MUNTINLUPA, Philippines — Diona Cepeda has a college degree and a background in computer science.
But on a recent drizzly afternoon she sat in a local street market, swatting away flies that buzzed around piles of meat that her sister-in-law was selling. Surrounded by shanties and run-down stores, the ground slimy with wet dirt, it seemed like an odd place for Cepeda to be.
She has little choice. Cepeda has to help at her sister-in-law's stand. And she has to help around her brother’s nearby home, or what passed for it: a cramped hovel sandwiched by other equally decrepit houses in a slum in Muntinlupa, the southernmost city that makes up the sprawling Metro Manila.
The neighborhood is noisy and dirty. Across from Cepeda’s house a group of teenagers, several shirtless despite the slight rain, whooped it up as they played billiards. Below them, a small, open sewer snaked along.
Born to a poor family of eight children, Cepeda is the only one who has graduated from college. Because of that, the expectation has always been that she must help in her siblings' education. Personal pursuits, like having a boyfriend or marriage, took a backseat. But Cepeda recently fell victim to the global economic crisis and lost her job. She hasn't been able to find a well-paying position since.
“You can’t imagine the pressure I am in,” she said.
And so her quest for a better life for her and her family has led to the path that 9 million other Filipinos – 10 percent of the Philippines' population — have taken since the 1970s: seek employment in other countries. It's a path Cepeda has tried before.
“Tomorrow, I am going to a recruitment agency. I don’t know what job they will give me, but I am willing to take anything,” Cepeda said as her nephews Gabriel, 7, and Michael, 1, wrestled in front of her. Cepeda’s brother, Zandro, a jobless former security guard, looked down on the floor covered with torn linoleum. Tears welled in his sister’s eyes.
“We try to make do,” Zandro Cepeda said, gesturing at the skewered chicken marinating in a stainless pot on the family’s dining table. His wife, Jocelyn, will sell the barbecue at the street market.
Cepeda said she won’t leave if she can find a better-paying job here. “Believe me, I tried,” she said. After graduation, she worked for eight months as a security guard at Robinson’s, a chain of shopping malls in Manila. But the hours were long and the pay was bad.
Recently, she tried applying as a salesperson at SM, which owns the largest malls in the Philippines and three of the biggest in the world. She was told that they only hired those between the ages of 18 and 25.
Cepeda, 26, bristled at what she considered a form of discrimination, though in the Philippines companies often only hire people who are young and, as classified newspaper ads put it, “with pleasing personality."
So in an environment of rising unemployment — an estimated 12 million are jobless and underemployed in the Philippines this year — Cepeda said she had no choice but to swim with the rising tide of overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, as they are called here.
These OFWs are spread throughout the globe, from Hong Kong to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the Middle East and elswhere. This economic diaspora pumps $17 billion a year into the Philippine economy, making up more than 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The remittances boost consumer spending and generally keep the economy here afloat.
But it is never easy for jobseekers like Cepeda. Many fall victim to unscrupulous recruiters or end up being abused by their employers. And in their effort to gain employment abroad they resort to usurious lenders who charge as much as 20 percent interest.
Indeed, Cepeda’s top priority once she gets hired for work abroad is to pay the nearly $2,000 she owes lenders – money she used to pay her recruiter the first time she applied for work abroad in late 2007. She was sent to Taiwan and employed by Sintek, a company that makes LCD screens.
But only a year-and-a-half later, the global economic downturn heaped more misery upon her already difficult life.
Cepeda and more than 100 other Filipino co-workers at Sintek lost their jobs. “OFWs were crying at the airport,” she recalled the day she arrived home in November. “Some of these lenders were even at the airport to make sure the OFWs paid them. It was terrible.”
Cepeda had no money when she returned home. Her brother had to fetch her at the airport.
According to government statistics, 2,500 Filipino workers in Taiwan alone have been laid off due to the ongoing economic crisis.
“Overseas work has been my family’s lifeline the past year," she said. In addition to sending money to her parents regularly while in Taiwan, Cepeda was able to help send a brother to school. "And now this,” she said.
So Cepeda waits, shooing flies from meat, mingling in a crowd of the destitute, still surrounded by the poverty she has been trying to escape all her life.