In Pictures: The misery of migrant workers

Overseas workers from the Philippines continue to face abuse and hardship as the UN marks International Migrants Day.


Aside from China and India, the Philippines is one of the biggest sources of migrant labour serving the global economy.

Today, roughly 10-11 percent of the total Filipino population is either working or living outside the Philippines.  

The bulk of these Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) are stationed in the Middle East and other global labour hubs. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong are the top three destinations of newly deployed Filipino labour migrants. A significant portion leave the Philippines to work in gendered occupations, such as nursing, domestic work, and entertainment. 

Indeed, women constitute the majority of newly hired OFWs, with more than half of Filipina migrants working as household service workers or performing other "3-D" (dirty, difficult and dangerous) jobs.

Today, as nearly 4,000 workers leave the Philippines each day, state-sponsored migration has proven quite lucrative for the Philippine state and remittances remain a catalyst of economic growth. The Central Bank of the Philippines reported that total remittances received from OFWs through official banking channels reached an all-time high of $18.7bn in 2010, a considerable increase from the $7.5bn reported in 2003. Remittances are the largest single contribution - roughly 10 percent - to the country’s GDP.

Many Filipinos migrate because they are able to earn higher wages abroad. However, migrant workers enter receiving countries as non-citizens, performing work that is largely considered unskilled. Those with precarious "visitor" status are compelled to endure exploitative working conditions under the threat of deportation or sudden contractual termination. Filipinos, along with other migrant workers, are often the first to lose to their jobs in times of economic instability and are rarely afforded the opportunity to attain higher-status jobs.

Considering the Philippines' external debt of more than $70bn and public debt exceeding 50 percent of GDP, it is easy to understand why the country praises OFWs for their sense of national duty. OFWs are often branded "bagong bayani", the modern-day heroes of the Philippines.

The Philippines Overseas Employment Agency has enacted several provisions to counter illegal recruitment, trafficking, illegal fees, job scams, and overcharging. Minimum wages and benefits have been standardised in contracts, and recruiters are now held jointly accountable for migrants’ welfare with foreign employers.

Yet despite the regulations, OFWs' safety and protection are not guaranteed. Ultimately, migrants and the state lack the fundamental ability to hold foreign employers and labour brokers accountable, as the state has no jurisdiction abroad. For migrants, the lack of jurisdiction in foreign countries is compounded by a largely unfair, ineffective, and unreliable domestic legal system.

An owner of a Filipino-run agency based in Hong Kong said of a potential domestic worker: "She is so desperate to leave the Philippines… as long as she has a place to sleep, if she’s already there you can do whatever you want… in other words, you are the boss."

In a state where nearly 33 percent live under the poverty line, 17.4 percent of youth are unemployed, and 42 percent experience vulnerable and under-employment, the impetus to migrate for a better job and a better life remains strong.