The current cosmetic changes in the country’s labor export policy will not provide due protection to Filipino workers overseas. Worse, this will only exacerbate the already dire conditions they are facing.
By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL and JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
RODRIGUEZ, Rizal – Potholes with the length and width of cars and as deep as two feet fill the road leading to the house of couple Elena and Napoleon Angeles. The two-inch mud left by the heavy rains made the journey to their place even more difficult. But both had a big smile when they finally met the Bulatlat team, who had arrived early in the morning of September for an interview.
“Tuloy kayo. Dito muna tayo,” (Come inside. Stay here for a minute.) Elena said as she led the small group of journalists to the living room of their two-room bungalow.
Surrounded by the greens of a small village in Rodriguez, Rizal, the silence was at times broken by the screeching tires of big trucks working for the big quarrying industry in the province. There was also the soft clucking of the dozen or so Black Chickens owned by the couple. One also felt the gentle breeze that nature brings to those living at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges.
Elena, 63, hopes that this house is where her family can be finally reunited and live together. She and her loved ones have said so many goodbyes since 1990 when her husband first left the country to work as a seafarer. In fact, they have spent more time apart than together.
Her family is among the millions torn apart by the need to survive. Thousands of Filipinos leave the country daily not just to find better opportunities but to also meet their basic needs.
“Even if I don’t want him to be away, we have a son to support back then. So I eventually agreed with the idea that he has to work far away from us,” Elena told Bulatlat in an interview.
She added that they have to explain to the seven-year old Hardison why his father is forced to be gone for a long time. “I told him that Papa has to work and will be away from us so that we will have food on our table.”
A family torn apart
Elena’s husband Napoleon was already his family’s breadwinner since he was a teenager. He would work the evening shift at Pizza Inn so that his siblings could go to school, and to put food on the table. This was also the same restaurant where he met Elena.
“It was really difficult back then. I study and then work at the same time, that was 1976,” Napoleon said. He is the eldest of six siblings. His father was a factory worker in Pasig City while his mother was a tailor.
When Napoleon and Elena got married, the pressure to provide for their new family and their respective families grew. When Pizza Inn closed, he moved to another restaurant in Manila and spent his evenings as a construction worker. He tried to study accounting but was not unable to finish the course. Later, a relative approached him if he was interested in applying as a seafarer.
“My long experience as a cook became an advantage when I applied. But when I was already on board, I noticed that cooks are often in conflict with others over how food is done. To avoid that, I applied as a deck boy,” he said.
His application was around the time when the number of Filipino seafarers aboard international ships was on the rise. A study on the country’s maritime industry revealed that from 1986 to 1990, the number of Filipino seafarers doubled from 52,290 to 111,212, or an annual average of 16.6 percent. The deployment of Filipino seafarers continued to increase from 1996 to 2000, though at a lower rate of 3.7 percent annually, based on a 2003 study of the Seafarers International Research Centre.
Today, the Philippines is among the leading sources of seafarers in the global maritime industry. A 2016 study of the Commission on Filipino Overseas showed that the total remittances of seafarers from 2013 to 2015 alone accounted for nearly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
The deployment of land-based and sea-based migrant workers helped ease the pressure on the local labor force amid the swelling underemployment that began in the 1970s, Napoleon’s first overseas work.
In the five-year plan from 1978 to 1982, the government said that it will develop human resource skills to be “aligned with the requirements of growth labor exports which have been temporarily allowed to ease underemployment [but] will increasingly be restrained as productive domestic and employment opportunities are created.”
The Philippine government included in its development plan licensing and regulation of its deployment to supposedly prevent exploitative practices, particularly illegal recruitment. This included the creation of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) which assumed the functions of other government agencies like the Overseas Employment Development Board, National Seamen Board and the overseas employment functions of the Bureau of Employment Services.
The Marcos Sr. administration at the time pushed for the local labor supply to be “responsive” to the overseas demands, and even adopted “a more aggressive marketing program” to cater not just to the Middle East but also to countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Africa. This policy soon became the Marcos Sr. administration’s major source of foreign exchange earnings, amounting to $944 million in 1983 alone.
Leading to his last year before he was ousted, Marcos Sr. signed another executive order that sought to strengthen the administrative and operational capabilities of the overseas employment program to maintain global relevance and remain highly competitive.
Trying to keep the family together
As the Philippine government continued to earn from remittances, the burden of keeping their family together fell on Elena who was at the beck and call of their two sons. The eldest is Hardison who was seven years old when her husband first left.
Given a choice, Elena would never want her family apart. But with her husband’s low income, she was forced to do odd jobs like selling atsara (pickled papaya) and rice cakes. “It came down to a point that I had to accept that he had to go. Our income was not enough and work was waiting for him overseas,” Elena said in Filipino.
But the biggest consideration for Elena and Napoleon was to see the children finish their schooling, which they were unable to do. Elena explained the situation to her children while they were still young so that they can appreciate the value of work and the sacrifices they made to keep the family together but apart.
When the remittances were sent, Elena thought that their financial problems had been finally solved. But conflict still arose within the extended family, particularly on who would get a share of the money. Some of Napoleon’s relatives called her selfish and stingy, among other hurtful comments. Elena endured this just to keep the peace.
Whenever she receives Napoleon’s remittance, she would immediately keep what she and her sons need. The remainder would then be given to her husband’s relatives.
The distance has also threatened their marriage. Elena said that though they have sent letters to each other, she had her doubts. She depended on her two sons for strength and endured everything, “for as long as he would still consider this his home.”
“I kept mum on the issue. I would just cry. Of course, I was very angry. But I learned to accept that it was a reality of being apart. I could not do anything because he was overseas,” she said.
With Elena practically raising her two sons alone, she had nowhere to lean on, especially when times proved to be difficult. But the most challenging, she said, was when her firstborn Hardison, then a college student, became an activist.
As a mother, she worried about her son whenever Hardison would spend the night with fellow activists. She would cry and pray for her son’s protection. When she had the opportunity to confront her son, Hardison explained what they were fighting for and why he needed to be there during protest actions.
“I never stopped him from being an activist. They would even meet in our house. I would cook for them and provide a place to sleep for the night,” she said.
But the most difficult, she said, was when Hardison finally told her of his plans of working abroad.
After leaving school, Hardison was in and out of work and eventually thought about working overseas. In 2012, they managed to convince Napoleon to retire as a seafarer so that the family could finally be reunited, even if it would be Hardison’s turn to leave.
“It pained me more when it was my son’s turn. It was more difficult,” Elena said.
How post-Marcos Sr. administration continued labor export
After the Marcos Sr. administration, the Philippine government’s labor export program continued while supposedly providing protection to Filipinos leaving their families behind to find better opportunities abroad.
Following the Gulf War from 1990 to 1991, the Philippine government sought so-called alternative host countries for displaced Filipino overseas workers, where at least 30,000 were repatriated.
Their deployment was facilitated with various executive actions, including the lifting of travel tax for overseas workers, the creation of a committee on the remittance system, and the lifting of a ban on new applications for licenses to operate private employment agencies engaged in recruiting Filipinos to work overseas.
In the Philippine government’s development plan from 1988 to 1992, returning overseas Filipino workers were seen as potential investors, as well as potential trainers for skills and knowledge transfers. It also expected a decline in the placement of new overseas workers or an annual average growth rate of -5.78 percent by the end of then President Corazon Aquino’s administration.
But the supposed protection being provided to Filipino migrant workers was tested under former President Fidel Ramos, following the much-publicized case of Filipina domestic helper Flor Contemplacion who was sentenced to die in 1995. The strong public outcry led to the passage of Republic Act No. 10022 (Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995).
This was reiterated in the Philippine government’s Medium Term Plan of 1996-1998, where it expressed commitment to refocus and reprioritize the human and financial resources to “deploy more personnel to critical labor posts abroad.”
The short-lived presidency of Joseph Estrada still considered overseas employment as a “viable option” for Filipino workers, and even invested in additional training for them “to enhance their qualification.”
This became even more intensified under the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2001 to 2010. Several executive offices and task forces were also established under her term, including a presidential task force on emergency employment in 2009.
The task force was supposedly the Philippine government’s “best preparation in thwarting the problems brought about by the global economic crisis.” There were around 1.377 million OFWs deployed around 190 countries in 2008 alone based on government data, and thousands were facing retrenchments as companies began to shut down due to the economic crisis in many industrialized countries.
Read: The Philippine Economy in 2009: Bruised and Battered by Myths and Hype
Read: OFWs Face Bleak Future as Global Crisis Hits Companies Worldwide
Those returning home, however, despite the two decades of supposed plans for their reintegration to the local labor force, were met with poor assistance. They were instead offered either a P50,000 loan or skills training. Nevertheless, the government’s quick reaction team was quick to look for placement for displaced workers.
The promise of extending assistance and protection to migrant workers still continued under President Benigno S. Aquino III. But this promise was shattered anew when the case of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina on death row in Indonesia, surfaced. Veloso’s death sentence was stayed at the last minute but she remains behind bars in Indonesia.
Read: Saving Mary Jane Veloso, making up for 5 years of govt neglect
Read: A year after stay of execution, the uncertain fate of Mary Jane Veloso continues
Hardison’s deployment abroad
With the government’s continuing labor export policy, Hardison’s turn to leave the country became nearly imminent.
While still studying political science at a private university in Manila, Hardison saw the difficulties that his parents faced in paying their tuition. He decided to stop going to school and began working.
Even if he persevered to earn for his family, he knew that his salary would never be enough. Their family, too, never had the opportunity to save because his father’s salary for years as a seafarer all went to their tuition and basic needs.
His father Napoleon also tried to invest their years of savings. But their P290,000 ($4,992) worth of investment ended up in a scam.
With the help of his then girlfriend, Hardison went to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2012 with a visitor’s visa. He eventually secured a working visa after a rigorous job hunting where he competed with many Filipinos also seeking employment there. A year later, he also helped his younger brother Spyrhdon find work in the UAE. They hoped then that their father would retire for good in the Philippines.
But the work there proved to be challenging. The first six to 10 months, Hardison said, was usually the adjustment period. Most do not get to finish their contracts due to unfair working conditions and contract violations.
In his first months, he worked in a rent-a-car company, where he was paid about 2,000 dirhams ($544.53) a month. He eventually moved to other jobs where he experienced working without breaks or being laid off without gratuity pay. Despite the small salary abroad, they managed to send money to their parents.
“Usually, when companies offer a 30-day leave, we grab it whether we have savings or not just so we can be with our loved ones in the Philippines. We will just revisit the budget later because tickets can be expensive,” Hardison said.
Helping abused migrant workers
Another UAE-based Filipino migrant worker Leah (not her real name) was an activist when she was still in the Philippines. Just like Hardison, she eventually went abroad to work. She linked up with progressive groups to help fellow Filipino migrant workers there, particularly domestic workers who were victims of sexual abuses.
As a migrant worker and migrant rights organizer, she saw for herself the impact of labor migration, including the dangers that they constantly face. Among the first case she personally handled was a previous workmate from Qatar who was raped by her employer. Leah had to remotely help her former co-worker and give her tips to leave her employer.
She continued to assist distressed Filipino domestic helpers as a case officer of Gabriela-UAE.
According to a 2012 report, at least 70 percent of Filipino domestic workers deployed in the Middle East suffered from physical assault and psychological harassment. They were also among those receiving the lowest wages, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte, for a time, stopped sending Filipino domestic workers to the Middle East. But the deployment resumed this year, now with a new Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) in place, which was established when Duterte signed into law Republic Act No. 11641.
The DMW now assumes the power and functions of seven agencies: Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA); Office of the Undersecretary of Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) of the Department of Foreign Affairs; International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) and all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE); the National Maritime Polytechnic (NMP); National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRC) under the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA); and Office of the Social Welfare Attaché (OSWA) under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
The DMW aims to protect the rights and promote welfare of migrant workers. It is also tasked to empower Filipinos working overseas “by […] training them to gain appropriate skills and by ensuring access to continuous training and knowledge development.”
The DMW is also tasked to “formulate, plan, coordinate, promote, administer and implement policies and undertake systems for regulating, managing and monitoring the overseas employment of Filipino workers and reintegration of OFWs, while taking into consideration the national development programs formulated by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).”
The DMW will be fully operational in 2023 but has started the ball rolling by lifting the deployment ban to Saudi Arabia.
Under Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Susan Ople was appointed as the secretary of the DMW. Her father Blas Ople was labor minister of Marcos Sr., who was among those who helped institutionalize the labor export policy.
“We will make them feel that they have an ally, that there is someone who will listen to them. That’s why my first order is not to be rude to our OFWs because what they are going through is not a joke,” Ople was quoted as saying in a news report.
Her appointment was also recently confirmed by the Commission of Appointments.
Migrante International initially welcomed her appointment but stressed that the Migration for Development strategy would only mean that the Philippine government will continue the use of labor migration as a tool for economic development. For Migrante International, this means capitalizing forced migration and perpetuating the labor export program to prop up the ailing economy through remittances and mandatory fees.
The realities of such, Leah said, is what she has been seeing on the ground and that this has intensified during the pandemic.
A case she handled involved a Filipino domestic helper who was pushed down the stairs by her employer. But when she asked for help before the Philippine consulate, she was sent away because she cannot afford a COVID-19 test and that the consulate does not accept runaways.
“She was given a food pack but was left on her own. She was never referred to any place to stay. She then fell victim to sex trafficking. It was a while before she was able to reach out to a church organization, which referred her to us. She was only 20 years old back then,” Leah said.
Mere cosmetic changes, according to Migrante International, is not enough to protect Filipino workers overseas. Marcos Jr. administration is likely to continue, if not intensify, the decades-long implementation of the labor export policy that his father started.
Under a new administration
For Hardison, he and his family have slowly adjusted to life in the UAE, with his two children now studying there. But the life they live is still far from the greener pasture that the labor export policy promised Filipinos.
“The small and slow increases in our salary could hardly keep up with the intensifying impacts of the economic crisis,” Hardison told Bulatlat.
Hardison and his wife are both working hard overseas to send their two children aged two and five to a Filipino school in the UAE.
However, recent government actions have made it more difficult for overseas Filipino workers, including the recent brouhaha on the digitalization of overseas employment certificates for those based in Hong Kong and the Middle East, and the fast-tracking of the hiring process from three months to three weeks, which is not what OFWs need at this time, according to Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International.
The Philippine government has also tied the issuance of the OEC, the exit clearance that Filipino migrant workers need, to OFW compliance with the government’s housing loan program.
Read: OFWs seek to abolish overseas employment certificate
Concepcion also said that Marcos Jr. has not made any pronouncements about his plans to create long-term jobs, thus continuing the dependence on remittances.
Based on the DMW website, there are jobs being offered in Japan for care workers and nurses; Israel for home-based caregivers and hotel workers; Taiwan for factory workers; and Germany for nurses.
According to Migrante, the DMW is also planning to deploy Filipino migrant workers to Hungary, Croatia and other eastern European countries, as well as new countries aside from “traditional workplaces of OFWs.”
It announced the reopening of agencies that can hire more than 5,000 seafarers, the group added.
This is why, she said, not all OFWs and their families have a better life after working overseas.
“Majority of the salaries of OFWs really go to the family. They can’t just stop work and retire or choose to work here because many of them still don’t have significant savings,” Concepcion said.
For Elena, as much as possible, no family should be forced to be separated just so they can live. “It’s better to have a job here in the Philippines, especially when you have children. It’s difficult not only for the couple but for their children too.”
“Mahirap sa kalooban. Kumikita ka nga pero ang hirap,” (It’s painful. Yes we do earn but not without hardships) her husband said, adding that he could not help but shed tears whenever he received letters from his family back then.
Meanwhile, with both Hardison and his brother already working, Elena and Napoleon live off of their small pension and help from their two sons.
Elena still hopes that one day they would see their grandsons, be reunited and not be forced to work abroad. (DAA, RVO)
With additional research from Alessandra Mercado, Charisse Mayuga, Dianne Leaban, Elyza Vinluan, Nico Pinpin and Vianca Mulingtapang.
This story was funded by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development – Media Fellowship on Migration and Migrant Women’s Human Rights.