Filipino migrant workers continue to suffer in silence

Despite Duterte's promises to find jobs at home, more and more people are looking to eke out a living overseas
Filipino migrant workers continue to suffer in silence

Every day, thousands of Filipinos apply for work abroad because they supposedly don't find stable jobs in the country. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

Jean went to Saudi Arabia because she could not find a stable job in the Philippines to support her three small children.

The 25-year-old single mother left her children in the care of her parents in a mountainous village. She found work as a domestic helper and was promised a salary of about US$500 a month.

Jean enjoyed her work as a housemaid during the first few months. She would clean, cook, and do the laundry for her Arab employers.

However the days of working round the clock, sometimes without time to sleep and eat, came. She complained that her employer was violating the contract.

"I was not given a day off," she said. "I was not even allowed to peek outside a window or step outside the door."

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Jean's only refuge was her mobile phone. Every chance she had, she would talk with her family and friends.

As with similar stories of women migrant workers, Jean would end up being beaten, slapped, and abused by her employers, until she decided to call it quits.

She flew back to the Philippines with nothing. To retrieve her belongings from the agency that sent her abroad would require documentary requirements that were too costly.

Jean gave up. She thought she was more fortunate than 29-year-old Joanna Daniela Demafelis, who was found in a freezer in Kuwait, and 44-year old Jakatia Pawa who was accused of killing her employer's daughter.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he admires migrant workers for their "selflessness and courage in enduring the hardships of living away from home to provide for their families."

In a speech on July 23, the president said Filipino migrant workers "epitomize the innate resilience of the nation."

"I promise to do whatever it takes to give all Filipinos a comfortable life," vowed Duterte.

Indeed the country's migrant workers have helped boost the country's economy. 

In 2017 alone, remittances from Filipino workers abroad reached an all-time high of US$31.29 billion.

But the migrant workers group Migrante, said the president was "rubbing salt in the wound" when he spoke about the plight of Filipinos working abroad.

"He was yakking parenthood statements devoid of specificity," Arman Hernando, the group's spokesman said.

Instead of stopping exporting labor, the president "systematized and institutionalized" it, he said. 

The new tax reform law implemented by the government has become an added burden to workers. 

He said the price of securing government papers that are necessary in applying for a job has even gone up.

Lack of opportunities back home continues to push millions of Filipinos into working abroad.

Independent think-tank, the Ibon Foundation, said the "shallow cheap labor sources of income" coupled with the casual labor contracting scheme in the country have driven Filipinos to seek greener pastures."

Around 4,690 Filipinos leave the country every day to look for work abroad.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration reported that about 1.3 million Filipinos left the country from January to September in 2017 alone.

The Philippines, along with Indonesia, is known as a "major supplier of labor migrants" to over 100 countries.

Most of these workers are women who serve as domestic helpers, nurses, caregivers and entertainers.

According to the Philippine Statistics Agency, 53.7 percent of Filipino migrant workers are women.

Migrante noted that while Duterte promised to eradicate the roots of forced migration it would not happen as long as local wages are not increased, casual labor contracting not abolished, and land distribution to landless farmers not implemented.

"Expect the regime to heighten the four-decade old labor export program as a quick fix to this dilemma," said Hernando of Migrante.

He said more Filipinos would be "peddled for enslavement" in foreign lands as life in the Philippines becomes unbearable.

Among those leaving in the coming months is Jean.

Despite her experience at the hands of her employers in Saudi Arabia, she is going back abroad.

"I am hoping to find another job. I won't give up," she said, adding that the future of her children depends on her.

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