CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A lot more than dollars and pesos

HONG KONG (SE): An announcement by the freshly-minted consul general from The Philippines, Antonio Morales, that the number of Filipino migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong has topped the 200,000 mark, may indeed ring well in the ears of government officials that are busily mooting plans to import up to around 600,000 of them.
But enthusiasm for their articulated gratitude for the enormous contribution that these temporary workers make to life in the city, must be tempered by the recognition that in proportion to the importance of what they contribute to the welfare of the local people, they place only a tiny drag on the public purse.
However, Morales pointed out at a financial literacy graduation ceremony held by the CARD-MRI Hong Kong Foundation in the Bayanihan Centre in Kennedy Town on April 29, that the sharp spike in numbers also represents a huge challenge, as those who benefit from the labour of migrants offer no long term opportunity or career path to them.
Consequently, each and every one must face the eventual reality of having to return home for good, something which few manage to prepare themselves for well.
While offering an opportunity for people to prepare for this eventuality is the challenge that the Philippine micro-credit organisation, CARD-MRI, has taken on, what it discovered in its initial research on the situation of migrant workers in the city back in 2009 and 2010 was far from encouraging.
Morales announcement came as a reminder of the enormity and the increasing urgency of the task that lies ahead.
While CARD’s track record in the city is impressive and its achievements since the inception of its local outreach read well, the volunteers, who have built up an impressive expertise in developing educational modules out of the migrant experience of finances, are acutely aware that they are involved in a challenge that keeps getting bigger.
The original investigating CARD representatives quickly discovered debt is one of the major scourges that burdens most migrant workers, partially because many are in big debt from recruitment fees when they arrive and partially because of the tendency to avail themselves of the easily available credit in the city when the seemingly ongoing extraordinary needs arise.
“Mounting pressures to meet the needs of the families left back home… reinforce the cycle of indebtedness,” the initial investigating team discovered.
The team concluded, “There is hardly any success story to prove that the sacrifices of separation from loved ones, long working hours, their de-skilling, the normalised discrimination faced daily—are fulfilling the dreams they dream for themselves and for their loved ones.”
While this is a common frustration among migrant workers, it is also common knowledge among their families back home and it was at their behest that the biggest micro-credit organisation in the Philippines was prompted to begin its initial outreach in Hong Kong.
CARD’s initial enquiries and surveying revealed that migrant workers, despite being on average a well-educated group, have little or no knowledge about the significance of financial freedom and money management.
“A financial goal for many of them is very short-sighted: to get out of deficit spending while not disrupting their remittances to their families back home,” it observed.
Helping people to break the debt cycle through better financial management is the daunting task that CARD undertook when it tentatively ran its first seminar in 2012. But for a group observing what it saw as problematic from the point of view of professional people, the further challenge was to get under the skin of the culture of the migrant worker to effectively address the issue.
First steps did not flourish, but salvation came in the form of a handful of highly talented workers capable of translating their own experience into an educational model using what is recognised as by far the most effective way of passing on knowledge—peer mentoring.
CARD worked slowly and carefully, cementing a strong base line before launching what has proven to be a highly successful way of reaching out. Successive groups of graduates have discovered that financial literacy is not just about money, but also about their way of life, thinking, acting, decision-making, approach to relationships and learning who they are.
They have learned the positives that can come out of improved communication with families by involving them in financial planning, as well as better relations with spouses through the realisation that there can be light at the end of what can seem like a long, dark tunnel.
The bubbly excitement present in the room as graduation certificates were being presented was testament to the joy of learning, especially the joy of learning that there is hope.
But financial literacy is not just about dollars and pesos. As Sylvia Basilio said in reflecting on her experience, “I learned that using money well is as much part of gratitude for the gift of the resources we receive from God as anything else.”

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