Second-class citizens abroad—and at home

We made life terrible for them and I feel ashamed,” said industry coordinator Ron Angel, regarding Filipino construction workers who were victims of labor exploitation in New Zealand. A 2018 study found that these workers suffered from poor living conditions, blatant pay disparity compared to locals, illegal salary deduction and excessive placement fees that left them in huge debt.

Yet despite these burdens, the Filipino workers opted to stay rather than return home. For many of them, an exploited life in New Zealand was still better compared to a hopeless life in the Philippines. As one of them put it: “In the Philippines, even if you work properly, you don’t get paid properly.”


In the documentary “Obrero” (Worker), Auckland-based Filipino director Norman Zafra told the heart-wrenching stories of these construction workers who took part in rebuilding Christchurch after the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The documentary validated stories about the labor exploitation these workers had endured. It has since compelled the New Zealand government to enforce strict regulations that would protect foreign workers from further abuse.

Thus, to hear the recent insensitive accusations that Filipino construction workers are “lazy” and “slowpoke” is both painful and appalling. Such description is truly a slap in the face of those who risk life and limb every day as part of their jobs. Even in a safety-conscious country like New Zealand, construction workers are not immune from accidents. Imagine the plight of those working in the Philippines who have to put up with poor safety standards in construction sites, toiling in sweltering heat for wages that are barely enough to survive.


Such description is even more disturbing coming from Ramon Tulfo, who is expected to defend the Filipinos’ interests as a so-called special envoy to China by the Duterte administration. His words not only embarrassed Filipino construction workers, but also damaged their good reputation abroad. In New Zealand, they are highly regarded not only for their skills, but also for their resourcefulness, diligence and compliant work attitude. Tulfo’s off-putting portrayal negates the hard-earned positive image Filipino workers have collectively built, whether in the Philippines or abroad.

What irony: Filipinos are recognized globally while they are demeaned in their own country by their own government officials. The fact that Chinese laborers are now preferred over Filipinos reflects the once-inconceivable bias that Tulfo is thoughtlessly endorsing. The Philippines is known as a major labor-exporting country; how, then, can a government representative malign the skills of its people? Filipinos endure being treated as second-class citizens abroad just so they can provide for their families back home; but in their own land, they are treated the same way by their government.

Filipino construction workers in New Zealand have substantially supported this country’s rebuilding efforts, while back in the Philippines, the valuable potential of their counterparts to contribute to nation-building is sweepingly dismissed. It would have been an appropriate time for the Duterte administration to tap their skills and experience for its “Build, build, build” program. While many Filipinos have understandably opted to leave for greener pastures abroad (where they are decently compensated for their skills), the rest who remain in the country should all the more be valued. The least a government official should do is not to insult them or belittle their worth.

The New Zealand government has rightly recognized the importance of Filipino workers and acknowledged its institutional shortcomings in safeguarding their rights. As New Zealander Ron Angel said: “When I was reading (about their plight), it nearly brought me to tears… their suffering on a daily basis, being away from their families. What got me was, here we were welcoming these people into New Zealand to help rebuild Canterbury, and we didn’t look after them.”

How I wish Ramon Tulfo, and by extension the Duterte administration, has this self-reflection.

Andrea Chloe Wong is currently taking her PhD studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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TAGS: Christchurch, Documentary, Filipino workers, labor exploitation, Obrero, opinion, Philippines
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