The Philippines is one of the biggest sources of migrant labour serving the global economy. Today, roughly 11% of the Filipino population is either working or living outside the country. Unfortunately, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are also one of the most mistreated and abused labour forces in the world.
Many people dream about moving abroad and earn enough money to support their families at home. However, not many expect to be taken advantage of and suffer through slave-like working conditions. Unfortunately, almost every day there are reports about labour violations to OFWs. Unpaid wages, retained passports, excessive fees, food deprivation, long working hours, force confinement, and physical and sexual abuse, are all part of the harsh reality Filipino migrant workers face.
Since World War II, the Philippines has gone from being one of the richest countries in Asia, after Japan, to one of the poorest. According to the World Bank's latest figures, about 25% of Filipinos are living below the poverty line. As a result of the difficult situation in the Philippines, 4,624 workers leave the country each day. The majority migrate to the Middle East and other global hubs.
Top Five OFW Destination Countries 2013
|Country||Number of OFWs|
|United Arab Emirates||261,119|
Dirty, difficult and dangerous
Many OFWs are employed in so called 3-D jobs; dirty, difficult and dangerous. The most common work areas for Filipinos are domestic work, nursing, entertainment and construction. Male construction workers have frequently been reported of enduring rough working conditions.
However, it is Filipino women that have become the most vulnerable group when it comes to overseas employment. The majority of newly hired OFWs are women working as household service workers. Domestic workers tend to be especially at risk of isolation, sexual assault and abuse as their ability to work is tied to their employer, whom they are often required to live with.
A 2013 survey by the Hong Kong-based Mission for Migrant Workers reported that 58% of female domestic workers surveyed in Hong Kong suffered from verbal abuse. At least 18% reported experiencing physical abuse, while 6% claimed to have been victims of sexual abuse.
Lack of choice
Most Filipinos migrate because they want to earn higher wages abroad, and because there are simply no jobs in their local region. However, most migrant workers enter receiving countries on insecure terms and perform work that is largely considered unskilled. 47% are permanent legal migrants, 43% are temporary migrants and 10% irregular illegal migrants. It is especially the temporary and irregular migrants that often endure exploitative working conditions under the threat of deportation. Since they are often employed through unofficial channels, they are afraid to complain about any wrongdoing, as they will lose their jobs.
A report from the New Zealand's government said Filipino workers appeared the most likely to be exploited for a number of reasons, including the fear of losing their job or visa if they speak out.
"We did see quite a few cases of clear exploitation. Examples included Filipino workers who had their passports withheld from employers, they had all sorts of illegal deductions taken from their salary and wages that they didn't expect."
Mark Williams, Christchurch, New Zealand, immigration lawyer
Although people who migrate overseas are poor, they are not the poorest of the poor, as they have some money to help get themselves overseas. This means that migration and remittances are not a replacement for development, as the most vulnerable people in communities are unable to benefit from them.
"It's saddening because they have no other choice but to leave. There is no work here, so the easier solution is to send Filipinos abroad where there is work."
Father Restituto Ogsimer, Executive Secretary of the Bishops’ Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People
OFWs - an important source of income
OFWs are crucial to the Philippine economy. In 2014, Filipinos abroad sent home a staggering $28 billion in remittances according the the World Bank. The third highest sum in the world, equal to approximately 10% of the country's GDP. As a result, OFWs are often called "bagong bayani" in the Philippines, which means "new or modern-day heroes".
However, the government receives a lot of criticism for the large outflow of labour. Prior to the financial crisis, economic growth in the Philippines was largely spurred by remittances, which were used for private consumption rather than investment. Other common criticism focus on the high social cost of migration, including the breakup of families out of economic necessity, and government neglect and corruption.
The report from the New Zealand government found that OFWs often pay between NZ$8,000 and NZ$15,000 to a recruitment agent at home in order to secure a job in New Zealand. Similarly, in Hong Kong overseas OFWs have to pay up to US$3,400 in fees imposed by the government and recruitment agencies. Different government agencies earn a total of about US$470 million a year from Filipinos who leave the country.
What can be done? - The government
Naturally, the most crucial factor, to limit abuse and OFWs being taken advantage of, is rising efforts and engagement from the government, by offering better employment opportunities in the Philippines. The government needs to focus on implementing real reform at home that will provide sustainable growth and address systemic and structural poverty. In addition, the creation of a Department of Overseas Filipino Workers to address the problems Filipinos working abroad and promote their interests have been frequently cited in the media. Although there are various government agencies that deal with specific OFW concerns, they are loosely coordinated and often they issue regulations that make life more difficult for OFWs.
"[It is] slavery because the government is negligent when it comes to providing protection to its citizens abroad and protecting them from greedy recruiters and human traffickers."
Father Rex Reyes Jr, National Council of Churches
What can be done? - OFWs
Remittances are often sent directly to OFWs' families, who spend the money on food, and improvements to their homes, but very little of the money is saved. For some reason, families of OFWs often increase their monthly spending, thus prompting them to ask for more remittance to cover their expenses next time. It is crucial that OFWs attempt to save as much as possible, even if its very little, and that families do not increase their monthly spending until some savings have been gathered. Otherwise there is a risk of the OFWs becoming "trapped" overseas. In addition, it is important that the family receiving the money try to use it to purchase goods that can generate money for the family at home as well.
In order to avoid illegal recruitment the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration have created a list of ten tips to think about. You can find that list here. In addition, before leaving the country it is important to save contact information to help-organisations in the destination country and remember that a employer never have the right to take away your passport.
What can you do? - Share this article to spread awareness
The struggles of OFWs and the abusive that many go through are relatively unknown for a large part of the world. Therefore it is important that as many people as possible get involved to help create awareness of the situation, either through social media or through direct involvement by putting pressure on employers of OFWs in your country and by creating fundraising and support.
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