Pain, regret and uncertainty: The Philippines’ ‘modern day heroes’ and the ones their deaths leave behind

Pain, regret and uncertainty: The Philippines’ ‘modern day heroes’ and the ones their deaths leave behind

Daniel Sugitan
Daniel Sugitan holds a potrait of his mother. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

ISABELA, The Philippines: After being told that his mother had died in a car accident in Singapore, Daniel Sugitan called out to her in his sleep that same night.

"We noticed he was crying: 'Mama! Mama!'," explained Daniel's father Dante, his arm wrapped around his youngest son. The 7-year-old was blissfully unaware of the conversation - the mobile phone he gripped seemed of more interest for now.

Daniel knows his mother has died, but it has not truly sunk in yet, explained Mr Sugitan.

Mdm Sugitan was killed in an accident slightly over two months ago, hit by a car outside a train station in Singapore on Dec 7.

"Every day at lunch time, Daniel would call his mother on the phone," Mr Sugitan explained. "He would want to speak to his mother. Sometimes her employers would join in the video call because they want to see our son."

For Mr Sugitan and his 17-year-old son Dante Junior, the pain is real, the grief is raw and the mind is restless.

Riding his motorcycle on the way home from a seminar, Mr Sugitan was informed of the news. 

"I just cried and cried until I reached home," he said. "The last time we talked was during lunch time on Thursday, I was so busy that Friday I couldn’t call her. And then she passed away on Saturday," said Mr Sugitan. 

"It was a regret that I couldn’t talk to her, there was no premonition or whatever. It was a shock."


The impact of loved ones suddenly losing their life while working abroad was thrown into the spotlight in December last year, when two Filipino maids were also killed in a car accident outside Lucky Plaza in Singapore. Four other Filipino foreign domestic workers were injured in the incident.

The funeral of one of the victims, Arlyn Nucos, was held on Jan 19.

According to a 2018 survey by the Philippine Statistics Authority, the number of overseas Filipino workers working abroad is estimated to be over two million.

The remittances of these workers help to strengthen the local economy and their salaries prove a vital lifeline for family members back in the Philippines.

READ: 'Now that she’s gone, it makes us worry for our future': Lucky Plaza accident victim Arlyn Nucos buried in hometown

Roy Seneres
Roy Seneres Junior is president of OFW Family Club. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"We call them our modern day heroes because of the remittances they contribute to the economy but at the same time ... they are also our economic warriors because they are fighting a war against poverty by virtue of their remittances," said the president of OFW Family Club Roy Seneres Junior.

A non-governmental organisation (NGO) which assists overseas Filipino workers, OFW Family Club was established in 2001 by Mr Seneres Jr's father, Roy Seneres Senior. 

"When you say economic warriors and fighting a war against poverty, what necessarily follows when you speak of war are casualties," Mr Seneres Jr explained to CNA. "I’ve seen family members ... at my office with tears flowing endlessly, their stories are very heavy.

"Our vision is to do our best to unite them under the umbrella of the organisation, with the end view of giving them a strong voice so that their pleas for help or grievances can be heard by those concerned," said Mr Seneres Jr.

"The core objective here is to extend them welfare assistance, or legal as the case may be. When we speak of welfare assistance, we intercede on their behalf."

This could mean bringing the cases of members to relevant authorities, reaching out to Filipino embassies abroad or even touching base with employers to repatriate the bodies of those who die during the course of work overseas.

"For us, it’s ... putting ourselves in a person’s shoes and doing what is needed, taking into account the circumstances of the bureaucracy, the red tape in the government and all," said Mr Seneres Jr.

READ: ‘I pray their souls will go to heaven’: One week after fatal Lucky Plaza accident, many come to pay respects


A bone-crunching 13 hour ride north from the buzzing metropolis of Manila sits the sleepy town of Aparri.

Hidden in the town is the barangay (district) of Paddaya - homes flanked by the blue of the Philippine Sea and the green of crops. 

Leste siblings
The Leste siblings hold a portrait of their mother Abigail. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"There’s work here but she needed money for us to finish school so she had to go abroad," 21-year-old Jackielyn Leste explained of her mother Abigail, one of the two victims in the Lucky Plaza accident.

Jackielyn was eight and her brother Jefrey was nine when their mother left for Singapore. She would try to return home every year, often bearing gifts such as chocolate.

"It’s harder for us to accept she died abroad, because if she died here, we would have witnessed it," Jackielyn explained.  "We would rather choose her to die out of sickness here and see her, than to die abroad because we don’t get to see her ... we only got the chance to only see her five days after so that’s very hard for us.

"We still haven’t accepted the fact that she died."

READ: Friends and family pay respects to mother-of-two who died in Lucky Plaza car crash

The trauma of losing a loved one abroad is something that families struggle with, explained Mr Seneres Jr.

"It’s difficult because for one, the untoward incident happens to the loved one while you are far away," he said. "Just rallying the government and the employer to expedite the shipment of the remains and then seeing them in the airport in a box  - that’s heavy, that's traumatising."

There's also the pain of not knowing.

Lani Dizon
Lani Dizon holds a folder containing files on her sister Marilyn's case. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Take Lani Dizon, whose sister Marilyn Restor never returned from Saudi Arabia, having worked there for over a decade.

Ms Restor was reportedly abducted in 2014 while working for members of a royal family. Her body turned up in a morgue a year later.

Left in limbo, Ms Dizon eventually received help from Migrante International, an NGO which empowers migrant workers and their families to understand as well as fight for their rights.

Said Ms Dizon: "If she died here, we would know what happened. When she died out there, they keep saying these things but there’s no proof. We don’t see anything so we don’t really know what happened to her."


The loss of a breadwinner also has financial repercussions for families. 

But government agencies such as the the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) aim to plug the gap.  It provides "death benefits" to its member overseas Filipino workers.

In the event of an "accidental cause", it distributes 200,000 pesos (S$5923) to beneficiaries, while in a case of "natural causes", 100,000 pesos is distributed.

There is also additional help provided such as burial benefits (20,000 pesos).

"Foremost, an overseas Filipino worker or a Filipino national desiring to work as an OFW (overseas filipino worker) before leaving the country is mandated by the law to be insured," added Mr Seneres Jr. "The insurance in summary covers untoward incidents like accidents and death.  

"Upon arriving on the country of destination, based on the government policy there, they are also required to accord their workers a coverage or protection, similar to what they are supposed to be covered here."

READ: Filipino community remembers victims of Lucky Plaza accident

Joanna Concepcion
Ms Joanna Concepcion stands outside the office of NGO Migrante International. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

But there are a number of loopholes, as Ms Joanna Concepcion, chairperson Migrante International pointed out.

There remains a large number of undocumented migrant workers, who go through unofficial means as they cannot afford to pay the fees required by recruitment agencies, she said.

"We fight for the rights of those who are undocumented which are also in millions - it’s not a small number. They are not in that record and they don’t go through official channels. 

"They are even more vulnerable given that they do not have that regular status." In addition, the official assistance received is often inadequate, said Ms Concepcion.

"Even if they access the full amount, I can say that the families will still fundraise," she said. "The problem doesn’t stop when the family member is buried. It’s after they are buried that more problems arise."

Carmen Publico
Carmen Publico, an aunt of Abigail Leste, looks on at a photo album. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

These sentiments were echoed by Jackielyn, who is the mother of a two-year-old. The Lestes have received assistance from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and are still in the process of sending documents to OWWA.  

"We’re worried because she was the only one we were leaning on," Jackielyn added.

In the case of Mr Sugitan, he counts himself lucky that his wife's employer has promised to pay for the education of his two children, all the way up to college.

"They were very kind to my wife, they treated her as their daughter and she treated them as her parents," he said.

"They (the employers) really helped me ... They said that I have to take good care of our two children and they will help for their education. I just said thank you to them, it’s very rare you can find people who give so generously.

"I can’t explain the feeling of thankfulness to them. When we left Singapore, the lady employer told me to please give the best funeral for Domielyn. That’s what I did."

Sugitan brothers 2
Dante Sugitan Jr cleans the grave of his mother, while his brother Daniel watches on. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

But even then, Mr Sugitan believes that the family will now have to "budget" wisely, as he has become the sole breadwinner.

The ideal situation say NGOs, is that Filipinos will in the future no longer see the need to work overseas.

Said Mr Seneres Jr: "I remember my father ... in the last leg before he passed away told me: 'Son, maybe we should kind of modify our vision ... to the effect that one day, no Filipino will feel the need to go abroad to seek greener pastures because there is security of employment in the home front.' If that day happens then he told me by all means for all intents and purposes, let’s close down OFW Family Club.

"At any given time, our OFWs, in particular our women folks (who are) working in the households of other nations when the doors close ... no one can see what is happening. They are exposed to vulnerability, abuse, maltreatment, etcetera, then we have to do everything to be there for them.

"But our vision must be one day, there is no more need for them to go."

Ms Concepcion agreed. 

"Why not invest in building local employment here? We continuously ask the government what is their long term plan," she said.

"Most Filipinos would tell you, I would rather be here, I would rather stay here."

For now, Filipinos will continue to stream abroad and deaths will continue to remain part of the equation.

"What ends up happening is that another family member will be forced to become a migrant themselves. It really will become very’ll have families who have multiple generations of migrants because the livelihood here is not sufficient, the work is always going to be contractual," said Ms Concepcion.

"They are willing to take that risk. These are to support basic needs, not that so they can buy a car or something luxurious. These are for survival - for food, for education, for healthcare. And they will earn three times, four times, five times more than what they would earn here."

READ: Lucky Plaza accident: Two victims in hospital now in ‘stable’ condition

Sugitan brothers
Dante Sugitan Jr (right) and Daniel Sugitan leave the cemetery where their mother is buried. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

At their home in the province of Isabela, Mr Sugitan dabbed at the corner of his eyes with a neatly folded white towel.

"The care of a mother, the affection of a mother - my children are looking for it. But (there's) nothing,' he explained.

"He (Daniel) still often calls from the cellphone and speaks to the friends of my wife in Singapore. He’s been calling them and I tell them them - just understand the situation (and speak to him). 

"He‘s also trying to call his mum - but there’s no answer."

Source: CNA/mt