Making the OFW cash cow obsolete

Cash cow, (Slang) noun—“1: a consistently profitable business, property, or product whose profits are used to finance a company’s investments in other areas; 2: one regarded or exploited as a reliable source of money.” No better example is there of an entire country’s cash cow than our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Calling them “bagong bayani” (modern heroes) does not erase the fact that the Filipino nation has relied on their remittances—for nearly 50 years now—to keep its economy afloat, its national budget funded, and its families a bit more hopeful of a better life for their children.

Heroes lead or rescue their people in moments of crisis, often giving up their own lives to serve a higher purpose. Their communities honor them by building on their sacrifices, not by complacently prolonging their service.

When the late Blas Ople, labor minister in the martial law administration of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and father of Migrant Workers Secretary Susana “Toots” Ople, deployed the first batch of Filipino contract workers to destinations overseas in the early ’70s, the move seemed so unthinkable that it was at once declared to be only temporary—a stop-gap measure to tide the country over a difficult time. Deeply familistic, the typical Filipino worker was known to resist long separation from loved ones. If he had to migrate in search of work, he made sure to bring his whole family with him.

The deployment of Filipino workers for construction projects overseas on short-term contracts was a product of necessity. Confronted by soaring oil prices in the world market, the Marcos regime was desperately in need of cash to pay for its oil imports. The drastic drop in the price of the country’s traditional exports of sugar and coconut oil meant that it had to find other sources of foreign exchange.

Awash in petrodollars, oil-producing countries, like the lucky ones in the Middle East, embarked on a building frenzy, constructing roads, airports, hospitals, houses, schools, hotels, and offices. The first Filipino overseas contract workers or OCWs (as they were first called) were invariably all male. They lived in barracks on large construction sites together with workers from other countries like India, Pakistan, and Egypt. There was safety in numbers.

As buildings got finished, the gender profile of our labor export to the Middle East gradually began to shift. More and more, female workers were needed to serve as nurses, teachers, office workers, and household service workers. That’s when the troubles, that have forced successive administrations in the Philippines to take a more proactive role in defending the rights and welfare of its workers, also began.

We entered the emergent global labor market in its early stages, when the rules, legal framework, and standards governing guest workers were largely nonexistent. Individual workers recruited by hiring agencies to work for Arab employers came under the so-called “kafala” system, which defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor who is often their employer.

In a backgrounder written for the Council on Foreign Relations, Kali Robinson explains that under the kafala system, “workers need their sponsor’s permission to transfer jobs, end employment, and enter or exit the host country. Leaving the workplace without permission is an offense that results in the termination of the worker’s legal status and potentially imprisonment or deportation, even if the worker is fleeing abuse.” Because the employer exercises almost absolute control over the worker, the system has been tagged as a form of modern slavery.

Filipino women working in Arab households as domestic helpers found themselves not only at the epicenter of a cultural clash that runs across gender, ethnic, religious, and class differences but in a world that assigned them no basic rights as human beings. The only antidote to this odious system would be a comprehensive bilateral labor agreement between the governments of the sending and receiving countries.

We have had one with Kuwait only since May 2018. But, as the unceasing cases of sexual abuse and other forms of violence and maltreatment of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait show, the mere existence of a bilateral agreement does not ensure the protection of the rights and welfare of our workers in that country. Against a system so deeply ingrained in the local culture, bilateral agreements conferring rights on guest workers mean nothing unless the mechanisms of effective enforcement are operational.

The signing of the agreement with Kuwait ended a bitter dispute between the two countries that had been prompted by the discovery in February that year of the corpse of Joanna Demafelis, a young Filipino maid, inside a freezer in a Kuwaiti apartment. After its expiration in May 2022, the agreement was automatically renewed despite the growing number of Filipino women escaping from abusive Kuwaiti employers and seeking refuge in embassy shelter facilities.

And now there is Jullebee Ranara, a 35-year-old domestic helper who was murdered by the 17-year-old son of her Kuwaiti employer, and whose burned remains were found dumped in a desert. She left behind her very young children, for whose sake she had sought overseas work. More women like Jullebee will take the same path, stilling their fears, for as long as our leaders continue to believe they can do nothing to stop young mothers like her from leaving by any means available and trying their luck abroad as domestic helpers.