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