May 31st, 2012
01:02 PM GMT
Abu Dhabi (CNN) - There are more than 2.2 million Filipino workers in the Middle East. Not only are they a vital part of the region’s workforce, the money they send home makes a valuable contribution to the Philippine economy.
Some of the poorest Filipinos in Manilla work and live in a giant charcoal factory in the Tondo slum, constantly breathing toxic fumes. It’s an all-too-common existence in a country where about 30% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the government.
For many Filipinos the only way to escape this kind of hardship is to find work abroad. Millions have migrated to the economic powerhouses of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.
George Soriaga works as a procurement officer at a media company in Abu Dhabi. He moved to the Middle East 20 years ago. "When I was in college, most of the people were working part time, studying while working to support themselves,” he told CNN’s Fred Pleitgen. “It's not a plan, me and my friends just went to one of the agencies and tried to apply to work abroad. Then successfully we got listed in the job and that was the start of my career abroad."
There are between 400,000 and 600,000 Filipino workers in the United Arab Emirates and every year they send home billions of dollars.
The government in Manila estimates that Filipinos around the world sent home more than $20 billion last year. Now the Philippine embassy in Abu Dhabi has started a program to educate migrant workers how to wisely use the cash they make abroad.
"There is a lot of money, that if we can help guide our overseas Filipinos where to invest I think it will be a great public/private sector cooperation,” said Grace Princesa, ambassador to the UAE. “So the public is government, the private is them, we work together to invest."
Courses involve financial literacy training, where participants learn how to invest money effectively, but also how to stop relatives back home from spending all the cash on consumer goods.
Maria Rosario de la Cruz is a nurse who has worked abroad for 27 years. She says being separated from her family is hard enough, but bad finances can make that hardship even worse.
"It can cause family problems,” said de la Cruz. “Communication gaps between husband, wife and children. It can destroy a family just because of a financial problem.
“But you see, if a family is financially stable I don't think there will be a problem within the family."
With this training, the Philippine government hopes its migrant workers, who sacrificed so much helping to build places like Dubai, can also develop their own country's economy after they return.
Garcia is a prime example of how it can work. Garcia went to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s as an accountant. He returned to the Philippines more than a decade later and used his savings to expand his family's business - the Mekeni Foods Company - which now has more than 1,000 employees.
"For us to start doing our business, we had to go out of the country, where we can save more to someday start our own business," said Garcia.
Garcia used his time working in Saudi Arabia to build his future. The Philippine government hopes others will follow suit, so that some time in the future, places like the Tondo slum will be nothing more than a dark sport in this country's history.
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