The Philippines sends more people to work abroad than any country except Mexico. About 10 percent of the Philippines population (about 10 million people) have worked outside the Philippines. Filipinos work in every country except North Korea, Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas told the Los Angeles Times. More than 2.5 million work in the United States and nearly a million in Saudi Arabia, with hundreds of thousands more working in the Middle East, mostly as maids and laborers. About 70 percent of Filipino workers are legal. The other 30 percent are undocumented illegal workers.

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “They nurse the sick in California, drive fuel trucks in Iraq, sail cargo ships through the Panama Canal and cruise ships through the Gulf of Alaska. They pour sake for Japanese salarymen and raise the children of Saudi businessmen. They are the Philippines' most successful export: its workers. Three decades ago, seeking sources of hard currency and an outlet for a fast-growing population, then-President Ferdinand Marcos encouraged Filipinos to find jobs in other countries. Over time, the overseas worker has become a pillar of the economy. Every day, more than 3,100 leave the country. The current president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, calls them "the backbone of the new global workforce" and "our greatest export." Worldwide, these workers have earned a reputation for enterprise and hard work and being good-natured. They include some of the Philippines' most talented people, well educated and multilingual. Many Filipinos speak English. They are generally better educated than workers from countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Indonesia,” other sources of overseas labor. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2006]

Overseas Filipino workers (OFW) work abroad to escape crushing poverty and unemployment and a lack of opportunities at home. One sociologist described the Philippines as "a nation of gypsies" and many Filipino view the situation as an embarrassment. Keith Richburg wrote in the Washington Post , "Filipinos were considered the wealthiest and proudest of Asians; today, they recoil under their new reputation as the region's chief supplier of maids and nightclub singers." A political science professor told te Washington Post, “There is a collective guilt in our country that we cannot provide the work they need.”

One out of every three Filipino homes has a family member working overseas. If is not unusual for a child to live with an aunt in the Philippines because his mother works as a gas station cashier in Los Angeles and his father works as construction worker in the Middle East. Filipinos have a long tradition of working overseas. The trend became established in the 1970s, ebbed in the 1980s and picked up after the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s.

Reporting from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration office in Manila, Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post, “By 8 a.m. every weekday, hundreds of people line up to register for jobs abroad. The government estimates that 2,500 Filipinos leave the country every day for work overseas, and about 10 million are estimated to be working abroad. There is no greater testament to the failure of Philippine democracy to provide for its people. In a country of 85 million, nearly 17 percent of all families now experience hunger, according to a recent survey by the Social Weather Station, a polling group. "It's very hard to find work here. If you stay, you feel hungry," said Ronald Almerol, 32, a machine operator who had been waiting in line for more three hours to register for work in South Korea. "In this political crisis, the politicians don't want to stop fighting each other and find time to think about what they can do for the Philippine people." [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, February 25, 2006]

History of Overseas Workers in the Philippines

Overseas migration absorbed a significant amount of Philippine labor. From the late 1940s through the 1970s, migrants were largely Filipino members of the United States armed services, professionals, and relatives of those who had previously migrated. After liberalization of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act in October 1965, the number of United States immigrant visas issued to Filipinos increased dramatically from approximately 2,500 in 1965 to more than 25,000 in 1970. Most of those emigrating were professionals and their families. By 1990 Filipino-Americans numbered 1.4 million, making them the largest Asian community in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the 1970s and 1980s, quite a different flow of migration developed: most emigrants were workers engaged in contract work in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. Although some were professionals, the majority were production, construction, and transport and equipment workers or operators, as well as service workers. An increasing number also were merchant seamen. Inasmuch as wages paid for overseas contract work have been a multiple of what Filipinos could earn at home, such employment opportunities have been in great demand. Government statistics show that overseas placements of land-based workers increased from 12,500 in 1975 to 385,000 in 1988, a growth rate of about 30 percent per annum. The number of seamen also increased, from 23,500 in 1975, to almost 86,000 in 1988. The average stay abroad was 3.1 years for land-based workers and 6.3 years for seamen. *

Floyd Whaley wrote in New York Times, “The Philippine government began helping workers go abroad as a stopgap measure to address high unemployment in the 1970s. Today, it continues to say that the phenomenon is a temporary one. “We are not promoting overseas employment. We are managing it,” Mrs. Paragua said. “It would be best if workers could just stay here and earn a good salary.”” [Source: Floyd Whaley, New York Times, January 31, 2013]

Profiles and Numbers of of Filipino Overseas Workers

According to government figures, more than 10.4 million Filipinos live and work overseas, taking jobs ranging from low-skill domestic work in the Middle East and Hong Kong to jobs as emergency-room nurses in Canada and Europe. Most Filipinos who go overseas for work are sent to Middle Eastern countries, often laboring in difficult and dangerous conditions in order to send money to their families in the Philippines. [Source: Floyd Whaley, New York Times, June 24, 2013]

Marjorie Pajaron of Stanford University said: “ In 2008, OFWs numbered 2 million—representing 2 percent of the country’s total population. Fifty-one percent of these migrants were male, and 49 percent were female. Twenty percent went to Saudi Arabia; 14 percent to the Arab Emirates, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Qatar, and Taiwan; 9 percent to Europe; and 8 percent to North and South America. Where OFWs work depends on gender, education, and the type of employment. Many men go to the Middle East for construction-, mining-, and oil-related jobs. Women tend to go to Southeast and East Asia for caretaking and domestic jobs. In North America, most Filipino migrants work in professional jobs, including as nurses, doctors, and as other types of healthcare workers.” [Source: Marjorie Pajaron, the current Asia Health Policy Postdoctoral Fellow in Developing Asia, at Stanford; Sarah L. Bhatia, Shorenstein APARC, FSI Stanford, April 15, 2013 ^]

On the “typical” profile of an Overseas Filipino Worker, Pajaron said: “It often depends on the type of job. Healthcare professionals, for example, tend to be younger because they go abroad directly after graduation. Most of the nursing schools in the Philippines are linked to hospitals in the United States or Europe. In general, overseas workers range from recent graduates to the median working age, from approximately 20 to 45 years old. Because of the large fixed cost associated with temporary overseas employment, families that are better off or who have the means to raise funds are those that are able to send family members abroad. ^

“Most OFWs come from Manila or the surrounding urban areas. In the study I conducted, only 17 percent of rural households could afford to send a family member abroad. Usually several village families will pool together their resources, with the informal agreement that they will be repaid. On average, male migrant remittances equal twice the amount sent by female migrants, who more frequently work in unskilled positions. For example, a well-educated man working in the Middle East in the construction and transportation industries earns higher than a woman working in a domestic position in Singapore. Some OFWs are overqualified in terms of education, but because of economic opportunity they decide to work abroad.” ^

Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East

Iris C. Gonzales wrote in the New Internationalist, “I woke up to a rising sun in Doha, Qatar, and was led to the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel where I was billeted, when I saw them. They opened the doors of the black car that took me from the airport to the hotel’s main entrance. ‘Kabayan,’ they greeted me, the Filipino word for fellow countrymen and women. It brought me comfort to find a fellow Filipino in a Middle Eastern country I was visiting for the first time. Later in the day, when I went to the city to exchange some dollars for local currency, I saw more Filipinos, my beloved Kabayans. [Source: Iris C. Gonzales, New Internationalist, April 25, 2013]

“They were everywhere, sweating in the scorching desert heat, toiling a living for their loved ones at home. I saw them behind the wheels of the hotel’s shiny black Audis, behind bank counters, inside exhibition halls of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, inside the hotel’s luxurious spa and in the hotel’s lobby lounge. Two hours from Doha, in the industrial city of Ras Laffan, I boarded a hulking black LNG tanker and saw them staffing the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the ship’s crew.” [Ibid]

Floyd Whaley wrote in New York Times, “The Middle East draws the largest number of workers from the Philippines, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as the top two destinations. But there is no guarantee of what awaits employees at any destination. “We experience a lot of problems with domestic workers going overseas, particularly to the Middle East,” Mrs. Paragua said. “They are vulnerable to exploitation.” [Source: Floyd Whaley, New York Times, January 31, 2013]

About 1.2 million Filipinos work in Saudi Arabia, including skilled labourers, nurses and maids. Because of problems of abuse the Philippines has established rules on the treatment of their overseas workers in the Gulf States and elsewhere in the Middle East. Because of security concerns The Philippines has barred deployment of workers to some Middle East countries, including Lebanon and Syria.

Reasons Why Filipinos Work Overseas

According to rmniloilo.net: “There are many reasons Filipinos work abroad. Whether it’s their first choice or just forced to do so. Leaving the country means detachment from family members and being contented with long distance calls, SMS or instant messaging conversations. It also means depriving oneself of guiding children and watch them grow. Missing favorite TV shows, going to family hangouts on weekends and many other things are sacrificed in exchanges of life abroad.” Then why do they do it. [Source: rmniloilo.net, March 30, 2011 ]

1) Unstable economic situation: There is a longstanding lack of confidence in the government’s effort to secure a better future for its citizens may have driven many Filipinos to seek employment overseas. Corruption, gross inefficiency in government functions, relatively high tax rate, and no sound fiscal policy has put a damper on hopes of an ambitious Filipino, who now thinks the grass is greener elsewhere but home. 2) High unemployment rate: Perennial high unemployment rate has been a chronic problem in a country that produces almost a million college graduates on courses that are deemed popular but whose demand is on decline. Fresh graduates join the labor force, thereby increasing the competition for jobs available.

3) Low salary offered by local companies: The single biggest reason why Filipinos are willing to go abroad for work is the generally low salary offered by employers in the Philippines. Even jobs that are sought after and in demand in certain parts of the world like nurses, engineers and teachers are paid poorly. No wonder many would prefer to work abroad as domestic helpers or office clerks and leave their teaching jobs because they’ll get paid higher overseas. 4) Contractual employment arrangement: The high unemployment rate in the country brings due advantage to employers who simply hire people on contractual basis. From mall sales ladies to fast food servers, the practice is widespread in the country. This brings a great deal of job insecurity for those who are employed under such conditions. Filipinos inherently don’t mind receiving basic salary, as long as there is security of tenure. However, such type of work arrangement is hard to find for many sectors, knowing that the supply of workers always outstrip the demand for their services.

5) Poor benefits: Local employers prefer to contractual employees because it is easier to let go of them and — a labor loophole in the country — no health benefits and accident insurance coverage necessary. High unemployment rate ensures a steady flow of applicants, no matter how lame the job offer is. Such unfair situation keeps employers happy almost all the time. 6) OFWs are now more pampered: Believe it or not, OFWs are now covered by better protection, offered advantages (hotel offers only valid to OFWs, special lanes for overseas workers at airport and discounted health insurance premiums to name a few) in addition to being heralded as the nation’s new breed of heroes. Heroes in the coffers of the country, pumping in billions worth of remittance dollars.

7) It’s not so lonely to go abroad anymore: Before, going overseas is like sentencing oneself into exile into a hostile land. No friends around, will need to deal with unfamiliar language, weather and food. But now times have changed, many overseas Filipino communities have mushroomed all over the world: Tokyo, Barcelona, Sydney, Dubai, Singapore, New York and more. Cultural programs, tours of Filipino entertainers have brought the overseas Filipino workers closer to home. Not to mention the cheaper long distance rates and availability of the web to communicate with loved ones.

8) Discrimination in job hiring: This is a sad fact that local job applicants have to deal with. Again this has something to do with the glut of available workers willing to get paid lower salaries and not enjoy benefits and paid holidays. Employers tend to pick the “best” candidates but they’re not necessarily the most qualified for the jobs. They are usually those aged between 21 and 30, graduates of schools like University of the Philippines or Ateneo de Manila, and are at least five foot tall for women, even if the job nature don’t require them. The process leaves qualified but overage applicants in the dark and decide to go… abroad.

Money and Overseas Filipino Workers

Of course there is the money, and even policies by the Philippine government that encourage Filipinos to work overseas. Teachers and nurses can make $25,000 to $45,000 in the U.S. doing work that pays about $3,600 a year in the Philippines, according to professional associations. Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ A cook on a cargo ship can make more than the Philippine president’s official salary of $1,000 a month. A bar singer in Japan can earn more than a Philippine senator. Those who bring or send their earnings home pay no income taxes. And the government offers returning workers low-cost equipment and tools to help them start small businesses. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2006 ~~]

Floyd Whaley wrote in New York Times, “A person with a relatively basic education who comes from a rural area in the Philippines can earn the equivalent of about $400 a month, plus room and board, working overseas as a domestic helper. That amounts to a comfortable income in the Philippines that could put several children through private schooling in a rural part of the country.” [Source: Floyd Whaley, New York Times, January 31, 2013]

Scarce Jobs at Home and Strong Demand for Overseas Filipino Workers

Floyd Whaley wrote in New York Times, “The movement of workers from the Philippines is not driven merely by unemployment in the country, however, and thus by a large supply of applicants. “There is a strong demand for Filipino workers,” Mrs. Paragua said. Employees from the country generally have a good command of English and a comparatively high level of education, and they have a reputation for maintaining good work relationships with their employers.” [Source: Floyd Whaley, New York Times, January 31, 2013]

Christine Ong of Channel News Asia wrote: “Eloisa Salvador, a 30-year-old single mother, will soon leave the Philippines to work as a domestic helper in Qatar. She said that if she had a choice, she would rather work in the country instead of leaving her three children behind. But after being jobless for eight months, Ms Salvador decided to try her luck abroad. She will earn about US$200 a month in Qatar, which is below the average monthly wage in the Philippines – but to Ms Salvador, at least, it is still a job. “As a single parent, I need to earn money to support my three children plus my parents, because I am the eldest in the family. “It's very hard to find any job here. I am competing with fresh graduates and I don't stand a chance because I did not finish school,” said Ms Salvador. [Source: Christine Ong, Channel News Asia, May 21, 2014]

Despite the country's high economic growth, more and more Filipinos are still finding it hard to find local jobs. That is why thousands of Filipinos are lining up just to apply for jobs abroad at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. The Philippine economy grew at a better-than-expected 7.2 per cent in 2013, yet the unemployment rate, at 7.3 per cent, remains the highest in Southeast Asia. Kelly Bird, principal economist at the Asian Development Bank, said: “Given its young population, with some 45 per cent of the population under the age of 24, the jobs that are being created are simply not enough to absorb the large number of job seekers each year. [Ibid]

Pia Gutierrez of ABS-CBN News wrote: “Almost immediately after coming home from the United Arab Emirates, OFW Rey Salarda is already applying for another job abroad. Based on information from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the most in-demand jobs abroad are still domestic helpers, production workers, nurses, waiters and bartenders, cleaners, laborers, service workers, wiremen, plumbers and pipe fitters, welders and flame cutters. "There are now more skilled categories for OFWs." Liberty Casco, POEA deputy administrator, said. The Middle East and the rest of Asia are still the biggest markets for OFWs, with Saudi Arabia still the top destination. [Source: Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News, January 23, 2014]

“The demand is so big that even some recruitment agencies have a hard time complying with job orders because of the shortage of applicants. "Most of them sa construction, talaga ang kailangan, tapos maintenance workers," Azizzah Salim, president of Azizzah International Manpower Services, said. Aside from Saudi Arabia, Filipino workers are also in demand in the following countries: United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar, Kuwait, Taiwan, Malaysia, Bahrain and Italy. But with the big demand for Filipino workers, the POEA warned applicants to be careful in dealing with potential employers and recruitment agencies. The POEA also advised applicants to verify whether the job order is legitimate and that recruiters are registered with government. [Ibid]

Filipino Overseas Workers Business

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Providing sailors, maids, entertainers and other workers for a growing world market is a big business. An entire bureaucracy has been created around them. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration helps find jobs in other countries, encourages workers to go abroad and processes some job applications. The Technical Education and Skills Development Agency offers free training in welding, driving heavy trucks and other skills. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration stations diplomats around the world to look after the Philippines' foreign workers. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2006 ~~]

An industry has developed to match workers and jobs. There are more than 1,500 licensed recruiting agencies. Some provide training — six months for dancers, four months for seafarers, two weeks for housekeepers — in return for a cut of the worker's earnings. he fees can run into the thousands of dollars; the better the job, the greater the cost. ~~

Dozens of agencies in Manila's Ermita district attract job seekers from all over the country. Applicants line up on the streets, luggage in hand, ready to go anywhere. Notaries sit at small wooden desks on the sidewalk. Using manual typewriters, they help workers fill out the 14 documents they are required to submit. Large copy machines on the sidewalk crank out duplicates. Laboratories conduct blood, tuberculosis and drug tests to certify the workers' health. Nearby are cellphone shops, money changers, cheap hotels and restaurants.

Many Arab countries, with their vast oil wealth and relatively small populations, are hungry for workers. The CDK International Manpower Services posted notices in its window seeking domestic workers and midwives in the Middle East, a gift wrapper in Dubai and a "magician balloon decorator" elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates. The agency was also recruiting workers for Burger King and Starbucks outlets in the Middle East. ("Must have fashion for coffee," the ad for Starbucks said.) Another company operating in the Middle East wanted diesel mechanics, flower arrangers, structural engineers, wedding card designers, massage therapists, website designers, accountants and nannies.

Philippines Government and Overseas Workers

In 1982 the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration was established in the Ministry of Labor and Employment. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration consolidated responsibility for regulating overseas land-based workers and seamen, supervising recruitment, as well as adjudicating complaints and conflicts. The agency also was tasked with promoting employment opportunities abroad for Filipinos. Overseas employment created two benefits for the economy: jobs and foreign exchange. The total number of placements abroad from 1980 through 1988, 3.2 million, was about one-half the growth in the country's labor supply during that period. Remittances through the banking system for the period 1983 to 1988 totaled approximately US$4.6 billion, an amount equal to 14 percent of merchandise exports during the same period. The Central Bank estimated that remittances passing through "informal channels" might be as much as twice the documented figure. If so, export of labor would be the largest single earner of foreign exchange. [Source: Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The government provides assistance for overseas workers. Brochures offered by the government Overseas Workers Welfare Administration advise potential workers that in Singapore "good behavior means it: the maid...will not become pregnant." In Korea "employers are regarded as generally rude considering their strong voices and harsh ways. However, Filipinos...should not take this personally." On Saudi Arabia: "If you think you are embarking for paradise, forget it." On Hong Kong: "OWWA advises [the worker] to...discard the 'Filipino time' mentality or face consequences." [Source: National Geographic, October 1998]

In 2004, people who work outside the Philippines were allowed for the first time to vote in Philippines national elections. Candidates went abroad, Arroyo went to Hong Kong.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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