By Pepper Marcelo
In September 2010, a Filipina domestic worker returning to Manila from Qatar left her newly born baby in the lavatory of a Gulf Air airplane. She later claimed that she had been raped by her employer, becoming pregnant as a result and, fearing shame from her family, decided to abandon the baby in the trash compartment of the airplane restroom. The baby, later named George Francis by caregivers, survived and has been reunited with his repentant mother.
The following month, another OW committed suicide inside the plane that was bringing him home. Marlon Cueva, 36, was found dead by flight attendants as Gulf Air Flight 154 was preparing to land in Manila from Abu Dhabi. The victim was observed to have been anxious through most of the flight and kept on telling other passengers that he was “sorry.”
Cueva left for the country in September last year to work as an electrician. But barely two months into his two-year contract he resigned, citing “personal reasons.”
These two incidents are the latest grim statistics on the human toll of overseas employment. Every day a sad, often tragic, tale unfolds in every nook and cranny of the world where some 10 million overseas Filipino workers toil under physically severe and emotionally draining conditions.
The Department of Foreign Affairs is currently monitoring some 100 active death penalty cases involving OFWs around the world. Of that number, 16 are for murder-homicide (including rape-robbery with murder), and 74 involve drug trafficking. Last December, President Benign Aquino III admitted that the government had boycotted the Nobel Prize awarding ceremonies in Oslo so as not to earn the ire of the Chinese government, which protested the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a prominent Chinese pro-democracy activist. Saying the government’s move was “in the national interest,” the President cited the ongoing cases of five OFWs facing execution in China for drug related cases.
To be sure, overseas employment has been good to millions of our countrymen and to the economy as well. Think of the mouths it has fed, the students it has sent to school, the houses it has built, the business it has spawned and all the material wealth it has generated.
Then factor in the invaluable boon to the local economy by the enormous remittances sent in by OFWs. The remittance volume last year was projected at $18.5 billion, up by eight per cent from the 2009 level of $17.35 billion. Economists say without these money inflows, the Philippine economy would have been in tatters a long time ago.
But at what price? As if separation from one’s family is not enough pain to bear, migrant workers have to endure untold suffering abroad – abusive employers, inhuman working conditions, meager pay, inhospitable surroundings, homesickness, lack of government support, no job security, discrimination. All this contribute to indescribable physical, emotional and psychological anguish which could push the workers and their families to mental stress, bodily illnesses, and even death. One can only recall the case of Flor Contemplacion, the Filipina domestic worker in Singapore who was executed for killing a fellow Filipina housekeeper and a Singaporean boy the latter was caring for. Citing Contempacion’s unstable mental condition at the time, her supporters pleaded for clemency but to no avail,
“It’s difficult to characterize the social cost for OFWs,” says Maria Angela Villalba, CEO of Unlad Kabayan, a program of the Asian Migrant Center which provides services to migrant workers, including savings mobilization and alternative investments at home.
“The situation is this – you’re being uprooted and placed in a situation where the people and environment around you are hostile. You work like a beast of burden from the time you wake up to the time you sleep. You’re always at the mercy of your employer. It is so unbearable that many lose their minds.”
Villalba says the suffering of migrant workers is made worse by the absence of a safe and welcoming place of refuge in their place of destination. “Their coming home to the family after a long day of hard work is taken for granted. But if you do hard work, and you have no family to come home to, and you come home to a cold bed, in a small room, and then wake up the following day to do the same thing, you get yourself into that depressing situation,” she laments.
Given the government’s inability to provides protection and services to OFWs, non-government organizations (NGOs) and migrant workers groups like Unlad Kabayan heroically fill the gap by offering a myriad of services – from crisis intervention, paralegal assistance and counseling to setting up refuge centers and educational services on self-organization, human rights and financial literacy.
The number of OFW-related deaths is rising, notes Villalba, but whether they are due to work-related stress or depression remains untracked. “The government’s response is not all of them died through mysterious circumstances,” she says. “Many of them were supposedly sick, or had accidents, and generally when they’re abroad, there’s a chance or possibility they will die.”
Families left behind
Back home, many families left behind by OFWs are not faring in terms of their psychological and emotional well being. Countless accounts have been told about broken families caused by philandering spouses, either the one abroad or the other left behind.
“Marital relationships require nurturing and intimacy,” says Dr. Gina Hechanova-Alampay, psychologist and founder of the online counseling site OFWOnline. “This becomes difficult when the spouses are physically separated from each other. The OFW and his/her spouse need to find a way to establish such intimacy at least emotionally across the miles. Unless this is done, it is not surprising that they will turn to people who can fulfill their needs for companionship and intimacy.”
With regards to the children, many feel abandoned, and potentially grow up to be spoiled and undisciplined without proper parental guidance. Communications technology such as the internet and cell phones cannot fill the vacuum created by absentee parents.
“Parenting is not just about providing for the needs of children. It is also about being their emotionally and psychologically in order to raise children and teach them the right values,” says Hechanova-Alampay. “Having an OFW parent simply means that the burden of this may fall on the parent who is left behind unless the OFW can constantly communicate with their children to provide such support.”
Besides the separation anxiety that comes from longing for parental care, children of OFWs may also be confused about gender roles or develop a materialistic attitude. Sometimes, when the father is reluctant or unwilling to fill the parental void left by an absent mother, it is usually the eldest daughter who assumes the role of caregiver for the family.
The Philippine government is fully aware of the problems confronting OFWs and their families. But for all its avowed concern for the “Bagong Bayani,” it has not been able to provide the necessary services for workers abroad and their families at home. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLO) and the Philippine embassies and consulates are grossly short of funds and staff.
Migrant groups have complained that government agencies are slow to respond, and even insensitive and apathetic to the plight of the migrant workers. “I’ve heard reports from workers about government officials admonishing them, ‘With the lack of jobs in the Philippines, you should be thankful to have a job in the first place,’” narrates Villalba. “It is not very encouraging, to say the least.”
Hechanova-Alampay adds that government political and legal officers and consulate staff are not trained to provide psychosocial support to migrant workers. “I think the government needs to recognize this need and find ways either by assigning people in the consulate who would have the capacity for such type of psychological service or to at the very least train staff on doing ‘first-aid counseling’. The consulate staff could also be trained on spotting danger signs so they can refer OFWs to appropriate professionals.”
Given the government’s inadequate resources and services to cope with the myriad of pressing problems of our migrant workers and their families, our OFWs have only themselves, their kababayans and migrant organizations to fall back on. With very limited options, they can console themselves with the thought that perhaps conditions back home are not any better.
For workers experiencing hardship abroad, Villalba advises them to remain optimistic and to focus on their goals for the future.
“Save your money, and then build your dream or plan your future while you are still here in your destination country,” she says. “You will not be in that country forever; you have a family to come home to. Put your plan together early and realize it with your family before you become strangers.”