When Winnie* left the country to become a domestic worker in Dubai in 2005, all she wanted was a comfortable life. Now, at age 60, she is back in her hometown—thrust back into the poverty she worked so hard to leave behind.
“Matagal nga akong nandun [Dubai] pero hindi rin gaano kalaki ang naipundar ko kasi maraming gastusin ang pamilya ko sa Pinas. Nagda-dialysis pa kasi noon ang nanay ko tapos mag-isa kong binubuhay ang apat kong anak,” she said. “Kung kaya ko lang, babalik talaga ako sa Dubai, nandun ang pera eh.”
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Winnie and over 800,000 other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to return to the country, as reported by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). With gaps in the government’s reintegration programs, many of these migrants slip right back into poverty, facing the same problems that compelled them to leave the country in the first place.
Around 2.2 million Filipinos were working abroad in 2019, according to the latest Survey on Overseas Filipinos by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). In the same year, OFWs sent a total of P211.9 billion in remittances to their families in the country, but PSA also reported that only one out of every three migrant workers managed to save any money.
“The increase in prices in the Philippines has forced us migrant Filipinos to send more remittances home—by working more, decreasing our already meager consumption, or reducing our savings,” stated the OFW coalition Migrante International in a written statement.
Setting money aside, then, is an afterthought for OFWs who have multiple bills to pay at home and abroad. But beyond the struggle to put up savings, OFWs are also embattled with their safety and well-being in their foreign workplaces.
In 2020, around 53 percent of Filipino migrant workers were deployed to the Middle East, where 4,302 cases of crimes and violence against OFWs were reported at the same time. A study from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveals that this is only 15 percent of actual cases that transpired in their workplaces, as most victims choose to remain silent to keep their jobs.
“Marami akong nakilala sa Dubai na halos araw-araw kung umiyak, nami-miss ang pamilya,” Winnie said. “Pero lahat kami pinipiling manatili at mag-trabaho doon, kasi kailangang tanungin mo ang sarili mo, ‘Ano bang naghihintay sa akin sa Pinas?’”
The government’s reintegration strategy for returning OFWs includes providing investment loans and job search assistance. OWWA, the agency responsible for these programs, typically lends capital to help returnees start small businesses or attend technical schools.
“The idea is for OFWs to have a business, but that’s easier said than done,” remarked Maruja Asis, the executive director of Scalabrini Migration Center, in an interview with the Collegian. “Mataas ang failure rate ng bagong venture. Hindi ganoon kadali ang mag-business, much less ang mag-succeed sa business and to make it last.”
A 2021 impact assessment by IOM shows that 87 percent of returnees remain unemployed three months after coming home, while 96 percent did not receive any reintegration assistance. Even before the pandemic, 7 out of 10 returning migrants reported difficulties in finding a job or establishing a business three months after their return, based on the 2018 National Migration Survey (NMS) (see sidebar 1).
“OFW reintegration has always been a major challenge,” Asis said. “It would only be viable if the reasons for the migration had already been addressed.”
With bleak employment prospects and little to no savings, returning migrants slide right back into poverty. IOM’s data suggests that since their return, OFWs face a higher risk of unemployment (see sidebar 2).
These days, Winnie would usually be found sitting in a small convenience store that she managed to set up with the last squeeze of her savings. She walks much slower than before after a hip injury occurred not long after her return. But without a fully paid Social Security System (SSS) and PhilHealth insurance plans, she had to discontinue seeing a doctor.
Around 31 percent of OFWs are not covered by any insurance policy, while more than 52 percent are without social pension plans, according to the 2018 NMS.
The SSS pension plan requires a contributor to chip in at least 120 payments over 10 years to receive monthly retirement benefits. PhilHealth, on the other hand, increased its monthly premium to 4 percent of total income for OFWs. But on top of various fees such as employment certificates, OWWA membership, and document processing, premiums become a burden.
“For OFWs, it seems that you have to reach 60 talaga to receive a pension, but that’s a terrible picture because it takes so much from them just to receive money that can only get you the very basic needs,” Asis said.
Winnie has abandoned the idea of returning to Dubai, adding she has no place in the workforce anymore now that she can barely walk.
“Ang laking sakripisyo nung iniwan ko ang mga anak ko noon, ang liliit pa nila nung nag-Dubai ako,” Winnie said. “Tapos sa back of my mind, iniisip ko rin kung paano magiging lagay ng nanay ko habang wala ako.”
In late 2006, Winnie’s mother passed away, but her employer did not allow her to attend the funeral, fearing she would not return. Today, after 18 years of domestic work abroad, she finds herself asking whether leaving the country and missing several significant family milestones were worth it.
As long as local conditions remain dire, more Filipinos will leave the country and their reintegration will be far from reach, Asis added.
“There should be better support for education para sa mga anak na naiwan ng OFWs, better healthcare din para naman hindi towards bayarin na lang ang napupuntahan ng kita nila. The government must respond to all the immediate needs,” Asis said. “But more than this, the government should ensure that workers would feel attracted to jobs here sa bansa natin.”
Despite President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s attempt to “make migration an option,” the unattractive working conditions in the Philippines drive OFWs farther from home.
“Lahat tayo gustong kapiling mga pamilya natin, dapat sana yun din ang gusto ng gobyerno imbis na i-appreciate lang kami dahil sa contribution namin sa remittance,” Winne said. ●
*Not her real name
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