OFWS, our Modern Day Heroes


Photo credit: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Working to earn a living is already a big responsibility and a difficult task. How much more working, surrounded by people you don’t know and adjusting to an entirely different culture? Still others choose to do so for the welfare of their family back home.  These modern day heroes sacrifice their blood, sweat, time and tears; they sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

Let’s start from the very beginning
Before being called Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), they were known as Overseas Contract Workers (OCW). Filipinos started working overseas as early as the 1900s. Filipino agricultural workers were recruited to Hawaii to temporary fill labor needs in the agricultural sector. Later on, Filipino laborers moved to other parts of the United States as employees of restaurants and hotels, sawmills and road construction, and workers in California’s agricultural plantations and in Alaska’s canning factories.

After the end of World War II in 1945, medical professionals, nurses, accountants, engineers, and other technical workers also moved to the United States. Many Filipinos who served in the U.S. Army became American citizens. Then, from 1950s to the ‘60s, Filipinos worked as non-professional contract workers in East Asia as artists, barbers, and musicians while in Kalimantan, Indonesia, they worked as loggers.

A much more active and systematic migration of Filipinos for temporary work came in the ‘60s, too. This was when Filipinos were recruited by the U.S. government and contractors of U.S. military and civilian agencies to work for construction and service-related jobs in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Wake Island, and Guam. As overseas work progressed, Filipinos soon eyed jobs in Canada and Australia as well.

During Former President Ferdinand Marcos’ time, he encouraged Filipinos to find jobs overseas. He then issued Presidential Decree 422 or the 1974 Labor Code “to ensure the careful selection of Filipino workers for the overseas labor market to protect the good name of the Philippines abroad.” The government then came up with a recruitment and placement program.

Marcos established three government agencies — namely the National Seamen Board (NSB), the Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB), and the Bureau of Employment Services (BES) — to give attention to the needs of overseas contract workers. These were eventually combined into what is now the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).

Why they leave
Why do Filipinos look for opportunities abroad? In a phone interview with Arman Hernando, chairperson of Migrante-Philippines, he said that poverty is the root cause why Filipinos opt to work overseas. “Mayroong phenomenon na tinatawag ang Migrante: ang ’forced migration.’ Napipilitang mangibang bansa yung ating mga kababayan dahil walang oportunidad dito sa sariling bansa natin.”

Early this year, Philippine employment and underemployment rates both rose while unemployment went down according to the data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Employment rate rose to 94.7 percent, compared to January 2017’s 93.4 percent, which translates to 41.8 million Filipinos having jobs in January of this year. From 6.6 percent in 2017, unemployment rate went down to 5.3 percent for this year.

Yet, underemployment rates rose from 16.3 last year to 18 percent this 2018. Underemployed is defined by PSA as “employed persons who express the desire to have additional hours of work in their present job, or to have additional job, or to have a new job with longer working hours.” It seems that some Filipinos are not satisfied with the job they have. One reason for this is that the salary they currently receive is not enough to cover all expenses of the family, especially due to the rising prices of food, water, electricity, and other commodities.

The usual mindset is to go where the money is, and for some Filipinos, they see their big break abroad. According to Hernando, the common jobs OFWs get into abroad are in the construction industry and service sector such as janitorial, caregiving, and in the hospital or medical field. In PSA’s 2016 occupational wages record, the average monthly salary of a construction laborer in the Philippines is Php 10, 888, compared to the average salary of more than Php 80,000 (SAR 5,750) in Saudi Arabia. An article done by Cosmopolitan Philippines revealed how nurses in the Philippines receive an average salary between Php 10, 000 to Php 19,000, depending on whether they are in a public or private hospital. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, a nurse could earn more than triple, between Php 120,300 to Php 156,300 a month.

A mistaken illusion
People usually think that OFWs have easy, comfortable lives. But OFWs do not go abroad just to frolic in the snow or take selfies at the Burj Khalifa or fill balikbayan boxes with treats for their loved ones back home.  Nothing compares to being with their loved ones every day. Nothing compares to how loving and hospitable Filipinos are.

Hernando of Migrante further illustrates. ”Hindi naman talaga totoo na madaling kumita ng pera sa ibayong dagat. Meron mga pag-aaral na ginawa yung Migrante din eh simula noong 2015 na nagpapakita na through the years, yung savings ng mga OFW ay wala nang natitira. At yung expenses nila doon sa mga remittances ay kadalasan napupunta na nga primarily sa pambili ng pagkain at pambayad ng utang.”

Developed countries where a lot of OFWs are based may offer a better quality of living, but that means living expenses are high as well. This is why OFWs often stay in small, cramped quarters to save on rent and be able to send more money to their families back home.

The ugly truth
OFWs experience all types of abuse—from verbal to physical and sexual. Some even result in death. “Meron nga kaming mga kalagayan dito sa bansa natin, umuwi dito, at minaltrato na, ginahasa, mayroong tayong mga ganyang kaso,” Hernando explained. An example would be what how a body of a Filipina OFW named Joanna Demafelis was found in freezer in Kuwait earlier this year.

Recently, workers who are experiencing abuse were rescued by the Philippine government. However, the Kuwaiti government viewed such act as a violation of their sovereignty, prompting the Philippine government to apologize.

Kuwait Rescue (Part 1)

Kuwait Rescue (Part 2)

Hernando also shared how certain races look down on OFWs. “Yung pagtingin doon sa mga migrant workers bilang mas mababang tipo ng mga nilalang at mga manggagawa. So basically yung discrimination sa mga migrant workers, mata-translate ‘yan sa mas mababang kompensasyon, sa mas hindi magandang pakikitungo at tsaka yung hindi magandang ginagawa sa kanila katulad ng slavery, labor, human trafficking, at iba pa.”

But despite these negative experiences, Filipinos still choose to go abroad to work for the benefit of their families. “ilang buwan lang ang lumipas, naiisipan Iulit nila mangibang bansa. Minsan iisipin nung iba parang kalokohan na ito ah, bakit ka umaalis eh minaltrato ka na sa abroad? Pero lumalabas iyon yung isang porma ng pagsasakripisyo nila kasi kailangan ulit nila mag-abroad kahit na alam nila na maaaring maulit yung ganoon kasi nga kailangan sila ng pamilya nila,” Hernando said.

What is the government doing?
At present, there are laws which cover the rights and needs of OFWs, like the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (Republic Act No. 8042) and Welfare Fund for Overseas Workers (Organization and Administration of the Welfare Fund for Overseas Workers) Presidential Decree No. 1694. And with the recent issue of  OFW situation in Kuwait, the government is continuously working to improve and make sure that the millions of OFWs all around the world are protected and guarded. Just last January, the Department of Labor and Employment announced that they will put up more OFW offices, specifically the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) in countries with large concentration of OFWs. This year, DOLE is planning to set up POLOs in Germany, Japan, New Zealand and in Florida in the United States.

Money is and will never be easy to come by, and working abroad doesn’t mean glorious or luxurious living. This is the reality that OFWs face every single day— a life of sacrifice  for their families back home. Indeed, Filipino migrant workers are truly the heroes of today.

“…kung gaano yung tinitiis nila, sakripisyo, kung gaano sila nagtatrabaho ng mabuti para lamang buhayin yung kanilang pamilya at itaguyod yung ating economy. Yan nga ay, sinasabi nga natin sa pag sasakripisyo nila, tinanggap nila yung katotohan na walang kasiguraduhan na sumusugal sila kapag sila ay nag aabroad. At sinasabi nga nila na yung isang paa talaga nila, once sila ay deployed sa ibayong dagat ay nasa hukay.” Arman Hernando, Migrante Philippines

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