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A sudden homecoming: Realities of COVID-19 displaced OFWs

There is a multitude of ways to view the Filipino diaspora. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are hailed as heroes, exemplars of the modern Filipino, with a temperament and skillset suited for the globalized economy. Domestic workers, seafarers, and healthcare workers alike set forth from their homeland to search for employment elsewhere, all for the upward social mobility of their families—and by extension, their country. Braving loneliness in a foreign land, they put in sacrifice after sacrifice for the sake of all-important cash remittances, a lifeline that’s become a mainstay of the Philippines’ economic growth.

But this rosy picture of Filipino labor migration paints over the precarious reality of OFWs, ignoring a vulnerability that’s been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We see Filipinos who don’t have jobs abroad—who are barely living abroad—but would still stay there because there’s still a way to thrive in the [direst] circumstances,” says Carlos Piocos III, a DLSU professor of Literature and Cultural Studies that specializes in diaspora. As the pandemic remains global, OFWs must deal with challenges in job security and discrimination while also contending with what it means to be a Filipino today.

Exile

Largely out of necessity, OFWs have stayed in their host countries, eking out a living that they would then remit back home. For Victor Concepcion, an industrialization manager in Thailand, this meant living abroad for 15 years. But this was manageable since Concepcion found ways to visit the Philippines at least twice a year and found ways to feel connected to his community. “I regularly partook in all sorts of activities like basketball and badminton, and go to church with my community of Filipino friends,” he recounts. 

But as the pandemic began to spread across the world, contractual employees were laid off, workdays were reduced, and salaries were cut in half. Concepcion recalls how the biggest priority during the onset of the pandemic was just to keep one’s job. “A lot of Filipinos, reaching about 100,000, lost their jobs, from those working in the hotel and restaurant industry to the teachers,” he recounts. Without work permits, many of these OFWs were mandated to return home.

As OFWs were repatriated to the Philippines in the thousands, they’ve become an easy scapegoat for the rise in cases. “[Returning] OFWs are being seen as contaminants, so those discourses […] are being encouraged and cultivated by people who have stakes in defraying and in propagating these kinds of narratives,” Piocos says.

OFWs, once hailed as economic saviors have been accused of spreading the coronavirus into their respective provinces. This contradictory narrative has only pushed OFWs further into marginalization and discrimination, “especially now that the virus, the crisis, is being racialized,” explains Piocos. Concepcion affirms this as he talks about discrimination that the Filipino community in Thailand faces, “In Thai social media, I’ve seen it highlighted that contact with Filipinos should be avoided because of the high number of infections the Philippines is known to have […] The government denies that there’s discrimination or harassment of course, but in social media, you can see some of it.”

In a foreign land

For many OFWs, the effects of the pandemic are far more concrete than discrimination on social media. In Southern Alberta, Canada, Filipinos are experiencing heavy discrimination—from being prohibited in grocery stores and banks to online blunder—blaming Filipinos for spreading the virus they caught from work. Discrimination against Filipino workers has long existed but is now accentuated because of the pandemic. 

Like Concepcion, many OFWs are stuck in their host countries, unable to visit the Philippines and their families for the foreseeable future. In order to sustain life, OFWs have to alienate themselves—a lonesome sacrifice for a better income. Piocos III explains that “The realities of migration are forcing Filipinos to rethink what it means to be a family and what kind of work is involved in making and doing a family.” Emphasizing this reality, Concepcion adds, “It’s not a matter of choosing what I’d rather do, really; it’s a matter of not having a choice.”

Nevertheless, Concepcion still hopes for a brighter future—and better solutions—for him and his fellow OFWs. “Surely, COVID affected many of us negatively, but once it passes, it will make us stronger because we’ll have a new perspective, and be more ready for such events next time,” he shares. 

The aching heroes

Even as OFWs continue to adapt to the pandemic, the Philippine government has offered only marginal aid, such as arranging flights back home and giving food relief packages. However, the scope and direction of the response are lacking. Piocos notes that in many cases, families of OFWs are slotted into the middle class and are consequently excluded from cash subsidy programs. Meanwhile, OFWs often receive no help from their host country’s government too. 

With limited institutional support, Filipino communities abroad are coming together to help themselves. Piocos observes that this cuts across residency status, social class, and even nationality. “They’re doing it not just for charity, but also to advocate for laws, for aid and support from the government; not just on behalf of their fellow Filipinos—fellow kababayans—but also for other people who are also vulnerable,” he says.

Still, Piocos notes that even with such displays of bayanihan, we should refrain from framing the OFW in the narrative of resiliency, instead of acknowledging that the welfare of OFWs also needs government protection. “Imagine a different sense of sustaining ourselves for many Filipinos—not just relying on migration, but also demanding more accountability to our government to find a way for us to sustain ourselves even in this country,” Piocos affirms. 

With opportunities and better livelihood as a driving force, many Filipino breadwinners would rather continue striving abroad than return to the Philippines. “I’d wish to stay in my host country because as the provider of my family, I have a responsibility to stay where there is employment,” Concepcion explains, “As much as I want to go home and be with my family in uncertain times like this, I would rather sacrifice so that they continue to have a good life.” 

Filipinos’ reliance on labor migration is the consequence of the lack of domestic employment opportunities. For Filipinos to stay and thrive within the country, Piocos III posits, “We need to have an economy sustainable enough so that migration for many of the Filipinos would really be more like a choice rather than their only resort to sustain themselves.”

By Alyssa Ann Dela Cruz

By Lance Spencer Yu

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