By Krisha Mae Cabrera
“BODY OF OFW FOUND IN FREEZER” — news of the brutal death of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) rattled the Filipino community early in 2018. Joanna Demafelis was a domestic worker in Kuwait whose body was found in a freezer with signs of torture and strangulation. Though the details surrounding Demafelis’s death were shocking in terms of brutality, her death, the death of another OFW, came as little surprise to Filipinos. Following each news story of OFW abuse, advocates and politicians call for justice. And yet, the narratives of policy and human rights continue to fall on deaf ears as those who employ OFWs view their employees as dispensable commodities in a system that ensures they will never run out of OFWs to hire. However, though businesses often view OFWs as dispensable, they also depend on OFWs as a valuable source of labor. Such a particularly self-serving incentive for OFW-dependent businesses could very well be key to protecting the welfare of OFWs.
A Global Phenomenon
A staggering 9.8 percent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product comes from OFWs, who send cash remittances back to the Philippines. There are around 10 million OFWs worldwide, and each year the number of OFWs deployed increases. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 13.1 percent of OFWs work in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. 28.2 percent work in East and Southeast Asia. Most OFWs however, work in the Middle East at 53 percent. 
Behind the numbers is a composite image of OFWs: Filipinos who, fearing joblessness and poverty in their homeland, seek out better wages abroad to provide for their families despite risking years-long separation, contract violations, and abuse. Philippine news is fraught with OFW horror stories like Demafelis’s death. At its very worst, to be an OFW is to risk harm and death. And for OFWs who avoid such plights, the realities remain dismal still, facing unequal treatment in the workplace, racial discrimination, and continued financial hardship.
An OFW Experience
Fred* was an engineer and OFW in Saipan, a small island in the Northern Marianas Islands. A company, whose name he requested remain confidential, hired him in 1992 to work on a power plant. He worked with them for twelve years.
“Because of my status, I was not paid correctly nor was I given the same benefits compared to the local workforce. My pay was $5.50 an hour. In the mainland U.S. that job’s salary would probably be $20 per hour. Also, harassment and discrimination was normal against Filipinos. The locals did not respect us. I was beneath them.” But Fred notes that, although OFWs were seen as inferior, the company nonetheless grew to be dependent on them as a workforce. “There weren’t many technically-skilled local personnel. And they relied on us OFWs to work the holidays or days the locals wouldn’t come in.” He recalls working on holidays and through hurricanes. “The thing is, the locals became so dependent on us that most of them ‘slacked off’ on learning and practicing what we had to do. So the company really needed us.”
The OFW system was necessary, though businesses treated OFWs individually as abundant commodities, giving leeway to systematic maltreatment stemming from racism and exploitation of OFWs’ status as contractual workers and non-citizens. And yet, just as Fred’s company grew dependent on OFWs, employers worldwide continue to demand OFW labor, with many more countries seeking to hire scores of OFWs. To preserve the OFW pipeline, businesses will need to reevaluate their practices and develop safe and ethical work environments, protecting their valuable source of labor by fulfilling the promise of better work and reasonable pay that drives Filipinos to go abroad.
To preserve the OFW pipeline, businesses will need to reevaluate their practices and develop safe and ethical work environments, protecting their valuable source of labor by fulfilling the promise of better work and reasonable pay that drives Filipinos to go abroad.
Blacklisting and Banning Businesses
In response to a request for comment, Bienvenido Oplas, economist and columnist for Businessworld, a major Philippine business newspaper, addresses the consequences of maltreating OFWs, “[Businesses could be] blacklisted by the Philippine Overseas Employment Commission (POEC). Delinquent recruiters will be penalized and employers abroad will be denied new OFW deployment. OFWs also share information among themselves about their experiences. Good employers would easily get referrals with OFWs recommending them to their friends and relatives.”
OFWs turn to online forums and post and read about conditions in certain countries and to publicize urgent announcements. Additionally, online videos have become instrumental in exposing the worst offenders. At one point, such videos fueled diplomatic tension between the Philippines and Kuwait when the videos documented an OFW rescue unbeknownst to Kuwaiti authorities. The aftermath included Kuwait’s expulsion of a Philippine ambassador and the Philippines instituting a deployment ban to the Gulf state, which ended after Kuwait signed a memorandum of understanding.
From an even broader publicity standpoint, Philippine cinema features the OFW narrative as its own genre of film, with some of the country’s most prominent artists and filmmakers taking inspiration from OFW realities. Ricky Lee, a renowned Filipino screenwriter had interviewed OFWs and their families for his film “Anak,” which explores the efforts of an OFW in Hong Kong.
“Those I interviewed… had no choice. They were taking care of other people’s children while… their kids grew up without them,” he notes in detailing the inherent pain of working as an OFW. “Part of the insight we got from interviewing OFW parents is the fact that they had to ‘not see’ certain things… to believe that all their hardships were paying off. They were, after all, as uprooted as their children… it is a violence that is inflicted… by a very unjust social system.”
OFW films hardly romanticize OFW life abroad. They, like the Filipino people, have a collective awareness of the risks OFWs take, of the truth that hardly anyone would ever choose such a life if it were not for a dire need to find work due to relatively limited employment opportunities in the Philippines. Employers capitalize on this desperation. And as the Philippines continues to deploy OFWs, businesses’ source of labor remains secure, regardless of how badly businesses behave.
Pressure from Philippine Progress
The possibility of infrastructure change and the potential need for labor may soon ease Filipinos of the pressure to work abroad, and in turn pressure employers to improve their practices in a way that would promise safety and better wages, thereby compelling Filipinos to choose against working overseas. The Philippines is one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia. And with a $180 billion infrastructure build-up that has put the country in need of labor, an increasing number of Filipinos may soon decide to stay. This development would not only appeal to Filipinos as an opportunity to work in their country, but may also pressure foreign employers into providing better working conditions to continue to attract OFWs. This is a start in addressing a severely flawed system; however, it may be the best course considering the Philippines is not in a state to largely wean itself off OFW remittances.
In response to comment for this article, Attorney Ada Abad, Dean at Adamson Law School in the Philippines and expert on labor law states, “I have yet to hear of a Filipino worker who would much rather work abroad and be away from his family if there were sufficient jobs and competitive compensation here in the Philippines.” To Abad, the Philippines’ dependency on the OFW system is a dismal reflection of the government’s refusal to address the lack of opportunity in the country. While she hopes for a holistic policy for increasing jobs, such a policy requires a massive overhaul to create a more pro-business environment in the Philippines.
“As it is, the prevailing rules make for a restrictive business environment.” Abad notes the arduous process involved with setting up businesses in compliance with restrictive national and local agencies, a lengthy timeline, and taxes skewed in favor of only big corporations as opposed to small or medium-sized establishments. “If this were to improve in the future, Filipinos would not need to go abroad to work and that would be truly ideal.”
Abad herself has worked on OFW cases. She sees the government’s continued efforts to protect OFWs as a good and needed process, but one that “only elucidates the government’s cognizance, and hence, the institutionalization of the OFW phenomena… that for most Filipinos, a job abroad is the ultimate way to lift their families from poverty.”
In the long run, the Philippine government should seek to protect its people even before they are at the mercy of foreign employers and countries by taking steps to ensure better local job opportunities and focusing its efforts on addressing the country’s rampant poverty and unemployment. Its attempts to protect and preserve the OFW system seem more reactionary as opposed to solutions that address the root cause of what drives so many Filipinos to risk great danger and injustice in working as OFWs.
As the prospect of a better local opportunities remains a long way away, Filipinos worldwide remain hopeful for change as they continue to toil under a predatory and often unethical. But while their employers remain stubbornly uncaring to the humanity of Overseas Filipino Workers, the threat of losing such a system someday should help them care just enough to make it better.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.
**Some translations were required. All translations were done by the author.
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