A Graduate’s Journey

Former child laborer returns to ILR to share knowledge of migrant workers
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rarely does someone go from farming in the Philippines to selling sausages in California, to defending an ILR honors thesis to working on international labor issues in the Middle East.

This is the life of Froilan Malit ’10 MPA ’11, at ILR this week speaking in Senior Lecturer Lance Compa’s classes.

He speaks in a public event at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in Ives 215. “Migrant Workers in the Gulf States: Report from the Frontlines” is sponsored by the Cornell Association for Labor Action.

Born in Manila, Malit moved with his family to Pampanga, an agriculture province in the Philippines.

“My family moved there because they could not sustain the growing costs of living in Manila, so my parents asked my siblings and I to stay at our grandmother’s in the rural area,” he said. “At the age of four to five, we began to work on the farm.”

Malit, who worked in flower fields for less than $2 a day, graduated from the University of Oxford and now works on migration policy issues for the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Labor.

Malit grew up in his grandmother’s home while his father worked low-skill jobs in agriculture and construction. His mother moved to California.

“I would work in the morning, then I would go to school,” Malit said. “I was always sleepy.”

“I was expected to do very well and I did,” bit growing up in a rural area presented difficulties, he said.

“I saw inequality around me and wanted to challenge it. When you live in a very rural area, it is hard to eat three times a day, get health care or an education.”

In California, where he joined his mother, he struggled to get an education and work.

“I took multiple jobs and worked as a cashier at the Stanford bookstore and after that was a product demonstrator for a sausage company” Malit said. “I would literally go to different stores to cook, sell and demonstrate sausages to finance my community college education while also working as a gardener.”

Attending Cañada College and working multiple jobs proved challenging, he said.

“I collapsed many times at work and even at school because I could barely keep up, but I was passionate,” Malit said. “I wanted to be somebody and prove that I could do it; I’ve got one life to live, so I might as well maximize it.”

“My time in California allowed me to increase my academic, leadership skills, and labor and personal experiences working in a variety of low-skilled jobs and made me consider ILR.”

“As a child laborer, I was drawn into labor studies early on. So, it was quite easy for me to pick ILR. I knew the professors and resources would allow me to gain more expertise in the world of labor.”

When accepted by Cornell, Malit remembers crying because he could not afford tuition.

“I was not really sure if I could go to Cornell. I called financial aid and they told me that I had some loan options,” Malit said. “So, I came to Cornell with only $500 in my pocket and I am really thankful to Cornell for giving me financial access to study.”

Academic demands and harsh weather made for a challenging first semester.

“I literally failed an exam and it was Labor Economics. I was shocked and questioned if I could do it.”

It was the low point of his Cornell experience, he said. Laura Lewis, Frank B. Miller Director Office of Student Services, and Rhonda Clouse, faculty administrative assistant, helped him during this period.

“They helped me understand my situation and gave me a lot of resources needed to improve my performance in that class.”

Malit started getting straight As and began to grow his interest in research.

“I continued research experiences and internships outside the country and went to Nicaragua to work for an NGO focusing on education. Then I went on to pursue multiple research projects in Mexico, Guatemala and Puerto Rico.”

During his senior year, Malit won a grant from ILR International Programs to travel to the Philippines for his ILR honors thesis, supervised by Professor Maria Lorena Cook and Assistant Professor Rebecca Givan.

“I spent a lot of time in Olin Library writing my thesis. I didn’t really sleep during my senior year. I maxed out my Big Red Bucks on donuts and gained a lot of weight. My room was also packed with noodles,” Malit said.

He fondly remembers Cornell President David Skorton telling his story at the 2010 commencement.

Skorton said, “Here, he founded Global Youth Concept, a Cornell student organization and international NGO that seeks to combat malnutrition and educational gaps in rural areas of the Philippines -- work he will continue in the Philippines next year while also completing a master's degree through the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.”

While earning his master’s degree, Malit continued to focus on labor.

“I stayed for another year, still focusing on labor, but concentrating on the Middle East because that is where a lot of Filipino and Asian migrants work.”