MANILA: Migrant workers from the Philippines are regarded as today’s modern heroes - bringing in billions of dollars yearly to fuel the country’s economy’s growth.
Scattered in more than 200 countries across the globe, most sacrifice entire lives to work in the service sector in sales roles; in plants, hospitals, machine and assembly industries as technicians and professionals, including those in crafts and trade-related works; and as entertainers, frontline staff and helpers in cruise ships and homes.
Remittances from this group - including cash wired home, cash brought home and those in-kind – reached US$33.5 billion, a sum that far outstripped even foreign direct investment and tourist receipts and contributes roughly 10 per cent of GDP.
It’s these same remittances which have helped families build bigger homes, send children and younger siblings to school and uplift entire communities into the middle class.
However, when COVID-19 spread throughout the world earlier this year, many overseas Filipinos found themselves hit hard by the disruption, which upended industries and saw lockdowns forced businesses to shutter. Scores lost their jobs and facing a long uncertain period, decided to head back as savings depleted.
But the logistics have made that journey painful.
Almost 100,000 have been repatriated but have had to undergo a 14-day quarantine and testing before they can be certified healthy and return to their hometowns, with tales of political wrangling between provincial governments and central authorities, bureaucratic sluggishness and overburdened healthcare facilities sparking fresh concerns.
For the Philippines, a country that has long had an economic strategy of exporting labour, the pandemic has had an outsized impact where it dislocated hospitality, retail and F&B, sectors which traditionally have high concentrations of Filipino workers.
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SETTLING BACK HASN’T BEEN EASY
The Asian country has now seen its economic strategy impacted by COVID-19, with knock-on social implications as returning overseas Filipinos try to integrate back but wind up competing fiercely with locals for scarce jobs.
“It’s difficult to earn money nowadays. I just arrived home from Dubai last month. Our company where I work as a hotel attendant had ceased from operation since March,” a 29-year-old woman told me.
Another man I met, previously employed as a train maintenance technician, claimed that he was struggling to get a job since he returned home in March.
“There’s financial assistance from the state but it’s not enough,” he said of the US$200 cash allowance given to returning Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) registered with the government.
Just two weeks ago, the Labour Ministry reported that the number of OFWs seeking assistance has surged to 600,000, including 106,200 repatriated since the global health crisis.
THE WORST ECONOMIC CRISIS
The reality is both OFWs and other Filipinos can hardly find a decent job at home in an economy struck by recession, after a GDP contraction of 16.5 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, the worst in the country’s economic history since 1981.
There is mounting concern over the nation-wide jobless rate, as ripples from the closure of businesses due to lockdown measures saw those numbers jump to 27.3 million.
Other early warning indicators suggest the picture is a lot more dire.
A national poll conducted among 1,555 adults in early July by respected pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that 45.4 percent of the country’s workforce was unemployed or had lost jobs during the pandemic, easily breaking the nationwide jobless record of 34.4 percent set back in March 2012.
The country is also bracing itself for what experts have warned may be its worst financial crisis ever, as a looming debt avalanche threatens to plunge the country into greater stasis.
Even healthcare professionals have not been spared by the crisis.
In April, the government suspended the deployment of all healthcare workers abroad “to prioritise human resource” in the country. Yet the travesty is how public sector inefficiencies have seen the gross under-employment and unemployment of about reportedly 200,000 to 240,000 nurses.
Much hangs on the development and distribution of a vaccine, without which the Philippines’ revival will be slow at best, as low tax collection from bruised businesses hamper the government from mounting a stronger response and restrictions on movements curtail the recovery.
THE BIGGER LOOMING CRISIS
The crisis is also forcing honest Filipinos to look at shady options to make very basic ends meet, to pay the utilities, put food on the table and chip away at a growing pile of personal debt.
Four years ago in Davao City, the hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte, I spoke with a single mother who lost her job in the Middle East as a domestic caregiver.
She had nine children. She ventured into selling fish in their community but it still wasn’t enough to cover their daily needs.
She shared that her eldest son and second daughter were pushed to the drugs scene since it’s an “easy money” trade. But a year after, her son was killed by vigilantes inside their home while her daughter was arrested.
Since mid-2016, the Philippine police campaign against illegal drugs has left more than 6,000 deaths of suspected drug dealers and addicts during anti-narcotics raids.
While crime rates have come down owing to the lockdowns and curfews in recent months, one shudders to think if the fate of repatriated OFWs and their families follow a similar storyline as our single mother family’s fate.
WHERE HOPE LIES
Ironically, it’s external developments that might rescue the country from its plight. Indeed, the Philippines has much riding on other countries relaxing restrictions and reopening their economies.
One in five of the 10 million OFWs work in the United States, while more than 600,000 live in Saudi Arabia and Canada.
“Many governments went ahead of us in easing restrictions. Their industries are almost fully operational again by now. They could recall our OFWs anytime,” said Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III in July.
There are budding signs the Philippine government is taking bolder steps to help workers tide through a period of unemployment.
The Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare and Administration (OWWA) offers loan programmes for OFW through banks, designed to support them in engaging in small business.
Individual borrowers may be eligible for loans from 100,000 pesos (US$2,060) to 2 million pesos distributed by the Enterprise Development and Loan Programme run by OWWA, in partnership with the Land Bank of the Philippines and Development Bank of the Philippines. Group borrowers (partnerships, corporations or cooperatives) can obtain loans of up to 5 million pesos to set up businesses.
The government is also incentivising certain behaviours with conditional cash transfers to millions of poor Filipinos. Beneficiaries must comply with certain conditions that include regular visits to health centres and maintaining a class attendance rate of at least 85 per cent each month for those enrolled in daycare centres or schools.
There are encouraging signals the Philippine government is also thinking more deeply about the wider support this group needs beyond dollars and cents.
New programmes offering counselling, courses on financial literacy and training workshops have been rolled out with new social welfare groups formed to engage OFWs, but more can be done to scale-up such efforts and improve their social safety nets.
For now, the Philippines is taking a wait-and-see approach and holding out hope that the restarting of the global economy will help its OFWs find work again.
Until the Philippines revisits its export-oriented approach to labour, however, and find new productive ways to create economic opportunities at home that make better use of its human capital, it will continue to be vulnerable to such shocks that shut off national borders.
Jeff Bansigan is a journalist based in Manila.