Overseas Filipino Workers: The Modern-Day Heroes of the Philippines

Overseas Filipino Workers: The Modern-Day Heroes of the Philippines

. 8 min read

Bayani is the Tagalog term for “hero.” In the Philippines, a bayani is someone who is courageous, humble, and selfless. They pursue causes that are greater than themselves, such as those impacting a community, a nation, or the environment. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is a term referring to Filipino migrant workers, individuals who have left their homes to work abroad and provide comfortable lives for their families. Referring to these workers, former President Corazon Aquino coined the phrase ‘Bagong-Bayani’ in 1988. OFWs are the country’s modern-day heroes because they not only boost the Philippines’ economy through remittances but are figures of resilience. OFWs endure homesickness, personal sacrifices, and horrible working conditions in order to support their families back home.

By the Numbers

The Philippine Statistic Authority estimates that about 1.83 million OFWs worked abroad from April to September 2021. The same data reveal that about “four in every ten” OFWs work low-status or ‘elementary’ jobs, such as street vendors, construction and factory workers, cleaners, domestic helpers, and agriculture laborers. A majority of OFWs work in Asia, specifically Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Singapore, and Qatar.

Because of their major contribution to the growth and development of the Philippine economy, OFWs are revered as the nation's economic heroes. According to data released by the Central Bank of the Philippines, remittances from OFWs reached a record high in December of last year: from the previous all-time high of US$34.88 billion, it rose by 3.6 percent to a record high US$36.14 billion in 2022.

“OFW remittances, at new record highs on a monthly basis, are a bright spot for the Philippine economy in terms of spurring consumer spending, which accounts for at least 75 percent of the economy, and in turn, support faster economic growth,” Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. Chief economist Michael Ricafort said.

Furthermore, most OFWs are Filipina women. The numbers clearly show that women dominate the workforce, accounting for approximately 60 percent of OFWs. According to data from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, at least 18,002, or 75.05 percent of the 23,986 cases of abuse and other incidents involving workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council that were reported last year included female OFWs. On the other hand, male OFWs were involved in only 5,984 cases, or 24.95 percent of all cases.

These women are disproportionately more likely to suffer from terrible working conditions, as they are often subjected to abuse, excessive work, little pay, rape, or worse, being killed by their foreign employers. The International Labour Office published a working paper titled Philippines: Good Practices for the Protection of Filipino Women Migrant Workers in Vulnerable Jobs explaining that “Gender-based discrimination intersects with discrimination based on other forms of  ‘otherness’ – such as non-national status, race, ethnicity, religion, economic status – placing women migrants in situations of double, triple or even fourfold discrimination, disadvantage or vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.”

In 2020, there were 23,714 documented cases of contract violations involving the maltreatment of OFWs, according to data provided by the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices, and approximately 5,000 of these cases were reported from Middle Eastern countries. According to the Philippine Information Agency, Filipina women who work in the Middle East are subjected to the “kafala” system, which ties foreign workers to their employers. Under this framework, employers could easily lock domestic workers inside their houses and seize their phones, passports, and visas until the expiration of their contracts.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report titled “ ‘I Already Bought You’ Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates,” which explains real-world examples of how the UAE’s kafala system of visa sponsorship binds migrant employees to their employers and how the exclusion of domestic workers from labor law protections exposes them to abuse.

The report included interviews with 99 female domestic workers in the UAE between November and December 2013. 22 of the 99 domestic helpers questioned by HRW claimed to have experienced physical abuse at the hands of their sponsors.

“They slap me in the face and kick me. They have a stick for you. If I make a small mistake they would hit parts of my body—back legs, back, and head. Sir would slap or punch me in the face. If they come back from the mall and I am not finished they would beat me,” Shelly A., a 30-year-old Filipina worker said. “They would say, ‘If you had done work then we won’t hit you.’ ”

Injustices in Kuwait

Currently, there are over 268,000 OFWs who live and work in Kuwait with 88 percent of them working as domestic helpers and 73 percent of them being female. According to the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), there were over 24,000 cases of abuse and violation against OFWs in 2022—a significant rise from 6,500 in 2016.

It is a significant sacrifice to work abroad. Being physically and emotionally thousands of miles away from one’s family for an indefinite period is challenging, isolating, and suffocating. Rowena, a 54-year-old Filipina worker in Bahrain found herself feeling “trapped” due to canceled flights to the Philippines because of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as being underpaid by her employer. “I don’t want to make trouble. I want to go home,” Rowena said.

Beyond this, many OFWs also work abroad without knowledge of the future or the dangers they may encounter in a foreign country. Even worse, a harsh truth of working abroad is that a number of OFWs return home as dead bodies.

In January of 2023, Jullebee Ranara, a Filipina domestic helper living in Kuwait, confided in her family over the phone that she was terrified of her employer's 17-year-old son. The 35-year-old appeared to have vanished by the next day, which prompted her friends in the Gulf state to share their worries about her disappearance on social media.

Less than 24 hours later, on Jan. 21, 2023, her body was found dead, with burnt remains and a smashed skull found beside a desert near Al-Salmi Road.

Ranara was discovered to be pregnant after an autopsy, and DNA samples taken from the unborn child were confirmed to match the accused, who is the 17-year-old son of Ranara’s boss. After being apprehended, the 17-year-old perpetrator confessed to his crime.

Since 2018, there have been at least four murders of OFWs in Kuwait that have garnered national attention, including the case of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was kept secret in a freezer in an abandoned apartment for nearly two years. Her employers, a Syrian and a Lebanese couple, received death sentences for the murder of the victim.

In 2019, 47-year-old Constancia Lago Dayag was discovered dead after being sexually abused and beaten to death by her boss. The same year, 26-year-old Jeanelyn Villavende passed away from serious injuries inflicted by her boss, who was ultimately given a death sentence for the murder.

“These are only the high-profile ones,” Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion told VICE World News. “There are other cases that are not visible. The public is not made aware of the real gravity of the rampant abuses faced by Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait.”

Actions taken by the Philippine Government

A week after the discovery of Jullebee’s body, her remains were returned to her grieving family in Las Piñas, Philippines. Without delay, Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. attended Jullebee’s wake and promised to provide the deceased’s family with all aid possible.

“I just wanted to offer my sympathies to the family and to assure them that all the assistance that they might need for the family and for whatever else, that is my promise to them,” Marcos Jr. remarked. “Their child made that sacrifice to work abroad because she has dreams for her family here.”

Recently, the DMW issued a deployment ban on new and aspiring OFWs in Kuwait, following the increasing reports of work mistreatment, including the horrific murder of Ranara.

“In order to strengthen the protection of the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Kuwait, particularly workers who are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, action on the applications of first-time agency-hire domestic workers bound for Kuwait is temporarily deferred effective immediately,” the DMWs said in a statement on Feb. 8, 2023.

Senator and Committee on Migrant Workers Chairperson Raffy Tulfo proposed a total deployment ban in Kuwait. “We can enter into bilateral agreements but our terms should be clear and unequivocal. If there are violators to such agreements, we have to prioritize the welfare of our overseas Filipino workers and act at the soonest possible time. Make these violators accountable and liable without concession and pursuant to our laws and international conventions,” Tulfo said in a senate inquiry.

The DMW was also tasked with working with the Department of Foreign Affairs to communicate to the Kuwaiti government the "sentiments and concerns" of the Filipino people regarding all recurrent incidents of physical and financial abuse, failure to pay monetary benefits, as well as murder committed against OFWs after the deployment ban went into effect.

The deployment ban was not well received by migrant advocacy groups, who claimed it would not provide a permanent solution to the issues surrounding labor migration. They claimed that placing bans for an extended period of time would encourage OFWs to turn to illicit means and consequently put themselves at risk for human trafficking in their desperation to find jobs abroad.

“What about the already-deployed Filipinos? Are there any steps being taken to protect them and make sure they do not suffer the same fate as Julleebee and the others?” Concepcion said to Maritime Fairtrade News. “These problems cannot be resolved with a deployment ban. The Philippine government has imposed bans many times before, but lifted them soon after when the particular cases of abuse or murder had been resolved by the courts and the perpetrators punished by death penalty or long-term imprisonment. When the deployment restarts, the abuses also start all over again.”

Much Needed Reform

OFWs often serve as the backbone of their families back home. Based on the results of a survey published by the Social Weather Stations, they found that 7 percent of Filipino households have an OFW who helps support the family. In addition, seventy-five percent of households frequently receive money from their OFW family members.

It would be difficult and inconsiderate to discourage or ban OFWs from going abroad for work. To promote a better quality of life for OFWs, the Philippine government must enact concrete policies aimed at protecting the welfare of Filipino workers. Advocacy groups, such as Migrante International are urging for reforms, including the abolition of the kafala system, which has resulted in complete employer control over domestic workers and OFWs.

For Concepcion, the country’s over-reliance on OFWs remittances is equivalent to the perpetuation of the violation and murder of Filipino workers. She believes that a viable solution to this issue involves ending the government’s labor export program and creating decent jobs domestically through meaningful land reform and national industrialization.

“The government’s determination to continue its labor export policy is totally misguided. What it should do is implement immediate measures to protect our domestic workers and OFWs abroad and long-term measures to generate decent jobs in the Philippines,” Concepcion said. “We need to end the government’s Labor Export Program and instead ensure that more jobs are created at home. Filipinos won’t have to leave the country and their families to risk their lives abroad if they have gainful and secure employment here.”

It is clear that OFWs live up to the definition of a bayani and are now considered heroes of the Philippines. However, under the shiny title of ‘bagong bayani’ lies a dark and unfortunate reality. Numerous Filipino workers suffer from various injustices including being overworked, underpaid, abused, raped, and even worse, murdered. The only way OFWs can truly be safeguarded is if the Philippine government enforces concrete and actionable policies. With this, OFWs could avoid the potential death sentence of working abroad and have the chance to be treated as they deserve to be: as modern-day heroes.