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Why the Philippines’ Biggest Export is People

Words by Leon Kaye

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

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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