New Internationalist

Overseas Filipino Workers – heroes at home, exploited abroad

Filipino workers in Hong Kong call home
Calling home: filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong KC Wong under a CC Licence

I woke up to a rising sun in Doha, Qatar, one warm Sunday in March and was led to the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel where I was billeted, when I saw them. They opened the doors of the black car that took me from the airport to the hotel’s main entrance.

Kabayan,’ they greeted me, the Filipino word for fellow countrymen and women. It brought me comfort to find a fellow Filipino in a Middle Eastern country I was visiting for the first time. Later in the day, when I went to the city to exchange some dollars for local currency, I saw more Filipinos, my beloved Kabayans.

They were everywhere, sweating in the scorching desert heat, toiling a living for their loved ones at home. I saw them behind the wheels of the hotel’s shiny black Audis, behind bank counters, inside exhibition halls of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, inside the hotel’s luxurious spa and in the hotel’s lobby lounge.

Two hours from Doha, in the industrial city of Ras Laffan, I boarded a hulking black LNG tanker and saw them staffing the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the ship’s crew.

Overseas Filipino Workers, they all are. Our government calls them unsung heroes and rightly so, because the dollar remittances they send home keep the economy afloat.  According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), recent data shows that remittances from overseas Filipino workers rose by six per cent to $1.68 billion in February from $1.59 billion in the same period last year.

The BSP expects 2013’s total remittances to grow by five per cent from 2012’s figure of $21.4 billion.

According to government statistics, there are 2.2 million overseas workers scattered all over the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and the US.

For many of these overseas Filipinos, however, working abroad is no paradise because they are separated from their children. Indeed, the social cost is high; children have to grow up without one or both parents.

Groups that promote the welfare of migrant workers have been calling on the government to provide gainful opportunities in the country so that Filipinos do not have to seek jobs abroad.

Migrante International secretary-general Gina Esguerra says the government must change its labour policies so that people can find job opportunities at home and wouldn’t be forced to leave for abroad.

What is happening, she says, is that the government is too focused on promoting labour export policies – or policies that encourage Filipinos to work abroad – instead of providing better job opportunities in the country.

And yet, the unemployment statistics in the country are stark and telling. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), the unemployment rate was nearly unchanged in January at 7.1 per cent compared to 7.2 per cent in the same month last year.

Furthermore, the NSO noted that the number of unemployed Filipinos rose slightly to 2.894 million in January from 2.892 million a year ago.

The numbers tell a sad story, as sad as the stories of overseas Filipinos who long to be with their loved ones instead of toiling in distant lands.

But this is the story of my many kabayans, millions of them, scattered around the world. They long to come home but for many of them, such a dream remains elusive.

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  1. #1 Martin 25 Apr 13

    This blog doesn't really go anywhere. I'm still waiting for the ’and then’ part........

  2. #2 Iris Gonzales 26 Apr 13

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right, it doesn't really have an ending because the stories of OFWs go on and on. I long to write a good ending, to say perhaps, ’and then’ they could all go home but that's not the case just yet.

  3. #3 Robert Haighton 26 Apr 13

    ’For many of these overseas Filipinos, however, working abroad is no paradise because they are separated from their children. Indeed, the social cost is high; children have to grow up without one or both parents.’

    We all live in afre country. All those OFWs could have say no to going abroad. Or were they held a gun to their heads? And what are the spouses doing in the Philippines? Sitting lazy in back yard or also earning their own salary?

  4. #4 Robert 26 Apr 13

    Like Martin, I am not only missing an end, but I am also missing the full picture here. The contribution of - mostly female - OFWs is clear. Sending money back home. But why did they choose an existenze in a foreign country. What did the kids say about that decision? What is the role of - staying behind - spouse/husband/partner. How are the OFWs exploited? Didnt they know about that before they made the decision to become an OFW? Didnt all OFW do some research before leaving abroad about what they can and could expect?

    So its not only a missing ending but also missing a middle.

  5. #5 Iris Gonzales 28 Apr 13

    Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your email. In most instances, the OFWs have no choice but to work abroad because there are not enough gainful opportunities in the Philippines. Their partners who stay home look after the children. It really is a desperate situation.

  6. #6 Robert 31 Jan 14

    industrialized countries export goods.....

    we export people

    ......we are not even industrialized

  7. #7 jepoy 10 Jun 14


    I'm an active member of <a href=>OFW Forum</a> and I, myself is an OFW. I would like to give a brief idea of how most ofw ended as an ofw.

    There are several reasons why Filipinos have to look for a job abroad.

    First of all, the unemployment rate in the Philippines is pretty high reaching millions of people whose lives are unsecured. They need to look for a source of income somewhere else, in this case, abroad especially for those who are bread winners.

    Second, the salary in the Philippines is low compared to the salary offered abroad. The inflation rate keeps getting higher each day in which the average wage of a worker could not sustain.

    If I'll be offered a salary that can provide all the needs of my family and a salary that can provide my children a brighter future, then I'll be glad to grab that opportunity even in exchange for my own happiness.

    We Filipinos, have a very strong ties with our love ones and can even sacrifice ourselves for them to survive.

  8. #8 Mecanic 23 Jun 14

    You forgot to mention that those 2.2 million overseas workers are bringing are creating a lot of social problems. In many case the family of those workers are receiving money so they stop working because they prefer getting money to do nothing then making some efforts. The family thinks that the overseas worker is making a lot of money so they often don`t have much considerations. They wont be shy spending his money for things they don`t need (Filipinos are not very responsible with their money. Especially men). The husband often get a or some mistresses and the children are abandoned. For a very young child the damages can be disastrous and I`m not exaggerating.

    Please stop playing the victim by saying you are FORCED to work abroad. That's bullshit! Nobody is forcing you. Can we admit that Filipino people in general are not very wise? They never see opportunities and often rely on other. We're proud to be Filipino but our ultimate goal is to go abroad. Especially in the USA.

    What is killing me is that the Kingdom of the Arab Emirates (that islamic dictatorship) would be nothing without you filipino people. You have 1000 reasons to stand up and say: No we will not work there anymore because they are exploiting us deep in our ass and mouth. We will negotiate to have real salaries and real work conditions. But Filipinos and their government have no balls so nothing will change. Thanks to the catholic church who brainwashed you to be so docile and cute.

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About the author

Iris Gonzales a New Internationalist contributor

Iris Cecilia Gonzales is a Filipino journalist and blogger. At present, she covers economic news for a Manila broadsheet, but she also writes other stories here and there. She has been blogging since 2004 on various issues including women and children and human rights. She is among the winners in the TH!NK 3 global blogging competition organized by the Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre.

You may email her at [email protected]

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