Op-Ed: It’s time to shift the narrative around Filipino migrant workers
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Op-Ed: It’s time to shift the narrative around Filipino migrant workers

EVERY seventh of June, the Philippines commemorates the “heroism” of compatriots who have been a visible reason for the steady growth of their motherland’s economy.

National Migrant Workers’ Day marks the anniversary of a law to protect the rights and welfare of overseas Filipinos and their families, which resulted from the execution of domestic worker Flor Contemplacion by Singapore back in March 1995.

That episode created diplomatic tension between the two countries, as well as national shame for a country that then had no enabling law for migrant workers’ protection. Over the decades since Contemplacion’s execution, the Philippines has come to “excel” in migration management.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia, Philippines furious with treatment of workers overseas

The current Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, revised twice since then, spells out regulations and bureaucratic responsibilities to ensure safe and orderly labour migration.

Filipinos are now in over-200 countries and territories, in all sorts of occupations, with their migration status either legal or irregular. Filipinos have contributed to countries’ economic growth, especially countries facing demographic shortfalls and labour shortages.

The estimated 10.3 million overseas Filipinos have, unfortunately, become the Philippines’ top export. As the country’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors continue to struggle, overseas migration is a search for more gainful opportunities in low-skilled work.

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The Philippines has lobbied for better rights for its citizens abroad, including pushing Hong Kong to stop domestic workers cleaning windows of high rise buildings. Source: AP

Remittances have been the reason for overseas Filipinos’ symbolic tag as “heroes” since a formal labour export program began in 1974.

From the 1970s to the mid-2000s, remittances helped shore up the economy’s fiscal issues, mitigated the impacts of domestic unemployment, and somewhat help buoy the Philippines’ gross national product.

Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, however, the Philippine economy has become one of the top economic performers in the world. Sustained GDP growth at an annual average of 6 percent over the past decade has coincided with a larger workforce.

SEE ALSO: Asean reaches regional consensus over rights of migrant workers

This gives the Philippines a chance —a 30-year window, says some demographic projections— to attract investment and keep workers at home.

Yet the story remains largely unchanged.

The Philippines recently saw itself in a standoff with Kuwait, as it demanded better protections and employment regulation for Filipina domestic workers. A four-month diplomatic saga started with the discovery of Joanna Demafelis’ brutal murder by her Arab employers, her body mutilated and left in a refrigerator for a year. It angered President Rodrigo Duterte.

Last month, a memorandum of agreement on hiring domestic workers was finally signed between the two countries and diplomatic relations were restored. But implementation of the legislative changes by Kuwaiti authorities is another matter.

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Migrant workers from Southeast Asia hold a banner and flags as they attend a workers rights rally in Hong Kong on December 16, 2012. Source: Antony Dickson / AFP

Many Filipinos abroad remain viewed as “lowly” domestic workers; spouses found online by partners from richer countries and who migrated for economic security; or men trafficked into occupations that are different to those promised in their work contracts.

They have also been understood as bearers of the Christian faith: selfless workers enduring tough conditions to please employers and earn more for their families; behaved foreigners in host country societies.

SEE ALSO: Is it dangerous to be a woman in Duterte’s Philippines?

Even in the age of social media, these narratives remain unchanged. Filipinos back home continue to send souvenir items known as balikbayan boxes – meaning “returning home” in Tagalog – a generation-old practice. Many pity their compatriots abroad.

Filipinos’ overseas migration has already brought about socio-cultural, economic and institutional changes in Philippine society, sociologist and historian Filomeno Aguilar, Jr. writes in his anthology The Migration Revolution. It has seen class structures totally reconfigured.

Given the Philippine economy’s demographic transition and recent success, will narratives about Filipinos abroad ever change?

Domestic-workers

Domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines on their day off. Source: Flickr.

Will Filipino food be mainstreamed in host societies and capture the imagination curious foreign taste buds?

With Filipinos abroad now an influential force for their motherland, and them being exposed to better systems abroad, how can gruesome migration tales be changed for the better?

SEE ALSO: Hong Kong: Migrant worker women radicalised by online jihadi boyfriends

Or will there be more of a new breed of Filipino migrant entrepreneurs braving the riskier agricultural sector back home, while Filipino banks remain averse in handing out credit?

The homeland and its institutions, especially the Philippine government, have their work cut out to fulfill ambitions of comfortable living for Filipinos.

But so do Filipinos abroad: they can chart newer tales and knock down ageing stereotypes of themselves. That will be through the love they usually show to their families, through better remittance management, through improved and sustained relations with locals in host countries, and through a renewed sense of Filipino citizenship even while they’re away.

Jeremaiah Opiniano is a doctoral student (geography) at The University of Adelaide in Australia. He also handles a nonprofit research group on migration and development issues in the Philippines: the Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI).

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent