Overseas Filipino Workers, Labor Circulation in Southeast Asia, and the
(Mis)management of Overseas Migration Programs
Odine de Guzman
In recent years overseas contract work has become the Philippines‟ prime export commodity. In the year following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, overseas Filipino worker (OFW) remittances amounted to US$7 billion. (DER-BSP, Table 11. OFW Remittances By Country and By Type of Worker.) OFW remittance is such a vital source of revenue that since the mid-1980s the government has lauded these workers as the country‟s “new economic heroes” or mga bagong
bayani. This essay highlights the growth of women‟s participation in the ongoing Filipino labor diaspora and underscores the government‟s active promotion of overseas labor migration. It
discusses Filipino international migration within the context of labor circulation in Southeast Asia, comparing the experience of overseas domestic work of Filipinos and Indonesians. Finally, this essay examines two forms of involvement by the international community in current women‟s migration issues – the promotion of international protections and research on different aspects of women‟s migration – and includes a current reference list on the issue.
The bagong bayani are a diverse group. They include emigrants and contract workers, both of whom may be documented or undocumented. (NGO statistics categorize these two groups as overseas Filipinos and overseas Filipino workers.) As of 2001, overseas Filipinos numbered 2.74 million and OFWs 4.67 million, of whom 3.05 million are documented and 1.62 million undocumented (Kanlungan Center, citing the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, Department of Foreign Affairs). OFWs are further statistically classified as sea-based workers, who are largely male, and land-based workers, who are the focus of this essay.
Initially, the workers were called OCWs, or overseas contract workers, a term which is descriptive of a temporary and contractual employment status – usually fixed terms of six
months to two years. Moreover, the term bespeaks the workers‟ lack of physical and social
mobility in the receiving country, which is restricted by the terms of their contract. Because of the growing prominence of overseas work and of the sense of being neither here nor there implied by “OCW,” the term has fallen out of favor in both government and media parlance. “OFW” – with the insertion of “Filipino” adding a national projection as befits new heroes – has
become the preferred version.
Being heroes, however, does not mean the government can guarantee OFW welfare, despite remittances that annually amount to billions of dollars. News reports abound of victims of abuse
1and of the death of overseas contract workers since the early 1990s. These include Singapore‟s
much talked-about 1995 execution of Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of killing a
2Filipina domestic worker and her Singaporean ward; the unresolved case of Mary Jane Ramos;
the case of Sarah Jane Dematera, on death row for 11 years (Kanlungan Center); and numerous others that remain unreported.
The Feminization of Philippine Overseas Labor Migration
These news reports sketch the current face of Philippine overseas labor migration. It is increasingly female and services-oriented. In 1992, of the total deployed, land-based, newly hired OFWs, 50 percent were female. This increased to 58 percent in 1995, 64 percent in 1999, and 72 percent in 2001.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) lists eight skill categories. In the period 1992 to 2001, the skill category “service workers” comprised an average 35 percent of the
total number of deployed newly hired, land-based workers (POEA InfoCenter; NSCB). In that ten-year period, “service workers” was consistently one of the top two in terms of newly hired
workers deployed. It alternated with the category “production workers,” which was the top
occupation of overseas land-based migrants in the 1970s and which was the top occupation of deployed workers in the years 1994, 1996, and 1998-2000. The third highest category in the same period was “professional and technical workers,” which overtook “production workers” in 2001 (POEA InfoCenter).
The stereotypical gender division of labor is replicated in these skill categories. Production workers are predominantly male at 71 percent of the newly deployed in 2002, while service workers and professional and technical workers, largely nurses and overseas performing artists, are mostly female. (Dancers and musicians made up 72 percent of this skill category in 2000; 99.5 percent of all deployed entertainers went to Japan [POEA Annual Report 2000]. In 2002, 85 percent of deployed newly hired “professional and technical workers” were female.)
1 See, for example, Today‟s article on Anita Fernando and Marivic David, 28 September 1996; J.T. Burgonio, “Jailed Pinay home to hero‟s welcome,” Philippine Daily Inquirer (hereafter PDI), August 17, 2001, p. A6;
Fernando del Mundo, “RP‟s new heroes subjected to abuse,” PDI, January 7, 2002, pp. A1 & A15; AP, “HK man
convicted for scalding RP maid,” PDI, March 20, 2002, p. A4; Dennis Estopace, “NGO calls for gov‟t to address
trauma of forced OFW repatriation,” Cyberdyaryo, http://cyberdyaryo.com/features/f2002_0426_02.htm, Aug 17,
2002; A.D. McKenzie, “Literature: Eating Curses, Breathing Humiliation,” IPS: The Philippine Migration Trail,
http://www.ips.org/migration/1304.html, Aug 17, 2002.
2 Rhea delos Santos, “Overseas Filipino Workers: Migrant Workers Act fails to protect overseas Filipinos workers,” IBON Features (IBON Foundation Inc., 2002), http://www.ibon.org/news/if/01/28.htm, Jan 26, 2003.
Fifty-two percent of the women deployed in 1992 were service workers; 59 percent in 1995; and 47 percent in 2000 (POEA 2002). From 1992 to 2001, women comprised an average 89 percent of deployed newly hired service workers. They comprised 92 percent of deployed newly hired service workers in 2000, 91 percent in 2001, and 90 percent in 2002.
The feminization of Philippine overseas labor migration, which had been male-dominated until the 1980s, belies the failure of women‟s empowerment in society. The increasing out-migration
of women indicates a decline, or continuing limitation, in the share of work available to women in the production process; employment opportunities remain restricted and income insufficient. The majority of female OFWs are still in “traditional” reproductive work such as domestic work and cultural entertainment, health care and nursing, where the pay is low and the nature of the work involves a higher exposure to physical, sexual and other abuse. This in turn underscores the international division of labor, in which the Third World, or the South, does the labor-intensive and lower-paid work. It also demonstrates a persistent gendered division of labor at the global level, with the South taking on the menial aspects of reproductive work, which are thereby “feminized,” secondary, subservient, and inferior to the “masculine,” dominant North.
3The State and Overseas Labor Migration
Migration is not wholly a personal decision motivated by desire for capitalist accumulation, but also reflects the lack of development policies on the part of the government and the lack of satisfactory living and employment opportunities within the home country. Feminist activist Wilhelmina S. Orozco asserted , as early as 1985, that the government had deliberately promoted labor migration as a solution to unemployment and growing national accounts deficits. Subsequently, sociologists Graziano Battistella and Anthony Paganoni (1992, 1996), Maruja M.B. Asis (1992), Joaquin Gonzalez III (1996, 1998), and urban planner Benjamin Cariño (1995) have examined the policies and directives of government administrations since Marcos, demonstrating how the government actively promotes labor migration with provision for the welfare of the migrants often an afterthought.
The administration of Ferdinand E. Marcos was blatant in its desire to use labor migration as a solution to the nation‟s economic problems. The government was assertive in promoting and
maintaining its warm body export. The Labor Code of 1974 formalized the Philippine labor migration program and had as its main goal the promotion of overseas contract work in order for government to reap the economic benefits of lower unemployment and workers‟ remittances. In
1982, the Central Bank, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Labor and Employment
3 Some parts of this section are revised and updated data from my essay published in Women and Gender Relations
in the Philippines: Selected Readings in Women’s Studies, vol. 1, ed. Jeanne Frances I. Illo (Quezon City: Women‟s
Studies Association of the Philippines, 1999).
made the remittance of 50 to 70 percent of workers‟ salaries mandatory through Executive Order
857. Sanctions such as the non-renewal of passports or disapproval of new contracts were imposed on those who did not comply. Executive Order 857 was so unpopular with contract workers that government abandoned it for more relaxed measures, like incentives to remitting migrants, the Suwerte sa Bangko program, the Balikbayan program, and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) remittance assistance program (Gonzalez III, 1996).
Government policies and regulations on labor migration up to this period were but slight refinements of the Commonwealth government‟s laws from 1915 to 1933, all of which focused
on the economic benefits the United States government could gain from this enterprise. The Labor Code of 1974 only made the provisions in the previous laws more organized and economically viable.
In the late 1980s, the abuse of women migrant workers started to be widely publicized. Following a temporary moratorium on the deployment of Filipino entertainers to Japan, the administration of Corazon C. Aquino temporarily banned the deployment of domestic workers on January 20, 1988. The ban was meant to protect Filipino women migrants from being abused
4and exploited in the foreign countries where they worked. But as NGO activists contended, no
matter how well intentioned, the ban was wrong policy: because of it, many more women would leave the country illegally and would “no longer be entitled to government protection, thus putting [them] completely at the mercy of [their] employers” (Ocampo 1988, 5). Another issue was the ban‟s infringement of the constitutional rights of workers to travel and find gainful employment. It was meant as leverage for negotiating better terms and conditions for the workers, but as migrant activists also pointed out, it was not binding on receiving states, who could simply turn to other developing countries for cheap labor.
NGOs proposed more concrete measures to address the abuse of overseas workers. They demended that government “put more teeth in the country‟s labor laws to guarantee [the] protection of overseas domestic [workers],” compel labor attaches to do their jobs, and “enforce
government-to-government negotiations for a fair deal for Filipino domestic [workers]” (C.D.
Nagot, Gabriela spokesperson, quoted in Delos Santos 1988, 1; M.L. Alcid 1988; I.L. Laguindam 1988). In a press statement, Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong proposed the following (The United Filipinos Against the Ban, 1988):
4 See David Lazarus, “Factors that led to Manila‟s ban on maids,” New Straits Times (March 1, 1988); “Ban on
maids may be lifted if…,” Malay Mail (March 2, 1988); “Ban on Filipina maids may affect lifestyle,” New Strait
Times (February 29, 1988); “Cory defends ban on Filipino maids,” New Straits Times (Feb. 9, 1988); Felix delos
Santos, “Ban on maids assailed,” Philippine Star (Feb 1, 1988); F.T. Ocampo, “The ban on domestics,” Philippine
Daily Inquirer (Jan 29, 1988) all compiled in “The Manila Ban on Maids” by the Center for Migrant Workers, Bukit Nanas Heights, Kuala Lumpur.
; Forge bilateral agreements with receiving countries. Proposals for HK:
(A) Repeal of the new conditions of stay for foreign domestic helpers.
(B) Strict implementation and monitoring of the employment agency regulations.
Exorbitant fees and replacement guarantees to employers must be stopped.
(C) Meting out of appropriate penalties against abusive employers and agencies, from
blacklisting to imprisonment.
(D) Standardization of working hours to a maximun of 12 hours of daily work.
; Provide on-site protection to overseas Filipinos. Use the Welfare Fund to provide legal
assistance, counseling, emergency loans, educational activities.
; Educate certain officials and staff of Philippine Consulates on the rights and welfare of
migrants. Remove anti-migrant officials.
; Reorient overseas employment programs and agencies concerned to cater to interests and
protection of rights of workers.
; Abide by ILO instruments pertinent to migration and migrant workers, esp. Convention
nos. 97 and 143, Recommendation nos. 86, 100, 151, 169.
; Institutionalize the representation of overseas Filipinos in national and local (receiving
countries) policy-making bodies.
; Uphold people‟s right to gainful employment. Develop viable local employment
programs as an alternative to cheap labor export.
Subsequently, the Aquino administration lifted the ban for selected countries, Middle Eastern countries being the last. Maruja M.B. Asis (1992) noted that although the issue of remittances was important to the government, a gradual shift toward welfare and protection was noticeable among the executive orders and legislation passed during Aquino‟s term. Among the most
publicized of Aquino‟s presidential actions was Proclamation No. 276, signed on June 21, 1988, which declared December “The Month of Overseas Filipinos.” In recognition of their
contribution to the national economy, President Aquino called overseas contract workers the new heroes of the country or the new economic heroes. (Another version is “modern-day heroes,”
which gained currency in the latter part of the 1990s, which Hong Kong activists counter with “modern-day slaves.”)
The epithet could not protect the migrant workers from being abused overseas. After a couple of highly publicized deaths of Filipina domestic workers abroad, the succeeding administration of
Fidel V. Ramos tried to put a hold on the “new hero” syndrome. In 1996, RA 8042, the Migrant
Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, was implemented to show government support for the new Philippine heroes following national outrage at the execution of Flor Contemplacion. At the same time, government publicists floated the idea that Filipinos need not go abroad to get good employment.
Ramos promised economic prosperity through his Philippines 2000 program, which aimed to achieve NIC-hood (newly industrialized country status) by the year 2000. Nevertheless, remittances from overseas Filipino workers were still one of the bigger sources of government revenue.
At the end of 2000, Joseph Estrada, the thirteenth President of the Republic, called upon OFWs to be patient and continue supporting his beleaguered administration. Estrada said “the OFWs should continually remit their hard-earned dollars here to help prop up the heavily battered economy and to help in praying for his critics and political opponents” (Manila Bulletin,
December 10, 2000). Later, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in her state visit to Singapore in 2001, was quoted as saying: “The Philippine economy will be, for the foreseeable future, heavily dependent still on overseas workers‟ remittances” (Agence France Presse, 2001). In a keynote
speech to welcoming Filipinos in Kuala Lumpur during her state visit to Malaysia in the same month, the President proffered a new name for the economic heroes: OFI, or overseas Filipino investors. In this telling, overseas Filipino workers “invested” their talents and energy in the
One aggressive “investment” strategy the government reportedly adopted was to deploy “at least
one million people” abroad annually, or 2740 persons per day (Kanlungan Center 2001). The NGO further quotes the President as saying: “Jobs here are difficult to find and we are depending on people outside the country. If you can find work there and send money to your relatives here, then perhaps you should stay there” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 28, 2001). In keeping with
the spirit of the free market espoused by Macapagal-Arroyo, the implementation period of the controversial sections of RA 8042, which provide for the deregulation of overseas employment and the gradual phase-out of the POEA, fell during this administration.
Part VII of RA 8042 reads:
; SEC. 29. COMPREHENSIVE DEREGULATION PLAN ON RECRUITMENT
Pursuant to a progressive policy of deregulation whereby the migration of workers
5 Based on reports of members of FGCC, a Christian Ministry based in Kuala Lumpur, who attended the welcome dinner in honor of the president.
becomes strictly a matter between the worker and his foreign employer, the DOLE within
one (1) year from the effectivity of this Act, is hereby mandated to formulate a five-year
comprehensive deregulation plan on recruitment activities taking into account labor
market trends, economic conditions of the country and emergency circumstances which
may affect the welfare of migrant workers.
; SEC. 30. GRADUAL PHASE-OUT OF REGULATORY FUNCTIONS.
Within a period of five (5) years from the effectivity of this Act, the DOLE shall phase
out the regulatory functions of the POEA pursuant to the objectives of deregulation.
Like her predecessors, Macapagal-Arroyo could only enjoin OFWs to “stay put abroad and
continue to send their dollar remittances until the Philippine economy stabilizes” (Del Callar,
2001). Yet at the same, the government officially maintained that overseas employment was not a policy: “In an August 2001 meeting with a delegation of overseas Filipinos advocating for their right to vote, Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas objected to any reference to „export of labor,‟ saying that people go abroad on their own volition” (Kanlungan Center 2001;
nderscoring mine). u
The new heroes of the country, ang mga bagong bayani, continue to hold a special place in
Migration in the Region
Filipinos are not the only border-crossing labor migrants in contemporary Southeast Asia, though they are probably the most “encouraged” by their government and have the most organized way of dealing with the move (Azizah Kassim 1998; Jones 2000). One major receiving country is Malaysia, with about 743,641 legal foreign workers from ten countries, including the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, and an estimated one million undocumented foreign workers. Alien labor accounted for about 20 percent of Malaysia‟s workforce of about 8 million and about 10 percent of its population of about 20 million in 1995 (Azizah Kassim 1998). Sidney Jones asserts that “Malaysia was the largest employer of foreign labor in Asia in 1999” (Jones 2000, 3). But
Malaysia also sends labor to neighboring countries such as Singapore – where 200,000
Malaysians reportedly work (Jones 2000), some of them illegally – Brunei, Taiwan, and Japan.
Azizah Kassim (1998) explains that Malaysian workers in these countries are found in domestic services, manufacturing, construction, and services, the sectors occupied by foreign migrant workers in Malaysia. That is, semi-skilled Malaysian workers take up jobs abroad that they refuse in their home country because of relatively higher pay, while some professionals opt to stay in Brunei for the tax breaks the Sultanate offers.
Thailand also sends workers abroad, while receiving a number of illegal workers, in this case from Myanmar and Southern China. They too work in the sectors occupied by Thais in foreign countries (Azizah Kassim 1998); because of their irregular status wages are often determined by what employers can afford and sometimes by the generosity of employers. Estimates of migrants in 1998 put the number at one million, with two-thirds likely to be irregular (Jones 2000).
Thailand has exported labor to countries in the Middle East (mostly Saudi Arabia), Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States since the 1980s. Political instability in the Middle East, however, shifted Thai labor movement toward Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. By the 1990s, Thai overseas labor was predominantly located in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1993, 85 percent of total overseas Thai labor was in the region, with 32 percent based in Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia. The major destinations of 191,735 deployed Thai labor migrants in 1998 were Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, Japan, Israel, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (Battistella 2000, 13).
As of 2000, Singapore was home to approximately 530,000 foreign workers. Officially, the workers could be recruited from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, South Korea, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The largest group of foreign workers in the country was Malaysian, while the second largest was Filipino; there were also reports of the presence of a considerable number of Indonesians and mainland Chinese. Foreign workers occupied the following sectors: domestic services, which registered approximately 100,000 workers; construction (200,000); shipyards; services; and hotels. Of the 530,000, around 80,000 were highly skilled and worked in finance, business, commerce, and manufacturing (Battistella 2000, 12).
Brunei had been importing labor since the mid-1980s; the foreign workers based in Brunei were from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines as well as from India and Bangladesh. In 1988, the largest foreign worker group was Malaysian with 18,418 workers, followed by Thai at 9,941 workers (Azizah Kassim 1998). Currently, Brunei‟s private citizens are “dependent on migrant workers for 74% of [their] manpower” [needs] (Jayasankaran 2003).
Like its Philippine counterpart, the Indonesian government under the New Order started “sending migrant workers overseas as one of strategic ways to overcome unemployment and to increase foreign exchange” (Eko Susi Rosdianasari 2000, 93). From the late 1960s to the early
1990s, Indonesia processed over 700,000 overseas workers‟ papers, the majority of which (like
Thais and Filipinos in the 1970s and 80s) were for the Middle East. Twenty-four percent went to Malaysia and Singapore; however, this number did not include the over half a million believed to be in Malaysia undocumented (Azizah Kassim 1998). By in 1997, as noted by Graeme Hugo, the Malaysian Immigration Department was impelled to raise estimates of Indonesian workers residing in the country to 1.9 million after nearly 1.4 million resident Indonesians voted in the 1997 Indonesian elections. (The year before, about 300,000 undocumented workers had been
legalized.) This estimate was far greater than most others – for example, those based on a 1993
amnesty in Peninsular Malaysia when half a million Indonesians came forward (Hugo 2002). Overall figures as of 1999 indicated an estimated three million workers without “any formal document” – most from East and Central Java, East and West Nusa Tenggara, and South Sulawesi – while statistics from 1994 to 1999 showed 1,461,236 labor migrants leaving Indonesia each year.
A projected 36 million Indonesians were expected to be affected by underemployment toward
6the end of 2000 when a 2 percent (per annum) economic growth rate was expected. Eko Susi
Rosdianasari (2000) asserted that the Workers Department therefore aimed to deploy 2.8 million workers between 1999 and 2004, even as laws and government policies continued to lack measures to protect migrant workers. The government expected a return of up to US$12 billion
7in remittances from this enterprise.
Indonesians‟ top countries of destination are Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, followed by Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Brunei, and Korea. Indonesian labor migrants are mostly found in domestic work and in factories, industries, hotels, hospitals, and plantations, while a hefty 70 percent of all overseas Indonesian migrant workers are women.
Filipino and Indonesian Women in Foreign Households
While the majority of Filipino and Indonesian women labor migrants end up in domestic work, it is considered to be risky and sending governments do not have strong bilateral agreements with receiving states on the protection of these women. As noted earlier, numerous Filipino women have met misfortune in varying degrees in their quest for economic upliftment as overseas domestic workers. Media reports in Indonesia have likewise exposed the abuses experienced by women migrant workers, many of whom are domestic workers. The abuse begins in the home country, at the hands of a tekong (middleman/illegal recruiter) and calo (small company or
individual recruiter), and continues in the employer‟s home in the form of non-payment of wages,
long working hours, subjection to cultural taboos, or physical and sexual abuse. The protection of domestic workers is made difficult because of the location of the work in the employer‟s
private residence, where the lines between the employee‟s work and private time/space are blurred.
It is made even more difficult in Indonesia when “maids are not [considered] workers” and “continue to be regarded as the private property of households” (Ati Nurbati 2000, 91, 90).
6 Business News, 14 June 2000, quoted in Eko Susi Rosdianasari.
7 Immigration Laws 1995, Paul Jacob, news reports from Straits Times, April 19,1995 and Xinhua News Agency,
April 18, 1995.
Because of the general assumption that domestic workers have low education and that “they sleep and eat for free,” their salaries are low and are not governed by minimum wage laws. In
fact, “[a]s „part of the family,‟ a maid‟s wage is not public business” (ibid., 91). The notion that a
domestic worker‟s welfare, including salary, lies beyond the scope of public business partly originates from the capitalist division of labor into the productive and reproductive spheres, where the notion of work is a “production process that contributes to capitalist accumulation and exchange” (Eviota 1992, cited in Cheng 1996, 110). In contrast, domestic work falls within the “process of reproduction, essential to the survival of the family and society, [but] does not directly lead to the process of accumulation and exchange;” thus, it is not customarily considered work, thereby, it converts the status of domestic workers into non-workers (ibid). To a certain extent, women domestic workers fall within the ambit of the private on account of gender relations in society. Patriarchal societies deem women‟s proper place to be the home, while men rightly belong in the public arena.
A review of most government policies and legislation on the protection of migrant workers shows that domestic workers‟ specific labor problems are not factored in at all (Palma-Beltran
and Javate-de Dios 1992; Heyzer 1994, also cited in Jones 2000; Goldberg 1996). Even so, many women leave because domestic workers at home earn only 15-20% of what they can earn abroad. In real terms, however, the enormous recruitment fees and other travel expenses increase their family‟s living expenses, sometimes exponentially.
Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia are offered between US$90 and US$150 per month with recruitment fees to be deducted from the first three months. But there are numerous reports of more deductions than agreed upon and failure to receive full or any salary at all (Jones 2000; Ati Nurbaiti 2000; Eko Susi Rosdianasari 2000). Yet for US$100 a month, many a rural woman would take the risk of illegal detention, torture, and even death, strengthened by the hope that one‟s own fate will be different. (The bulk of reported abuse of Indonesian domestic workers is in Saudi Arabia, with many physically and sexually abused.)
Aside from the often-marginalized position of migrant workers in receiving countries, workers also fall into hierarchical categories within migrant groups, which can be imposed upon them by local society. In the hierarchy of overseas domestic workers in Malaysia, for example, Filipinos are on the top rung. Indonesians fall into a lower salary range because they usually have a lower level of education, are not yet knowledgeable about the use of “modern” household equipment,
and are not proficient in the English language.
But regardless of foreign language proficiency, overseas domestic workers are almost always unjustly considered “potential prostitutes” by local officials and laypeople who tend to prejudge
foreign workers (Jones 2000, 65); in fact, even in their home country, unmarried Indonesian women leaving to work as domestic workers are imagined as “social misfits who could not get