Pwersang Balikbayan: The State of Overseas Filipino Workers amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Razel Suansing | razel.suansing@yale.edu

HK Victoria Park Filipino Migrant Workers. July 4, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

As the pandemic ushered in lockdowns across the globe, Haifa found herself jobless amid an unknown country with no relatives or acquaintances by her side. She worked as a domestic helper in Oman for three years when her contract expired during the pandemic. With few job prospects, she decided to come home to Shariff Saydona, Maguindanao.


What waited were not the usual “Welcome Home” banners and cheery loved ones, but men in military uniform guiding her across the airport. She joined the lines and lines of Overseas Filipino Workers, waiting for their quarantine hotel designation and mandatory COVID-19 test. After she finished her 14-day quarantine in Manila, she booked a flight home, where she underwent another 14-day quarantine.


She was not prepared for the stigma she faced.


“When I arrived, no one wanted to talk to me,” Haifa told Oxfam Philippines. “I even heard someone say, ‘There’s an OFW there! Don’t go near that house!’ I felt hurt because people were talking negatively about me and my circumstances.”


While in quarantine, she felt continued isolation as her family was unable to see her during the 18 days.


Haifa’s circumstances are all too familiar to the Overseas Filipino Workers, who arrived during the pandemic.


Known as the country’s economic tanks, the OFWs contribute much to the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product due to remittances. Many lost their jobs amid the pandemic. A 2021 Senate Report found that from 2019 to 2020, total OFW deployment dropped from 2.2 million to 549,800, contracting by 74.5 percent. Over 80 percent of the affected OFWs opted to come home; about 49,700 are awaiting repatriation.


OFWs faced less than a hero’s welcome as they faced stigma, perilous returns, and an uncertain future amid the pandemic.


“Balik Probinsya” (Back to the Province)


After completing their quarantine, OFWs flew back to their home provinces through the government’s “Balik Probinsya” program. Under two “Bayanihan,” or COVID emergency response laws, they received cash, free COVID-19 testing, accommodation, food, and transportation. Almost a million returning OFWs had RT-PCR tests and 580,100 were successfully sent back to their homes.


The OFWs lamented, however, that the one-time cash assistance through “Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong or Help is Within Reach” or AKAP program of 200 dollars was barely enough to cover the cost of RT-PCR tests and accommodations during quarantine.


Some were not able to come home and made up of almost half 250,000 locally stranded individuals in the capital within sports stadiums. These LSIs would crowd without the stadiums because of the little available space, making the conditions prime for COVID transmission. Local Government Units stated that many of the COVID cases in their provinces are from repatriated LSIs. These local government units would need to find money within their coffers to create isolation centers.


Those who were able to return home right away had little means of surviving economically. Out of the millions of OFWs that arrived in the Philippines, the government approved only 600,000 requests for assistance. GMA News reported that some had become so desperate that they resorted to selling their blood and donating their organs.


Even amid these circumstances, many OFWs remain steadfast in their goal to find jobs after pandemic recovery.


Weakening recruitment

In an interview for this article, Leading migration expert Emmanuel Geslani predicts that OFW deployment will not recover until 2022; he further predicts that OFW remittances are only expected to grow by around two percent in the next two years. Geslani attributed the slow recovery to the steady return to normalcy of economies within the Middle East and Europe, prime locations for OFW deployment. Geslani added that the travel restrictions imposed by several countries in the Middle East, where the Philippines deploys 70 percent of its OFWs per year contribute to the grim outlook.

According to Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Chairman Bernard Olalia, the overseas recruitment industry has virtually collapsed from 800 land-based agencies and around 300 sea-based manning agencies to less than 100 agencies. Geslani added that the most severely affected sector is household service, which makes up 60 percent of the country’s yearly deployment.

Geslani noted that recruitment agencies are facing problems because of the POEA policies on Saudi Arabia. The policy issued in October 2020 suspended the accreditation of “new” principals or employers, the renewal of foreign principal accreditation, and the application of job orders from mega recruitment agencies. An additional memorandum released in May 27 suspended the deployment of OFWs to Saudi Arabia.

“The department received reports that departing OFWs are being required by their employers/foreign recruitment agencies to shoulder the costs of the health and safety protocol for COVID-19 and insurance coverage premium upon their entry in the Kingdom," Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said.

In a May 28 briefing, Olalia said that the department wanted to prevent OFWs from “bearing the brunt” of the requirement amid the pandemic.

The policies on Saudi Arabia have dismayed OFWs and recruitment agencies because of the loss of job prospects in the Philippines’ largest labor market.

Geslani said that overall OFW deployment has decreased because the POEA is working with a skeletal workforce. The 5000 Filipinos leaving the country every day in 2019 have now lowered to 2000. Geslani added that he is not optimistic the government will reach its target of 500,000 OFWs deployed.

Geslani also added that a great proportion of OFWs are seafarers or work in the cruise industry.

“Many of our OFWs are actually seafarers, and a huge part of seafarers work in luxury, or those in the same type of ships. And I don't think that kind of industry will take over anytime soon,” Justin Muyot, a senior lecturer at the University of Philippines, said

Muyot added that since shipping and logistics are essential services, seafarers in those industries can expect to get employed.

The demand for Filipino nurses

Internationale Nederlanden Groep Senior Economist Nicolas Mapa added that amid the pandemic, healthcare workers have seen an increase in demand.

Early in the pandemic, the Philippine government imposed a nursing cap of 5000 for OFW deployment because the government stated that the Philippines was experiencing a nursing shortage. Now that the cap has been lifted, Mapa stated in his interview for this article that the nursing profession can become a reliable source of remittances.

He predicted that the government may try to leverage the nursing demand for increased opportunity for other professions.

“If they have to deal with that in Japan, I do know, we have a new signing deal with them. for caregivers, nurses in the like, maybe they leverage as they need, you know, could you give us a little more leeway on slots for professionals as for engineers with like, maybe that's something they try to, you know, utilize in the next few years?” Mapa said.

Mapa recognized that though the mirage of overseas nursing has faded in the past 10 to 15 years, nursing still continues to be a profession OFWs go into.

“Now people realize that it's still a very good profession to get into,” Mapa said. “And once again, this is all private-sector driven. This is all households just deciding this is the way to go with income, and [they] fill up in that sector.”

Filipino Workers Clear Volcanic Ash from a Drainage Ditch in Anticipation of the Upcoming Rainy Season. The Ash Was Deposited during the Eruption of Mount Pinatubo. U.S. National Archives & DVIDS Public Domain Archive. Accessed September 13, 2021.


Lessening reliance on remittances?

Muyot said that even prior to the pandemic, the Philippines was becoming less reliant on remittances as a source of economic growth.

“In the first part of this millennium, so early 2000s, it was growing at a higher rate, and I say in the last 10 years, the growth has slowed down because it's become almost 30 billion a year, when in the early 2000s, it started out around 10 billion a year,” said Muyot.

Muyot said that though he expects remittances to continually grow, it is uncertain of the range in which it will grow.

“My question is if it will be a growth of around four to five percent, which is what we saw in the last decade?” Muyot said. “Or will it be slower? Two to three percent, or even one to two percent? Because of the pandemic, but in general, I think it will probably grow around that range for the next decade.”

Though remittances will remain a crucial element of the Philippine economic recovery, the precarious public health situation around the world and the weak OFW deployment show that the government must rely on other sectors to boost its economy. Most importantly, the government must address the woes of current OFWs to urge future economic tanks from taking the task on in the post-pandemic world.


Writer’s Reflection:

I wanted to write this article to shed light on the plight of OFWs, the unsung heroes of the country. I wanted to shed light on the human rights violations they faced during the pandemic and how we as a country should improve in our response. It was difficult to find OFW primary sources but I was lucky to find experts, who were willing to talk to me.