Hailed as new heroes for bringing in billions of dollars a year to fuel the growth of the Philippine economy, many overseas Filipino workers are, in truth, martyrs for slaving abroad just to help their families survive back home.
As of last count, there are about 12 million Filipinos—more than 10 percent of the population—working in some 200 countries across the globe. In 2011, they sent home $20.1 billion to the families they left behind.
In the first half of 2012, OFW remittances amounted to $10.13 billion. The amount for June was the highest on record for any given month at $1.8 billion, which the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said was due in part to the high global demand for Filipino workers even as the world economy struggled with the dampening effect of the economic crisis in Europe.
Yet behind these glowing figures are the hardships, exploitation and other sufferings of OFWs whose distressing accounts we are all too familiar with. Remember, for instance, the four Filipinos who were executed in China for allegedly being drug mules, the abused Filipino domestic helpers and many others embroiled in legal difficulties.
The labor export policy was supposed to be a temporary solution to the economic crisis in the 1970s. The dictator Ferdinand Marcos allowed the use of the country’s surplus labor (basically the unemployed) for export to the oil-rich countries in the Middle East. But this became a permanent component of the country’s labor policy with the creation of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) in 1982.
Government data showed that in 1972, the annual deployment of Filipino workers was only 14,366. This grew each year and breached the one-million mark during the time of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, reaching 1.06 million in 2006 and 1.43 million in 2009.
The result is what Professor Mary Lou Alcid of UP’s College of Social Work and Community Development described as “transnational Filipino families”—the father in Saudi Arabia, the mother in Hong Kong, the daughter in Taiwan, the brother in Dubai and the youngest left in the Philippines.
The social cost of the labor-export phenomenon is just enormous. Alcid cited illegal recruitment, trafficking in women and children, contract violations, transgressions of human rights, violence against women and an average of two to three people returning to the country in boxes every year—not to mention its toll on the bodies, minds and spirit of the workers themselves, their families, specially the children who grow up without one or both parents; and of course the continuing loss, by the thousands each year, of teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals. These include the 22 weather forecasters and observers who quit their jobs at the Philippine weather bureau between 2005 and 2011 for better-paying jobs in the Middle East and Australia; the 80 or so geologists who left the Department of Environment and Natural Resources; and the dozens of
pilots poached by foreign airlines from the local flag carrier.
More disturbing is the fact that the hazards of labor migration, various studies indicate, are greatest for women, who are mostly relegated to the service sector and areas considered traditional women’s work like housekeeping, caregiving, teaching and nursing. POEA data showed that in 2010, of the top 10 occupational categories of deployed land-based OFWs, domestic helpers were number one, with women accounting for 98 percent of those deployed.
“The nature of their jobs is inherently vulnerable. They live in their employers’ homes, work long hours without breaks, and have difficulty accessing their rights. Many are subject to abuse and exploitation as a result of living and working in a space that is so difficult to regulate,” said the Center for Migrant Advocacy in a submission to the UN Committee on Migrant Workers in April this year.
In his inaugural address on June 30, 2010, President Aquino said his administration’s goal “is to create jobs at home so that there will be no need to look for employment abroad.”
Social scientists have found out that the migration phenomenon is common among developing countries transitioning from agricultural economies to industrialization. Four decades after the labor export policy was adopted in the 1970s, the POEA is now “seriously considering” a five-year phaseout program on the deployment of domestic helpers. However, the best expert advice we have found is that the government must start with the understanding that labor exports will end only when the Philippines achieves economic development, as what South Korea and Malaysia did.