Overseas Foreign Workers: the economic backbone, and the heart of the true Filipino spirit

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.


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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.

34 Replies to “Overseas Foreign Workers: the economic backbone, and the heart of the true Filipino spirit”

  1. Unfortunately that isnt the case worldwide. Here in the ME (particularly KSA) our fellow kababayans betray and backstab each other in a struggle for “Alpha” fliptard supremacy. the friendliness is only a facade, with hipocrisy at its worst (i had no idea that it was this bad). oh and the racism! all those whispers that float around when a filipina marries a pakistani guy (for all we know it could be true love), or remarks of how stupid other nationalities are and not keep in mind that they do not have the blessing of having english as a secondary language almost by default.

  2. I feel the same way about OFWs accepting risky positions in countries with bad reputations as I do about Filipinos who move from the pleasant countryside to Manila slums. You’ll earn more (if you end up earning anything), but is it worth such a sacrifice?

    Clearly I’ve been too corrupted by an upbringing that expects a certain quality of life to ever understand the self-sacrificing OFW mindset. I do have respect for what OFWs can put up with, but when I heard that my girlfriend’s brother-in-law works in Saudi Arabia, that he isn’t getting paid any more by naughty employers, and that he can’t wriggle out of his contract until next year… I wonder what he expected.

  3. I am a second generation OFW. My father worked as a cook for merchant shipping company. My parents thought it would just be a temporary arrangement for them but it lasted for 23 years until he was “not employable” anymore due to his psoriasis that he was sent home before the end of his contract from his last assignment.

    Thinking of my father’s sacrifices makes my heart aches. I remember how awkward for us to deal with him his first few days home and how sad we were when it’s time for him to leave. I remember how strained his relationship with his family. How he felt less of a man unable to provide to his family when he cannot work as a seaman anymore. How he fought unsuccessfully for some unemployment/retirement benefit.

    I am luckier than my father. I am a professional working here in the US. I am able to practice my “actual” profession here. I am not underpaid nor underemployed. I know I will have pension when I retire or become disabled. However, I still have this feeling of uneasiness that somehow I do not belong here. I know I need to be thankful but there’s still this sadness that I cannot point out. Depression, I believe, has been a way of life for many of the OFW.

    My father eventually immigrated to the US. He died about 2 years ago. He was diagnosed with cancer which I believed he developed from working in the cargo ship. It was sad, his last days. He was in pain physically but the most difficult pain was emotional. He was detached from his family for quite a long time. He did not know how to deal with his children and even his wife. He stayed in his room for most of the time when he was home. I admitted that I felt a little sigh of relief when he died because his suffering was over but as the time went on, my grief has gotten stronger and not lesser. I yearned for my father. I wished I had more time to know this quiet but hardworking man. I thought more of his sacrifices
    for his family. If not for his sacrifice, I will never get to college. Whenever I see a face of an OFW, I see my father.

    I do not wish my childhood to anyone. Due to my father’s absence, we were exposed to neglect and abuse. My mother was overwhelmed taking care of 5 children by herself. The only salvation was education and the determination not to repeat your childhood experiences.

    In some ways, I reached my goal for myself but this sadness still persists especially when I hear sad stories of OFWs.

    1. The OFW is abused at home before they leave.The new ‘seminar’ that needs to have a stamp on the exit visa (seminar for 1/2 day and P400) is just one more and maybe last chance to pickpocket the leaving citizen by the corrupt as shit gov’t.. Then ,well, most know the horror stories.

      Get out while you can Filipino’s, go to North-western Europe.Nowary/Denmark/Sweeden/Switzerland/Finlandia. They have a sovereign wealth fund that is not full of I.O.U.’s like some other ‘1st’ world countries that are actually becoming more like 3rd world countries…no names!

      and do not look back, the country,trust, is not going anywhere unless it stinks, I mean sinks.it already stinks.

      Every time at NAIA and see the people behind what looks like a cage(chain-link fence) it seems that the OFW’s,abused as they usually are, are the lucky ones.How that they can actually be ‘lucky’ just screams out what needs to be done in the R.P..

    2. lorraine, ive been in the US since 1997 , im already an american citizen but i still feel that i am an expatriate. my experience as an OFW in kuwait allowed me to see the plight of our less fortunate kababayans. ive experience the indifference of embassy offials, i saw the appalling living condition of those runaway women at the philippine embassy transit house and i realised long ago that OFWs cannot simply rely on these government agencies for help. i even think that private individuals and NGOs are doing a better job than owwa, dfa poea. i created this group and page in FB. im not much of a writer, but my short term goal is to disseminate this concept of an institution that will represent the advocacy of OFWs.


  4. I consider myself, one of those Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) …I left the Philippines, because, I cannot find opportunities to earn a decent living for me and my family…I have also brothers and sisters to send to college…

    We are treated like Cash Cows, by the Aquino Administration. It is like a U.S. Southern State’s Slave Plantation Economy. We are living like those Hacienda Luisita Serfs of Aquino…you sweat…they pay you low…then, the Philippine government take its share of your pay…

    You get lousy service from any Philippine Foreign Embassy…

  5. glad to have found your website.i agree with all the observations that you mentioned. i am a former ofw that worked in the middle east that now resides in the US. i am planning to retire in the Philippines and planning to create an ngo and advocacy group for OFWs.
    good governance and fighting corruption is tied to the cause of OFWs,amd i believe that with social media and real time flow of information, ofws can organized themselves and be more capable of empowering themselves.

    1. Bravo.
      Thats the sort of initiative i wanted to help. ( funding and organising/set up)
      So much can be done for relatively little effort

      Focus on practical help, emotional support, future planning, legal advice, (not sure about financial advice – avoid money issues in philippines) local ofw for newly arrived ofw’s in a country for first 2/3 – telephone help if needed/ initial orientation/ introduction to fellow ofw’s. Free english or other languages – i and some of my friends did a sunday lunch party for 6-8 ofw’s once a month- it was fun. Easy to find people who will help through right contact group. Special interest groups. Cross-train ofw’s and prepare for philippines return. Types of courses. Ofw survey. Soo many more things!! Hence my frustration sometimes. Few takers on ideas. And often few ideas!

      Mind you i do not know what govt is/isn’t doing. Many they should do.

      Best wishes

      1. As a young girl, I was the victim of human trafficking. Today, I own an Information Technology business with a focus on mobile and social media technology. Along the way, I spent 20 years working as a domestic helper and nanny in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong and became involved in community service by founding the Mindanao Hong Kong Workers Federation.

        Today, my small BPO company has created a mobile and web based project to empower OFW to watch out for each other using social networking technologies. We have over 14,000 volunteers worldwide.

        I do not want to boast, but as a woman empowered with technology I am compelled to fight for the sisters I left behind. My message is we can not rely on anyone but ourselves. Here is a link to my story: http://myndconsulting.com/mynds-story/

        My advocacy: http://www.ofwwatch.com

        Please share it with other OFWs. We must help ourselves. No one else will.

        1. Wow.
          You inspire me too, and will check out the links.

          Sad that you say ” We must help ourselves. No one else will.” And i guess you really know.

          That is exactly what i was worried about/raising the question.

          Maybe sad also, that other filipinos, beyond ofw families, do not get angry , maybe they are unaware,(good news only), have their own problems, but i hope, not simply unconcerned.

          Well done.
          Best wishes.

        2. @Libertas regarding “we must help ourselves. No one else will.” That may have been too strong. There are people sincerely concerned about the OFW. You find them everywhere. But concern comes and goes. Their passion to help wanes or is replaced with the next good thing. The one group always concerned are the OFW themselves and their families. They have a self interested passion that will never die or wane.

          Even many working in the government are sincerely concerned, but year after year, issue after issue, day in and day out, the problems and the headaches wears even the most passionate down and, over time, jades them to the individual OFW story. They are simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

          The numbers are, in fact, overwhelming. Ten to twelve million OFWs and ex-pats scattered all over the world and only a hand full of government employees tasked with watching out for all of them. It is an impossible task.

          But we all know there is one place where overwhelming numbers is not the problem, but the solution. Twitter succeeds because of overwhelming numbers. Facebook succeeds because of overwhelming numbers.

          If we can learn lessons from social media, then maybe we can succeed too. So what my advocacy requires is for all of us to change our perspective about OFWs.

          First, acknowledge millions of OFWs are successful and making positive contributions to the communities we serve. We are not all helpless.

          Second, acknowledge that literally millions of us are technically savvy. We have mastered the use of mobile and social media technologies to communicate with family back home. In the Philippines alone, we estimate 4 to 5 million Facebook accounts are controlled by OFWs.

          As an OFW for 20 years I know most of us are the exact opposite of helpless. In another place and another time, even the Filipina that is mopping the world’s floors would have been one of the fiercest warriors of their tribe. Poverty forced has forced us to clean the world’s toilets. Not character.

          So my advocacy seeks to learn how to use mobile and social media technology to empower the strong OFW to watch over the weak and one day we may wake up in a world where Filipinos have taught the rest of the world migrant populations how to use technology to watch out for each other.

        3. V interesting
          lightbulb moment – i have an idea (s) – need more thought first, and will let you hear it in due course.

          Strange that i should help ofw’s and then gravitate towards the philippines, since my step-mother is filipina, although i don’t really know her that well. (so does that make philippines my ‘step-country’!,)

          Travel broadens the mind, but tests the emotions. Some just don’t understand that, ofw’s do. I relate, for many reasons.

          A feeling of isolation and frustration is experienced by too many ofw’s. Thankfully technology really can/does help in so many ways, and with innovative application/creative thinking, then much can be achieved, as you ably and practically demonstrate.

          Identify the problem, generate ideas, test options, solutions follow.

          Nice to be back on a positive track, and away from too much hypocricy, which always manages to ‘push my buttons’! Thank you.

          Bye for now.

  6. Thanks for the great article, Libertas.

    I just wish that the government recognizes the OFW’s importance in their scheme of things. But being an OFW for a long time now, I do not see that as every time I go back to work and leave the country, it appears that the Philippine government, wants to suck all the life out from the OFW, even to the point of stopping them from leaving. Granted, that the government might be doing their job, deploying illegal OFWs, hey…. who are they to prevent a person from travelling because his documents are somewhat “suspicious”. As if the government really knows what is good for that individual, who was just a victim of their incompetence and forced to seek employment abroad.

    In my mind, you just need a passport and a ticket and you should be able to go anywhere you wanted, but the Philippine government…. they would rather have you stay poor and stay dumb or you can go only after you go through their circus, shedding off a lot of your hard earned money along the way.

    1. joeld,

      I’m intrigued. What reasons would these government agency/-ies have for preventing you from fulfilling your contract? We make a big deal about how OFW remittances are the backbone of the real economy in the Philippines; preventing an OFW from working runs counter to that position. Are they just doing their job or what?

      1. JS

        There was this instance that an OFW was prevented from leaving as there was some “suspicious defects” on his passport, to me which was obviously because of wear and tear. Doing their job, probably. More sob stories from other OFWs make it seem that and OFW needs to thread a needle just to get out of the country to work. While the government should be the one making it easy for this OFWs for this. But no, they will treat OFWs as cows, literally.

        1. So — it’s just bureaucratic bullshit? Un-believable!

          Nothing worse than an inefficient, unimaginative drone in the bureaucracy with an autocratic streak.

        2. That would likely incur for that OFW another 1,200 Pesos for the expedited processing of a new passport plus an additional 400 Pesos to have it delivered if he can’t pick it up in person at the DFA or any of its satellite offices. That means the national government could possibly earn up to 1,600 Pesos per OFW they designate as having a ‘suspicious’ passport. Remember, this all done in order to get them out of the country, for the opportunity of working, in order to send back remittances to prop up the economy, in order to keep the government functioning.

        3. On the subject of bureaucratic bullshit, why do documents like birth certificates and degree certificates need to be ‘authenticated’ before people can apply for these jobs? (All for a fee, of course). Aren’t these documents official by nature, or just a waste of paper?

        4. Only in the Philippines… you need to have your certificates authenticated. Redundant and often useless procedures which are badly thought-off by incompetent people in the government. Instead of simplifying things, they would rather have lowly Juan go around in circles, losing money along the way, just to do things according to their procedures. Hence, to avoid such bureaucratic BS, Juan would rather have a “fixer” do it for him or much worse have some body on the inside pull some strings for them, which is often the case in almost all the government offices.

        1. This is precisely the kind of impropriety that makes Filipinos incensed when they deal with the Philippine government. The Office of Consular Affairs and Oberthur decide to save a little money in the short term and produce substandard travel documents. That in turn causes problems for Filipino travelers all around, not just OFWs. To top it all off, it’s the ordinary passport holder that’s made to bear the consequences and pay for this government’s shortcomings. It’s unconscionable.

    2. Thanks. Doubly appreciated as ofw.
      Cash cows, and potential rabbits with hutches for sale by well known developers!

  7. @ $20 Billion Annual Remittance

    Our government main Export commodity are OFW (modern day form of slavery),Philippines role will always be to supply cheap/quality labor to the world.

    Government always Export our Best People (OFW w/c are hard-working, productive, highly skilled & intellectual) which result to “Brain Drain”. And forever relied on their dollar remittances to fuel our economy. Those left behind (lazy & AMPAW) who are tasked or voted to lead our nation/organization and others are appointed to vital positions in the government.

    1. 20 billion $ = Nearly 1 trillion pesos – equivalent to ( but obviously not part of) circa 45% of national budget!? Will check my maths.

      That way makes it seem more staggering than just saying 14% of gdp especially since that is the only money guaranteed to go its intended beneficiary.

  8. You know what’s funny? Our government has the audacity to call them “heroes”, while treating them like nothing but mere commodity. But I guess that’s how the oligarchy regards the rest of the population – mere commodity. No wonder it was easy for the government to turn their backs on the Yolanda victims, and to snob the millions living under poverty line, without but a decent social welfare system. It’s all BS (Bull Shit!). With the growth the country is experiencing, thanks in large part to the OFWs, there isn’t a single major program geared toward their welfare (or am I just not aware of it?!).

  9. Strong, protective bilateral agreements are in order, considering the huge number of ‘heroes’ risking their lives in less than savory work destinations. And a strong economic and welfare system back home that will help ensure that their money goes a long way in improving their lives, and that of their family. Many an OFW returns from long years of insufferable hardships only to come home to the Philippines with nothing much to show for it. Financial tools should be provided to ensure that their earnings are sustainable in the long term.

  10. Why was your article titled “24 The Philippines a world traveler’s musings and ramblings – WTF (Where’s The Fun )” removed here.

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