ship in the Caribbean. She’s malling in Manila with her two sons, aged 14 and 10. One wears a red jacket with Alaskan badges, the other is eyeing an I-pod.
Some eight million Filipinos work abroad, as seafarers, nurses, domestic helpers, care givers, entertainers, doctors etc. They’ve become a bloodline to the ailing Philippine economy. According to 2004 statistics there were 2,723,182 in the US and 994,377 in Saudi Arabia. Two were wistfully listed as working in the remote Transkei region of South Africa between 1998 and 2005; one lonely soul was toiling away in the Channel Islands during the same eight-year period.
In the early 1990s, a decade or so after the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency was created to deal specifically with overseas contract workers, or OCWs, a change in term occurred. “OCWs” caused some highbrow Filipinos to feel a hint of shame, as though it referred solely to Filipino “house maids” on fixed term contracts. As a result the Philippine government coined a new term, Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs, and they have since been declared heroes of the country for keeping the place afloat.
OFWs mean survival and hope; some 1.3 million Filipino families depend directly on them, according to the National Statistics Office. And they are no longer restricted to migrant workers. Highly-skilled doctors and nurses are much in demand and Filipino doctors have even become nurses to fill growing demand in the west. Hosts of nursing schools have sprung up some pretty dodgy to supply the market, as have short term academies that purport to provide “caregiver” skills for those at the lower end of the healing professions.
Last year’s remittance total of US$10.68 billion is expected to increase by 10 percent to US$11.8 billion at the end of 2006, according to the central bank. The bulk of it comes from the US, Saudi Arabia and Japan, the three largest sources of OFW remittances. Their impact is great, not least because the rest of the Philippines, with a population of almost 90 million, is largely poor. OFWs and malling in the midst of urban squalor have sparked an economic dynamism that gloss over that poverty.
When the going gets tough at home, all the OFW relatives have to do—and often could only do in the face of high unemployment—is ask for more money from abroad. They change foreign currencies and then they shop. When Carmen goes shopping for her 79-year old mother and her younger brother she first buys groceries. After that come “essential luxuries” like clothes and bags.
Inside the air-conditioned malls there is respite from the tropical heat, pollution and mess of Manila and a world quite apart form the shanty towns and decay infecting much of the city. For relatives receiving money and returning OFWs these are comfort zones that have spread far beyond the traditionally wealthy district of Makati, which for decades was the only place in the city to find such shopping. The malls offer activities and brands that may be common in affluent countries but were rare luxuries here before ice skating, IMAX movies and exotic European labels are as available here as in Hong Kong.
In 1985, when the country’s first supermall was built in a vacant field along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or EDSA, the historic avenue where the 1986 “People Power” revolt would take place, Filipinos wondered who would go to such an out-of-the way place but that SM Mega Mall became an anchor for an entire new city of leisure and business. Three years before, in 1982, POEA was created. A year later, in 1986, the EDSA revolution changed governments. In the early 1990s, when the OCWs were elevated to OFWs, the Philippine banking sector was reformed and became more open and user friendly.
As more remittances flow in, more shops rise. SM astounded shoppers earlier this year with the massive Mall of Asia the third largest mall in the world on 19.7 hectares of reclaimed land fronting Manila Bay. The Philippines remains a poor country but the Mall of Asia, and its many cousins in Manila and throughout the country seem to be doing booming business.
Liza Triviño, 27, a saleslady at the Asian FX money changer in Manila’s Gateway shopping mall, can spot the source of revenue from her OFW clients just by looking at them. “If a woman is middle-aged and rather simple looking, we might guess that she carries Singapore dollars. If she’s young and fair-skinned, with or without a male Japanese companion, we’d say, ‘She has yen,’” says Triviño.
Her guesses imply that the woman could be a domestic helper in Singapore or a “Japayuki”, an entertainer and often a prostitute in Japan.
“If he’s a middle-aged man, dark-skinned with some gold chains, we’d say he works in Saudi. The more professional-looking ones usually carry US dollars.
“They come here because they say it’s safer at the mall,” she added. “We talk to them so they become more at ease. Then a woman might suddenly say, ‘I worked hard for two years for this.’”
In tumbledown Malate, which was once a thriving center of tourism, the money changer shops have dwindled as even here booming malls and new hotels and casinos are opening. And there are still plenty of employment agencies offering the chance for Filipinos to dream of a better life financed by their sweat abroad.
On a balmy afternoon not long ago, a seafarer and a young woman exchanged text messages by mobile phone to update each other on their movements. “She’s going to be here soon,” says Michael Morales, a seaman from Mindanao; he’s meeting he woman in Malate to give her a package and some US dollars for her mother from a fellow crewman on the same ship. “I’ll change some of my own money first at a shop over there,” he says, pointing at Christmas lights blinking in the window of a money changer. “Then I’ll meet her in the mall.”