Back to the beginning. I first got to know about the Philippines as I was travelling in other countries and met a number of Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs). Over time I often helped some with English, form filling etc., and heard more about their lives, loves, and hardships, and was never once asked for money!!
It was the spirit and character of the OFWs which made me curious about going to the Philippines, and maybe personally to have a less stressful life there, whilst still making a contribution. Mmmm. But thats another story.
The OFWs I met were remarkable, whichever country I happened to be in. Hard working, polite, high morals, keen to learn, sacrificing so much to help their family, always with a smile on their faces, certainly able to find fun in simple pleasures, and very supportive of their fellow OFWs.
Their day off – usually Sunday, (and not everybody got a day off), consisted of church, internet cafes to Skype home, sending most of what they earnt back to the Philippines via money transfer, picnic with the other OFWs in a favoured spot – sometimes not the best spot in town! – and maybe some walking or window shopping, before heading back to their employer by dusk.
To me a rare combination in any nationality of generosity and warmth despite personal pressures. Putting other people first. I felt truly humbled, and maybe a little ashamed at my own good fortune. Time to give back.
But, there was also a dark side, which cannot be completely glossed over, much as many only enjoy ‘good news’, and which was much more prevalent in some countries than others. Maybe it is not for me to recount some of stories I heard, and was privy to, but simply to say that a group who are the economic backbone and cash cow of the country deserve more respect, attention and particularly support. They are also clearly the country’s best ambassadors, but sadly their spirit and attitude is not always so apparent in certain areas and categories within their homeland. I think i am starting to understand where and who.
They account for about 14% of the Philippines’ GDP and this may be rising, but any mention of OFWs in speeches proclaiming the sudden economic miracle? The miracle is that there are people who will leave their families, even their children, pay ‘fixers’ an exorbitant fee, go to a strange culture, hand over their passports (illegal), sign contracts requiring them to put in up to 100 working hours a week (I hope that has changed but nobody can confirm it), live largely in isolation (especially if your phone is taken), and sometimes not even get paid. No wonder some just leave the house and go ‘illegal’.
Many who went as a housemaid – again depending on the country – found their job to be quite different upon arrival – cheap labour picking fruit all day in the baking sun, acting as cheap live-in nurse to elderly men, and sometimes worse. And, of course there are many OFWs who are treated much better, but any OFWs treated badly is wrong, (and we are not talking about just one or two cases). If a country cannot treat OFWs with decency, then is it worth visiting?
I am sure many also read about the recent trafficking and abuse cases in the paper. The added abomination is that it was Filipino officials carrying out the trafficking/abuse in many cases!! No doubt none of these officials have been sacked, just “re-assigned”. Well imagine what support any OFW would get if they suffer abuse – verbal, physical, sexual – from their employer, and would go to the embassy/consulate. Most I encountered said they wouldn’t even go to the Philippine embassy or consulate to report such incidents as it would only cause more problems. Others said even if they wanted help on simple matters they do not get it there, or no-one is available. I wonder if these Philippine foreign service offices are open Sundays or is that too obvious or sensible? As I said, too many suffer too much in silence, live in fear, but maintain their dignity and fortitude, and keep smiling. Remarkable.
I am sure a country experiencing 7%+ growth, thanks in a large part to OFW’s can find a little money to repay the country’s best asset (President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino’s one trillion peso pork barrel fund comes to mind), and a start might be a full quality improvement review to identify the problem areas, but with complete honesty!
No one likes bad news or change, but the pain goes before the pleasure. I can identify a number of simple, practical, cost effective solutions, but there must be many experts in the bureaucracy who are paid to do just that. Maybe they should employ ex OFWs if they do not already do so.
With a seeming push by the government for more people to work abroad, particularly higher earners, and I thought the objective was to ‘bring people home’, then maybe it is high time for a review of the whole process. The government finance managers should be thanking them on bent knees. OFW remittances are making them look almost mediocre.
To OFWs: Respect and Best Wishes.