The houses that migrant workers build (but do not live in)
By Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr
The following article was part of OFWJC's special publication 'Move.' The magazine was given to all delegates of GFMD Philippines.
Editor’s note: This story is from an ongoing study that the Ateneo de Manila University president, Fr. Bienvenido F. Nebres, S.J., commissioned the author to do.
THERE’S a remarkable landscape sculptured in the upland villages of Batangas province, more than a hundred kilometers southeast of Manila.
Except for the meandering road, these villages emit a very urban feel and air about them, dispelling the urbane notions toward rustic towns located uphill from the coast.
One of these is the village we’ll call Sumilang, where brightly-painted houses offer an explosion of colors – cream, light blue, orange, red, white, and yellow.
Roads are well-paved and most houses are made of concrete.
Some of the houses are quite imposing. Their design, style, size, and color are truly contemporary; some very Mediterranean. While some houses have the expensive type of iron sheet roofing, others use the pricier colored-lacquer tiles.
These effect the sensation of being inside one of the gated middle-class residential enclaves in Metro Manila.
Similarly, Sumilang is rather too quiet in the daytime. The silence is unbroken by playful shrieks and giggly shouts of children running around the streets –common in the countryside and in middle-to-lower-income urban communities.
It is as if all adults were off to work and all children were in school.
At night, lights slice brightly through windows, creating what residents call a “happy” atmosphere.
Despite the lighted houses, however, the individuals who have gone off to work have not returned, and will not be returning for a very long time.
Many of these brightly-lit houses are empty, like the street that separates them.
The people who spent to build these houses are out of the country.
OVERSEAS labor migration, which started in the 1980s, has transformed Sumilang.
The village used to be an agrarian, artisanal, and petty-trading village, located some five kilometers inland from the coastal town center. Today, a large segment of its population of nearly 2,000 persons works overseas, mostly in Spain and Italy. A sizeable number of them also work in the Persian Gulf states, Canada, and Taiwan.
Why these absent workers send money for building houses they do not and would not live in continues to baffle many observers of the Philippine labor migration phenomenon.
A few who consider migrants as poor deem the construction of a costly house in the “middle of nowhere” as a case of misplaced values, if not a waste of scarce resources.
If not houses, some buy electrical appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, even when the village has no electricity. Anecdotes abound of migrant workers who introduce such modernity to their remote villages.
Some economists explain such spending as stimulating demand for consumer goods and services, which ultimately increases production.
While various studies worldwide suggest that large proportions of migrants’ remittances are spent on construction of houses, there is still no consensus on whether such spending should be viewed as investment or as consumption.
A case can be made for house construction as productive and as enhancing human capital, particularly if migrants and their families occupy the improved accommodation.
However, the cases of migrants building houses that they and their families would not live in, in the immediate or even distant future, are particularly intriguing. Such economic behavior could be brushed aside easily as irrational.
Evoking their own perspective, the people of upland Batangas use the English word “investment” to talk about the houses that migrants build—as if it were a way of keeping money.
The house has become a sort of piggybank.
They also say that if labor migrants do not put their money in houses, then the income they earn can be dissipated easily in all sorts of small and inconsequential purchases.
“Before you know it, the money is gone,” said Veloso, father of overseas worker Helen.
A house, hence, is a tangible evidence of the fruits of one’s overseas work, much like a trophy.
STRICTLY speaking, however, there is no market for houses in Barangay Sumilang. And in most of the Philippine countryside, a market for houses that have been occupied by a previous set of owners is nonexistent.
In Sumilang, no one has ever bought any of the migrant houses and no migrant intends to sell the house that she has built. On that note, resources poured into house building cannot be considered as an investment in a marketable asset.
Rather, house building is a form of investment of a different kind.
To understand this type of investment, we need to understand economic behavior from the perspective of the local culture. We must also remember that economic actions are embedded in social relationships.
Let us take the case of Helen, Veloso’s daughter.
Her parents’ house is in the middle of a residential lot where their sinaunang bahay (ancestral house) once stood.
Veloso used to work in Manila, but decided to retire from his job and return to Sumilang. He wanted to build a house but his savings were insufficient.
“Luckily,” Veloso said, “Helen was able to leave for Spain.”
Veloso claims Helen supported his goal of building a house.
“Sige tatay, magtuloy na tayo ng pagbabahay at may kinikita naman tayo nang kaunti. Basta itatayo natin iyan.” [All right, dad, let’s proceed with building a house because we’re also earning some income. Anyhow, we’ll build it].
Veloso went ahead and had a plan drafted to which, he said, Helen agreed.
Construction began October 2003 after Helen sent a large sum of money. By December of that year, Veloso and his wife moved in to the basic structure that had been completed.
Helen’s husband, meanwhile, lives with his own parents in another town.
For over three years, Veloso’s house resembled the neighbors’ with its bare and unpainted exterior, as many houses in Sumilang were being completed according to the availability of funds.
Veloso said he wanted to have the house painted “but an engineer-friend suggested making some changes.”
Veloso said he called Helen who again agreed to foot the bill.
He said he always “consulted” her on matters such as design and paint color.
She, in turn, would give instructions on things she would like done, Veloso claims.
He added he would also send Helen photographs of the work in progress.
Thus, beyond providing the funds, Helen, while working as a domestic worker in Spain, participated transnationally in building the house, which has since been completed.
IN SUMILANG, often the impetus to improve the original structure or build a new house comes from parents who live in the home village.
Parents like Veloso say they seek first their children’s consent in pursuing the project.
Migrants usually do not deny parental wish.
By supporting house building, migrant workers like Helen demonstrate that they are dutiful daughters who live up to parental expectations. The house suggests that the absence of children has not meant neglect of parents.
Even a partially completed house conveys the message of filial duty that is in the process of fulfillment. The house serves as a memorial to parents and to the wider community that migrant children have not forgotten.
A migrant’s investment in a house gives face or esteem to parents [bigay mukha or bigay galang]. Their parents, hence, reap higher social status locally.
Although there is no clear or strict rule on filial duty, in many families the youngest daughter is expected to care for the parents.
Helen, however, is the only daughter, and her only other sibling, a younger brother, works in Manila.
Her funding of the parental house eases the tension between her physical absence and her obligation to care for them. Had she not worked overseas, she could have cared for her parents but not given them face in the community. There has been an exchange in the choice of alternatives.
AMONG the large, modern houses in Barangay Sumilang, many remain unoccupied, such as that of Digna’s.
Her house was built across the road from her sister’s house, a larger one on the lot once occupied by their parents’ old house. Digna’s sister and her children are in Italy, so her sibling Norberto and his wife live in that house, which otherwise would have been empty.
Digna and her husband were already based in Spain when work on their own house began. Their three children were still living in Sumilang during the construction of their house.
It took a while for the house to be completed, receiving its coat of paint only in 2003.
Digna’s three children moved into their house upon its completion and when it was fully furnished and equipped with appliances.
The three children would spend the day in their house but would cross the road at night to sleep with Norberto’s family, rendering the two houses as a single unit.
Digna’s youngest child was the first to leave for Spain, followed by the middle child, with the eldest finally leaving in 2005.
She hired a caretaker among the villagers to keep the house clean and to switch off the lights in the morning and switch them on at night.
“Doing so prevents ghosts from colonizing it,” the hired help said echoing the community’s belief.
As in the case of Digna’s unoccupied house, migrants do not sell their houses but maintain them through a paid caretaker. Remittances pay for minimal utility bills and incidental expenses.
These houses are hardly lived in, except during rare visits by the migrant family.
People say it would not be nice if migrants would not have a home when they return to visit. It is not simply because there is no hotel in Sumilang, but because return migrants must have their “own” place.
“Kaya nga may ipinagawa ay para may sarili silang bahay pag-nauwi.” [That’s why they built a house so that they have their own place when they come home.]
It is as if not having one’s own house would render a migrant’s homecoming as incomplete; they would not have a “home” to return to.
Although not places of regular habitation, these houses are kept and maintained as cultural statements.
By clinging to the house and ensuring its regular upkeep, the absent family says in effect that their origins in upland Batangas have not been forgotten, even as the houses are showcases of a diasporic life.
Pointing inwards to the village, these houses serve to remind kin and village residents that the families that own them are still part of the community despite their physical absence. The non-migrants reciprocate by still considering absent migrants and their families as members of the community.
Overseas migrant workers who own houses in Sumilang can console themselves with the thought that they still have a foothold in the homeland. The unoccupied houses are like anchors of stability, amid the dislocations and instabilities of overseas labor migration.
The thought of a nice house in the origin village may be most salient because the migrants’ own accommodations abroad–a small room in the employer’s house or even a small rented flat–are nowhere as spacious and comfortable as the houses in the origin village.
In the cultural context of upland Batangas, the houses that migrants build–but do not live in– are transnational investments in family ties, kin relations, community membership, status competition, village roots, and cultural identity. The gains from such investments are immeasurable.
Maybe someday they may finally retire in those houses. Maybe.
OFW Journalism Consortium, with support from the Royal Netherlands Embassy in the Philippines