Why the Philippines’ Biggest Export is People

Philippines, expats, overseas foreign workers, OFWs, Middle East, remittances, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, corruption, Leon Kaye
Working at a mall kiosk is a common job for Filipinos in the UAE.

Visit a park in Hong Kong on a Sunday, and you may very well see it teeming with Filipino domestic workers enjoying their one day off. Stroll through a mall in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Kuwait and those staffing the retail stores are very likely to be Filipino. If you’ve got that high-powered job in New York City, have kids but want to “have a life,” a Filipino nanny can help you have it all.

It is estimated that more than 2.3 million Filipinos work abroad — and that is the official statistic. A recent article in The New Yorker estimates the number equates to a tenth of the Philippines’ population of almost 100 million people. Many work without the proper work visas, which makes them vulnerable to poor working conditions and human rights abuses.

The Philippines’ massive overseas workforce dates back to the 1970s. Then-president Ferdinand Marcos saw citizens’ migration to regions such as the Middle East as a way to cope with a stagnant economy, deal with restless young men who could otherwise stir up trouble and curb poverty through remittances. Even after Marcos was eventually exiled as democracy was entrenched in the Philippines, the domestic economy only marginally improved. Even today, the World Bank estimates that personal remittances are approximately 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP. And migration from the Philippines only increases year to year.

Meanwhile, graft in all sectors has discouraged many Filipinos of all ages, who have long weathered the antics and corruption trials of politicians including former president Joseph Estrada; he in turn was succeeded by Gloria Arroyo, who left citizens even more jaded. It was Arroyo who over 15 years ago bragged about the efforts of OFWs, or overseas foreign workers. “They are the backbone of the global workforce,” she once said, and “are our greatest export.”

Lawmakers in the capital city of Manila say they are striving to improve conditions in the Philippines so expatriates will feel as if they can come home, but such policies are window dressing at best. Attempts to ensure OFWs are treated fairly and with dignity while abroad are not much more than public-relations ploys. For many Filipinos in the Middle East whose job security is affected by low oil prices, angst has become a daily distraction.

Filipinos are indeed the backbone of the United Arab Emirates’ service economy. Restaurants and retail workers, from McDonald’s to Nando’s to H&M and Marks and Spencer, are among the reasons why expats in Abu Dhabi and Dubai have no incentive to learn any Arabic. Emiratis are practically guaranteed employment by the government, but even if they struggle to find a job, no local will be seen working in the service sector.

Many of the Filipino workers in this sector have a college education, but have chosen, or feel compelled, to work at the UAE’s office parks, resorts, hotels and gigantic malls because they cannot get by working at home. Others are medical professionals at hospitals or work in professional service firms. Those who do not have the educational credentials are often live-in maids.

Whether they are architects, graphic designers or nannies, the hours for many Filipinos are long, and days often seem endless thanks to the long commutes from home to job. Many Filipinos in Abu Dhabi are relegated to living in Mussaffah, an industrial town southwest of the city center. Those who want some semblance of city life will crowd into an apartment in downtown Abu Dhabi, where rents are higher but there are more options, so that they can feel less isolated and part of the Emirates’ local scene.

And life as an expat worker in the UAE is hardly idyllic. Local press reports, as well as studies done by international NGOs, have detailed abuses suffered by Filipino workers, especially those working as domestics. A neighbor of friends with whom I used to stay in Dubai employed two sisters as domestics. As the family liked to have parties on weekends, which extended into the wee hours of the morning, the young women’s days often started early in the morning and lasted until 3 a.m. the next day. Meanwhile they shared the “maid’s room,” which was really not much bigger than a walk-in closet. Their employer, an Iranian national, sniffed at the idea that they were entitled by UAE law to have annual leave. “Why do they need to go home for a month to see their family?” he asked my friends incredulously one day.

So, why do Filipinos go to the UAE, Hong Kong or New York, often spending a lifetime away from loved ones? An employee at the hotel I lived in last year, who has since moved on to work at a resort in Dubai, explained to me in an email (he asked that I not use his name):

“We love our country and wish we could be there to be closer to friends and family. But even though there is some improvement in the economy, it is just too difficult to make a living there. Here [UAE] is not perfect, but I can save some money, help my parents out when they need it, and stay out of trouble. And let’s just face the facts — many of us have family here as so many of have left. With my sister and mom here, this feels like home, even though it’s 50 degrees here in the summer!”

That pretty much sums up the sad state of affairs in the Philippines, which has gone from one of the richest Asian countries in the mid-20th century to one of the poorest today.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

11 responses

  1. Leon,

    Since when did you in the media have become family oriented? Away from the family is a way to celebrate for your types, that is if you have real ones. Don’t you preach things that are anti-family? Besides, your report of Philippine labor export are confined to only domestic help where there are Filipino teachers, nurses, doctors, therapists, computer specialists, engineers who are much needed in other countries and are at work there. Your unbalanced report is just another way to disparage the much sought-after Filipino workers who are the envy of other countries whose citizens are less preferred.

    With a much higher Product Parchasing Parity in their country, many of these workers go home to open their own business, invest or buy houses after their short work abroad. Why is that possible? Because the Philippines do not have regulations on excessive pharmacy drugs, medical, required insurances to live lives and operate businesses other countries have. So eat your heart out, but weep for the labor needs of other countries instead whose population is on decline, and those who have extra labor but are not competitive with the more-qualified English speaking Filipinos. As the years pass and population deminishes, you will find Filipino labor will become more premium.

    1. Well put BatmanXYZ. Stateside, the Filipinos in the healthcare industry make a sizable impact, which by the way is growing exponentially, and not too much in terms of domestic help.

    2. Sir! I think maybe the author did not intentionally mean to insult the hardworking and long suffering Filipino people . I think that the intent of the article was to show that there are a lot of Filipinos (OFWs) that work overseas because of lack of oppurtunity in their very own country due to corruption and abuse of the the ruling elite abusing and ignoring the people below them. It reminds me of a feudal medieval society. Shame on the rulers and dynasties treating thier countrymen so poorly that they have to leave the country to work!

  2. Hi Leon,

    You are exactly right that Philippines biggest export is people and economy of the country is poor that is why people are migrating to make more money. You live in CA and there are many Filipinos there. Most of them are professionals and not domestic help. Have you check any of the Filipinos in CA and their living conditions.

    Maybe you just want to report bad living conditions of some of the Filipinos.

  3. I was stationed in the Philippines for 3 years while in the Air Force. I married a Filipina, and got to know my new brothers and sisters. Almost all of them worked overseas. They were nannies, construction workers, truck drivers, and other things, too.

    I call Filipinos the Irish of the 21st Century. In the 19th Century, due to the massive overpopulation of Ireland and the Famine, lots of Irish people emigrated, and not only to the US. They were cops, firemen, farmers, and politicians, yes, but they were also priests, nuns, teachers, and nurses–in other words, the educated ones.

    These days, Filipinos don’t need to emigrate; with air travel, you can work overseas and go home to see your family annually.

    It is a crying shame that all of these intelligent, hard-working people have to leave their county in order to make a living. The end product of a construction worker, like my brother Carling, is a building, or a road, or some other permanent improvement. That improvement should be in his home country, not some other country. A nanny’s end product is less definable, but just as important.

    1. For a very long time, the only foreign nationals to be hired in US Military outside United States are Filipinos. They started since 1902 until 1992 at the height of Mt. Pinatubo eruptions. Most of them joined the US Navy and few in US Coast Guard. The only job available to them are steward or we fondly called Table Navigator(TN). It was not until Adm. Zumwalt in the 70’s that they opened the other ratings to Pinoys. What do you know ,that one of them will have a son who became the skipper of USS Abraham Lincoln(CVN-72).

  4. Hey Leon,
    For your information . . .

    The Filipino-American community is largely middle and upper middle class; in 2014, eighteen percent of Filipino American households were in the top tenth of U.S. households in terms of income. By median household income, Filipinos rank as the third most rich ethnic group in the United States. The representation of Filipino Americans is high in health care. Other sectors of the economy where Filipino Americans have significant representation are in the public sector, and in the service sector. Compared to Asian American women in other ethnicities, and women in the United States in general, Filipina Americans are more likely to be part of the work force; a large population, nearly one fifth (18 percent), of Filipina Americans worked as registered nurses.


  5. Leon— Just like any other country we are a group of people who have various aspirations and reasons why we go abroad to live there or work there. It’s not purely economics or “wanting a better life”. Some Filipinos are just adventurous and just want to live somewhere. Some do just because they have the money to do it — so they do. Sure some go abroad to find better prospects for themselves or their families. Some become domestic helpers and we should applaud them for that. But they are in no way THE only representation of the Filipino expats. You call yourself a writer but obviously you did not do your due diligence and research before you made this shameless article. On the contrary you use your column to promote a negative stereotype of Filipino expats. FYI —Filipinos expats are Doctors, Scientists, Nurses, Dentists, Bankers, Engineers Entrepreneurs, DH, Nannies, IT experts, Caregivers, etc. And you find them everywhere in the world because Filipinos are good at whatever they do. Because we are good! But of course to promote your wrong premise, you zero in on the Domestic Helps and nannies in your sorry article. It is because of sorry excuse of writers like you that the Filipino image is so degraded in the world. You try to use the country’s corruption to justify your point. Sure the country is corrupt. But this is not 1 + 1 =2. You make everything so simplistic. But you know what I did not post here to educate you. Nuff said. Grrrr. F…..!!!!

  6. Regarding common and menial tasks, as a white American I will tell you what is very ‘common’, and that is the perception of many Americans forming conclusions by standing outside looking in and seeing only one dimension.

    Like most people living anywhere, there are those who have limited skills and education and those that are professionals as the result of opportunities. Most Filipinos I have known and understand hard work and also how to promote themselves. Many don’t just send money home, but make enough to bring their families here to live.

    I retired from a major aerospace corporation after 27 years, working beside many Filipinos who came to this country as small children and were working as engineers, programmers, managers, as well as blue collar mechanics, and technicians, etc. pretty much in the same proportion as the rest of us. Hard work is an expectation for the average Filipino, rewards or fair compensation are not.

    My wife is a Filipina. She came here just over 10 years ago and became part of the Clovis Unified School District. She teaches ESL and High School Continuation at the Adult School.
    Three years ago she was awarded Teacher of the Year for CUSD, the first time a TOY came out the Adult School. She was honored along with several other County teachers for their achievements by the Fresno County Office of Education. She also received a commendation from Governor Brown.

    Maybe what really needs a closer look is who is standing on street corners with signs that say ‘I need work’ and the homeless in general.

    A sad situation indeed. And in many cases these people have relatives only a few miles away, not 10,000.

  7. Hello Leon!
    The first and foremost reason why a majority of Filipinos are working overseas as Overseas Contract Workers’ is mainly because of “economics”. Just before the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine peso was approximately Php 20 = $1. After Marcos, the Philippine currency DEVALUED many times, so this resulted to less purchasing power for most Filipinos that the only option was to find a job overseas. Right now, the Philippine currency is hovering at Php 47 = $ 1. Moreover, despite several changes in administrations, the country’s population ballooned , but job prospects remained the same…….. even stagnant.
    Yes, the majority of our labor exports are employed as domestic helps, nannies, caregivers and some construction job for the men in countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, but there are also professionals, i.e. medical doctors, nurses, teachers, as well as engineers. Most of them earn more than twice their salaries back home and a lot of their earnings are remitted to send their children to good schools, build a house, save for their families future, etc.
    The Philippines’ has a lot of talented and skilled people, but there is a lot of corruption, the pace of justice is slow, etc. IF ONLY, the next administration would work harder for greater transparency and create equal opportunities for all, then perhaps the Philippines would no longer be labelled as under – developed.

  8. Hi Leon,
    I am one of more or less 3,000 Filipino teachers in Maryland. We had some struggles but many of us survived. These teachers are teachers with Masters and Doctorate degree. As a Master teacher in my field of special education , I initiate Team meetings, that composed of PT , OT and other services of different fields. I am proud of doing that job in behalf of you American people. Only few Americans would like to do the tedious and most complicated job that we do. Only few Americans are qualified to do the same job that we can. The medical and teaching field are only few of those tedious job that many Filipinos filled in for American people that don’t want or can’t handle. These jobs needs a lot of patience, compassion, kindness, hardwork and most of all just smile it off despite of.
    I did not come to America to just earn $$$ , we are highly educated Filipinos equipped with knowledge and skills back home, who have the option to look for greener pastures in another country. We also have a desire to help our country and our people. Since many countries needed our skills, then why not?
    Two years after I adapted to the American soil, I sponsored my two children. The two older ones applied for the US Army with a qualification of speaking our National Language which is Tagalog and our Vernacular language which is Visayan. We feel our importance here in America, they need us. I know our kababayans whatever job they are doing felt the same too. The world should be thankful for our people. All countries have highly educated and less educated people, but Filipinos however less educated , they can speak and comprehend English and mind you most of them have GMRC ( good manners and right conduct ). I’m proud to all of my kababayans who serve other people as well as they serve their families. So please Leon, don’t downgrade Filipinos, don’t just look on less fortunate people, instead, respect them and look on the brighter side. You as an American, be thankful for the smartest and highly educated Filipinos who are now citizens of America. We have doctors, nurses, special education teachers, teachers,engineers and men in service. You just hit the biggest Filipino pride with your blog ,our biggest and finest Philippine exports. Our beloved Kababayans.

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