Filipino Migrant Workers

Heartaches, high hopes (Pinoy workers abroad)


Speech outline researched by Eric Valles

for SHARE (Olivier de Taisne's graduate discussion group)

February 26, 2004

Angels Restaurant, NUS


Besides the Chinese, Filipinos are perhaps the most globalized people of any nationality. One would be hard put to name a place where there is no Pinoy. Eight million Filipinos work overseas. About 100,000 are in Singapore working mostly as computer programmers, band musicians or domestic help. Cash-rich Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia are the primary destinations of Filipino migrant workers. East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea and South-east Asian countries as Singapore and Malaysia are also magnets for them. A few survive even in such unlikely work places as Iraq, Madrid's Atocha station and Israel's occupied territories.


Most Filipinos migrate to seek greener pastures abroad. The domestic market is too small and underdeveloped to absorb all the workers that a fairly open (no quotas for university admission) and competitive educational system (which used to emphasize English proficiency) churn out every year. Specialists and other workers who dream of being world-class also find few opportunities to develop their full potential.


Several government administrations back home like to call migrant workers heroes, mainly for the billions of dollars they remit back home that insulate the economy to some degree from external pressures such as a volatile foreign exchange rate. Like real heroes, some of them endure untold hardships, which government administrations back home lack the clout , and some say the resolve, to remedy.


Jerbert M. Briola of the Center for Migrant Workers, reports the following typical cases: (1) Maria Reyes, a domestic worker in Damman, Saudi Arabia, was frequently beaten up and had her head banged against the wall by an Arab employer "for about ten times a day." Her eyesight was consequently impaired. (2) Glenda Giron-Lorio, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, was found dead inside a four-foot-deep manhole behind the Filipino Workers Development Center. She was maltreated by her employer. She ran away, but was abducted and manhandled before the residents of the center. (3) Sarah Jane Demetera was a 19-year-old domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Her female employer was murdered, and she was framed. Sarah claimed an intruder committed the murder. She was made to believe that signing a document would set her free after three days. She languishes in a reformatory prison.


Vulnerable to pressures both within and without, these workers risk being reduced to objects. In December 1999, 343 of 608 migrant workers died of health problems. Others get clinically depressed and commit felonies. A notable case was Flor Contemplacion, a domestic helper, who was hanged in Singapore. Portrayed on film by Nora Aunor, she came to symbolize the millions of Filipinos driven by poverty to leave their families and take their chances abroad.


Sharp inequality in wealth and limited opportunities for social mobility are almost sure to trap the children of these migrant workers to the same fate. Their pay abroad, a pittance compared to the actual toil, is nonetheless far more than what they would have made (S$300 per month for a college teacher) in their hometowns. Patriot and writer Renato Redentor Constantino writes about Erma Geolamin, a domestic helper in Hong Kong:


 For all the 14 years that she has spent as a domestic help, she has only seen her family eight times in periods lasting no more than two weeks. She would rather save the airfare for her kids, she said. A familiar story.


In 1999 she went home unannounced and caught her husband with another woman and discovered that he had squandered the earnings she had been sending home. Another familiar story.


"It's like the relationship between overseas Filipino workers and the Philippine government," Constantino mumbled to himself. Erma nodded.


"I have to keep myself healthy, you know. I want all my children to finish school. I think of them every day," said Erma, who will be turning 50 soon.


Myrna Reynes Punay, another domestic helper but in Taipei, has experienced the typical migrant workers blues, namely (1) miscommunication with foreign employers, (2) homesickness and depression caused by estrangement from family, (3) victimization by swindlers. She is sustained by an unflinching faith that borders on fatalism and selfless love for her family. Here is her story in a letter to my former newspaper, Taiwan News:


The two years that I spent in Taiwan were filled with trials and disappointments. On my first year, I had difficulties getting along with my employers, especially with my patient, because I could not speak Chinese. On my second year, my mother-in-law passed away. A few months later, my third child had to undergo emergency surgery. I was worried sick. I am his mother and yet I was not there to care for him.


And that's not all. A few months later, we were asked to pay for the land that we were occupying.


More recently, my remittance (NT$10,000 including handling fee) and balikbayan box were not delivered. I have four grown up children. (My eldest just graduated from college while the other three are still studying - two in college and one in high school.) Since our town is 25 kilometers away from the city, my kids have to commute to school everyday. For them to be able to do that, they need my financial support.


That's why I never hesitated about seeking the help of people whom I trust and believe in. The first person I called was Ms. Marie Feliciano. She is ready to help us and is not easily intimidated. Even though she has her own share of personal problems (her grandmother passed away last week), she still finds the time to listen to our troubles and find ways to solve them. I have yet to meet her but I know that she's a real person. A true Samaritan.


The second person that I called was Mrs. Esther Guirao, our MECO Labor representative in Taipei. I also spoke with General Edgardo Espinosa, Father Bruno Ciceri, and Atty. Alexander Bulauitan. They all gave me wise counsel.


But most important of all, I always talk to God. (I pray the holy rosary every night.) God has made me stronger and tougher.


 Last Friday, August 8, the woman who did not deliver my remittance to my family returned my NT$14,000. She promised that she would return my package later.


At the other end of the Filipino workers spectrum are executive expatriates such as Ramon Jocson, general manager of IBM Global Services for SEA; media personalities such as former VJ Donita Rose of MTV and Jennifer Alejandro of Channel News Asia; skilled professionals such as my high school batchmate Joel Tanedo, a heart surgeon who is in Tennessee for what he says is  the "opportunity to serve."


Joel trained in Chicago and Minneapolis for 6-7 years. He is part of a group of five cardiologists and one of two interventional cardiologists or heart plumbers at the Cookeville Regional Medical Center. He is no different from Myrna Reyes Punay and the other eight million migrant workers in his concerns and motivations. In a recent email to our high school mailing list, he writes:


We have a small Filipino community here and we have a catholic church run by Salvatorians. I hope to be back home someday and practice at Asian Hospital where I have a clinic. I do miss everybody there and think of home a lot.


As long as the Philippine economy remains stunted by policies that protect the interests of the rich few, Filipinos will continue to migrate to strike it rich elsewhere. A few do go back home and, if not disappointed by sclerotic economic policies and infrastructure limitations, create jobs and contribute to the upliftment of our countrymen. If only these balikbayan entrepreneurs could be welcomed with the same earnestness and tax breaks as MNCs, perhaps the incentive to go back home and to realize unfulfilled hopes would be greater.

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