OFW CHRONICLES: “Working abroad should be the last resort, it is never the solution!”  

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 22 April) — When they were in college, Ma. Theresa Gil swore she’d never get involved with a seafarer. Her concern: “It’s hard having a relationship with someone living in the same city, what more if he’s in another country?”But Erwin Arandilla was persistent and they eventually got married – on Theresa’s condition that Erwin won’t go abroad.

That was an agreement that did not last.

When Erwin waseight years old, his father died. As the eldest of three, Erwin grew up feeling that everyone else’s well-being was his responsibility. When Erwin married Theresa after college, they continued living with Erwin’s mother and siblings. The turning point came when Erwin’s niece contracted dengue and the hospital debts piled up.

What kind of work in the Philippines would pay enough for Erwin’s family to be free from debt and live comfortably? All the well-paying jobs were abroad, Erwin realized. With Theresa’s consent, Erwin flew to Manila to apply as a skilled worker in Saudi – repairing computers and cellphones. After three months of processing his travel documents, however, Erwin failed the medical test and returned home. His family was buried even deeper in debt.

Erwin is a seafarer and Theresa is an Agriculturist. They say being in a transnational family living under different roofs through most of the year has been difficult. That’s why they have been saving up and investing Erwin’s seafarer’s salary into various agricultural projects which they hope will sustain the whole family so that Erwin doesn’t need to leave anymore.

Kuya Dodong, Erwin’s cousin who worked as a seafarer, offered to put Erwin through Nautical school. As soon as he graduated, Erwin flew back to Manila this time to apply as a sea-based seafarer. “The company let me run errands for the shipping company’s headquarters while I was waiting for my application to get through,” Erwin says. The whole time he was working without pay together with other applicants who shared the same bedroom and ate the same food while standing by for a slot to open up on a ship.

The six months stretched out and Erwin began to lose hope. Finally, after two years of waiting, the call finally came to board a cargo ship and Erwin joined the crew as “messman.” It was the lowest position on the ship involving cleaning officers’ rooms, washing dishes, and serving food to the crew. But Erwin quickly moved up the ranks due to his hard work and joining and risking as many “upgrading” trainings as he could. Needless to say, today, Erwin is a second mate in charge of charting a ship’s route from Brazil to America, Nigeria, and Germany.

What’s unusual is that Erwin works several months on a ship and then stays home several months – instead of just one month like other seafarers. Erwin explains, “No sailor really enjoys life on a ship. The captains hold the meal budget and scrimps or makes unreasonable demands like insisting on immediate reports that realistically need more time to do. The crew seldom gets enough to eat, rest and sleep.”Erwin thinks that if seafarers have a choice, they will stay home longer.

Erwin can afford to stay home for months at a time because he prioritized spending for his own training instead of buying appliances, branded clothes, and other “wants” that seafarers usually have. As a result, Erwin’s not bound to any shipping company and is free to decide when he wants to leave and work again on a ship. “I simply wait for a ship that I know has a captain who treats his sailors well. Otherwise I don’t go,” he says.

Sailors whose training is paid for by a shipping company have no such freedom. They are only home a couple of weeks to a month because either the shipping company calls for them to start working again or they use up their savings. “A seafarer gets off the ship and splurges on his family, relatives, neighbors and friends like it’s a month long fiesta. When the money’s gone, the fights begin and that’s a sign the seafarer needs to leave again,”Erwin says. This one-day millionaire mentality prevents seafarers from saving up enough for their own training and leaves them at the beck and call of the shipping company – until they retire. Their children grow up estranged and indifferent because the seafarers are hardly ever home.

Theresa and Erwin are determined this will not happen to their family. They have set realistic goals for Erwin’s permanent return which they discuss over and over. It includes spending only on needs, not wants – no matter how tempting it is to own the latest home appliance or communication gadget. As a result, they are able to conscientiously save up Erwin’s hard earned money. Theresa says, “Erwin sends me an ‘allotment’ every month and no matter how difficult it sometimes is to stretch this money, I never ask for more.”

It helps that Theresa was also once an OFW. After she graduated from college with a degree in Agriculture, she left for Hong Kong to work as a domestic worker. Theresa shares, “I earned 24,000 pesos a month cleaning the home of my employer yet even if he didn’t physically abuse me, he gave me so much work I usually went to bed past midnight, even on weekends.”During her days off Theresa listened to other OFWs share about their woes: teenage children getting pregnant or taking drugs, husbands cheating, mismanaging remittances, and mistreating children. Theresa says, “That’s when I realized that although the pay abroad is much better, life isn’t necessarily happier. I decided that if i can earn just Php 12,000 a month in the Philippines, I’ll stay.”

Rough sailing

Yet for the first five years of their marriage, Erwin and Theresa were barely able to save because a bulk of the money went to paying debts, to helping relatives wanting to work abroad, to paying for important family celebrations – basically to meeting everyone’s expectations.“Our relatives forgot we are in the stage of recovering our losses,” Theresa smiles ruefully.“Back then, everything we had, I would share with our relatives when they asked for money,” She says. This didn’t sit well with Erwin who wanted Theresa to hold on to some of the money. It was a constant source of disagreement. “It was hard because when I told our relatives that we don’t have money anymore, they didn’t believe me. To them, OFWs always have money,” Theresa says. The couple felt stifled and stressed. They worried that they would buckle under the pressure and break up like the many other OFW families they knew.

Would living separately from their relatives help? Theresa didn’t enjoy staying with relatives yet she couldn’t live without them because they helped her take care of her daughter while she worked at a non-government organization often late into the night.“Although we were both earning, our family life wasn’t improving,” Theresa says. For their peace of mind, she and Erwin finally decided to leave Misamis Oriental and live in Davao City and limit their support to relatives. “We needed to be realistic. As a result, they (relatives) don’t ask for help as much, now,”Erwin says, “because the novelty of having a seafarer in the family has worn off.”

Erwin continues sending his mother a monthly share from his earnings and he helps Theresa’s relatives when it’s really necessary. But that’s it. The couple’s stringent budgeting has enabled Erwin to come home each time with a sizeable amount saved up – for small projects.

Growing projects

Like their hole-in-the-wall organic grocery store. This baby is where Erwin’s hard work as a seafarer goes.

Theresa’s standing at the doorway and Erwin’s sitting at the counter with their daughter. There are a few customers and a store attendant in the small space. On the floor are sacks of rice and on the shelves are bottles of turmeric and juices. It only takes four steps to walk from end to end. In front of the store is a table and two chairs. They are placed so close to the road that customers need to sit very carefully so that not any limb is sticking out or else they might get hit by the the jeepneys and tricycles whizzing by just inches away.

Erwin and Theresa’s hole-in-the-wall grocery store along Matina Pangi sells organic rice rice among many other organic products.

“There’s one tricycle driver who has become a regular customer of our red organic rice,”Theresa beams at the success of having influenced somebody to go organic. It’s a milestone she wants to replicate. To keep the price of organic rice low, Theresa asks her friends traveling from Zamboanga to Davao to carry the rice with them. To keep the organic rice supply going, Theresa buys land whenever she can, or she leases land and pays farmers to grow organic rice. Because of these investments, Theresa and Erwin say they are more confident now that it won’t be long before they can stop relying on Erwin’s salary as a seafarer and end their being a transnational OFW family living in different parts of the world yet communicating like they’re still living under one roof.

Erwin will probably work on a ship one more time before throwing in the towel and joining Theresa in the Philippines for good. She needs his help with the store, their aquaponics vegetable garden, and their farm in Calinan. Besides, they can’t bear to be apart any longer.

Erwin’s actually been holding off leaving to work on a ship again to oversee the construction of their vertical garden so they can start growing organic vegetables and herbs which are in demand now. Whatever he learns from growing herbs he’ll apply on the plot of land they bought in Calinan. “At least if it doesn’t work, the damage is minimal and we can start again,”Erwin explains.

This May, Erwin and Theresa will have been married for 13 years. They’ve been through a lot and are convinced from their own experience as well as from the experience of other OFWS that working abroad should be temporary. The secret of their marriage, Theresa reveals, is planning and discussing everything together from how long to work abroad and how to spend the money. “I’m lucky my husband is open-minded,” Theresa shares. “We disagree a lot but at the end of the day, we arrive at a consensus and stick to it.”

It’s all about balance, really. While the couple works very hard to make ends meet they also make sure to spend quality time with each other and their daughter. Theresa shares that the family’s civic involvements with Mindanao Migrants Center for Empowering Actions, Inc. (MMCEAI) and Association of Davao Organic Advocates (ADOA) has helped them deal better with the challenges of an OFW transnational family and the challenges of making organic agriculture a stable enterprise. The family also makes it a point to spend time together during breaks – at church or at the beach or just at home talking about life. Theresa and Erwin unanimously agree that this is the best advice they can give to other transnational OFW families: “When you are living apart, it’s important that your dreams and vision are the same. Working abroad should be the last resort, it is never the solution!”  (Maya Vandenbroeckworks as a Communication Specialist for Mindanao Migrants Center for Empowering Actions, Inc. The OFW Chronicles is a series about migration from the point of view of OFWs, their families, and supporters)