Tales of Inequality: The Journey of the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW)

Thursday, March 10, 2016 - 12:25

If the foreign labour market were an auction house, the Philippine Government would be among the first to put its citizens up for auction. Every year, the government teaches thousands of Filipinos the skills they need to get jobs abroad. There are housemaids academies, caregiver schools, a lot more nursing schools, and so on -- all aimed at training Filipinos to be able to leave the country, artificially solving the social volcano of having widespread unemployment and poverty, thereby perpetuating inequality.

The Philippines is one of the largest labor-exporting countries in the world. Its economy is very much dependent on remittances from Filipino workers, and now ranks third among the largest recipients of remittances globally. The Philippines is an exporter, and its goods are its citizens.

This is the Overseas Filipino Worker’s journey through inequality.

At Home

On the first day of Pope Francis’ State visit to the Philippines in 2015, he called on the Philippine government to fulfill its pledges to put an end to corruption and likewise observed the “scandalous social inequalities” in the country.

The Pope’s statement was not a surprise.  

The poorest 20% Filipinos own only less than 5% of the country’s total income. According to the ASEAN Trade Union Council, the Philippines has the highest rate of economic and social inequality in Southeast Asia. Inequality in the Philippines portrays inequitable distribution of economic opportunities and is not limited to personal wealth. Land distribution, educational and vocational opportunities and basic welfare programs are also affected by the growing disparity between the Philippines' richest and poorest citizens.

The glaring unequal opportunities in the country push millions of Filipinos to go abroad. High unemployment rate, low wages and deepening poverty fuel the desire to leave despite known and unknown dangers.

Planning Your Trip

Planning your trip basically means selling whatever you can and/or borrowing wherever possible to pay for exorbitant recruiter AND government fees.

A placement fee equivalent to a month’s salary needs to be paid to the recruiter (if the recruiter is legal, that is), plus around US$600 in government fees. This only means that even before OFWs leave their houses, they’re already spending a big part of their future earnings, saddling them in debt.

And oh yes, sending Filipinos abroad to work is not just very lucrative for recruitment agencies, it is also very much an income-generating practice by the government, and this is not just because of  remittances sent by these workers back home. According to Migrante International

“If 4,500 OFWs leave daily to work abroad, the government earns an average P114 million a day, or roughly P42 billion yearly, from processing fees and other costs shouldered by OFWs!”

Checking-in and pre-departure

As they bid their loved ones farewell, they then go through the motions of handing over their official documents and subjecting themselves to immigration officers’ interrogation.

Having all the right documents  may not be enough to leave the country. Working papers painstakingly collected and organised are questioned. It is never acceptable to simply tell them about one’s designs for a better life for themselves and the families they leave behind; satisfying this whimsical line of questioning is a requirement. The most unfortunate ones may even be asked to produce documents they didn’t know existed until that crucial moment when they are standing on the opposite side of the immigration booth, waiting to be let on their way to their respective boarding gates.

Hapless OFWs are questioned about their itinerary and/or asked to present a return ticket. They stand in front of Filipino immigration officials trembling, thinking they could be prevented from boarding. Those who are too meek to match wits with their interrogator’s gratuitous display of authority are the usual victims, and are often offloaded from their flights.

On Board

Fortunately, everything is equal with one’s fellow economy class passengers. (aside from of course the occasional  stereotyping and profiling and the mistreatment that goes with it)

Arrival

With about 2.3 million documented to be working abroad per the latest available data (deployment for 2014), Overseas Filipino Workers’ (OFW) tales of inequality, both the commonplace and the tragic, find their way into conversations.The ones that rouse the most feelings tend to get passed around, told with an assortment of sentiments – amusement, disbelief and, oftentimes, dejection for our fellow Filipino workers.

Overseas workers endure not just the psychological pain of being separated from their loved ones, but also expose themselves to various forms of abuse. Although a  number of Filipino workers abroad are employed as accountants, development workers, IT specialists or engineers, a huge number of them do difficult, risky jobs that put them in precarious working and living conditions. Based on most recent statistics, there are more women than men abroad, and most of these women are caregivers or domestic helpers who typically bear the brunt of the inequality that exists between foreign and local workers, employer and employee, homeowner and domestic helper - not to mention the intrinsic unequal treatment one gets that comes with just being a woman. Low wages, long hours and hostile working conditions oftentimes await them. Still, they choose to work abroad -- a much better option than going back home and let themselves and their families go hungry.

Return Ticket

A return ticket will only be voluntarily availed if conditions back home are conducive to living a dignified life - a life where families can afford to put food on the table, send children to school, afford a stable roof over their heads, and a life in the homeland that allows for equal access to opportunities.

The Philippines will hold its National Elections in May 2016 where a new set of leaders will be elected. But as the Thais say, ‘same same but different’. Electing a new set of leaders is not enough. Genuine and systemic change - a change that puts an end to elite rule, among others - is imperative.

Sources:

Aaron Ceradoy - Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants

World Bank Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016

Ibon Foundation

OFW Guru

Philippine Statistics Authority