THE BREADWINNERS:
FEMALE MIGRANT WORKERS

By Gina Mission, Philippines



After four years of nursing school Jasmin Ortillano, 23, was poised to attain the Filipino dream: a job not in her native Manila but rather some thousands of miles away in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There, in a place where she faced potentially life-threatening mistreatment, separation from family and no social life there was one huge draw: a $500 monthly salary -- more than twice what she could hope to earn at home even if she was lucky enough to find a job there at all. The pay would support her parents and six siblings.

Ortillano's story is typical of tens of thousands of 20- and 30-something Filipino women who support their families by cleaning houses, performing in nightclubs, or caring for children, the sick, or elderly in overseas countries. Indeed, women form the majority of the seven million Filipino foreign workers, who constitute 10 percent of the total population, and 20 percent of the productive labor force, according to figures released this month by the Filipino House of Representatives' Committee on Overseas Foreign Workers. The workers are scattered in 181 countries, the most popular spots are in Asia -- Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan -- and Europe -- Britain, Spain and Italy.

Male workers, particularly from poor Asian countries, relying on overseas employment to support their families, have become a common feature in recent years. But only in the Philippines do women constitute such a large part of the workforce. In 1992, about 51 percent of the newly-hired overseas workers were women, while two years later the figure had risen to 60 percent, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA).

"Filipino women rank among the most mobile or migratory in Asia," said sociologist Maruja Asis of the University of the Philippines.

Women are expected to make up an increasingly high percentage of the work force. Many male Filipino migrants work in construction -- which is in variable demand depending on the state of a country's economy. This sector has been shrinking owing to an economic slowdown in the Middle East and the Asian financial crisis. But such problems have not affected women's employment. That very Asian crisis, with its subsequent pressures on men in Japan, has prompted an increased demand for diversions such as female entertainers -- the most popular job there for Filipino women.

Other jobs filled by Filipino women are less likely to be filled by women from host countries, who consider such work demeaning. That includes domestic help -- which takes up the largest portion of Filipino overseas workers -- and caregiving.

"Barring radical changes in attitudes and the labor market, these occupations will continue to be female-dominated in the future and the high demand for such workers is likely to remain the same," wrote Asis in her 1997 book Understanding Women, Work and Migration (Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility).

The escalation in overseas employment dates back to 1972, when the Philippine government adopted labor migration as a temporary measure due to an economic slump prompted by increasing unemployment. With their strong English skills and adaptability, Filipinos were ideally suited to such work. Also important was a relatively liberated culture which allows women to become the family breadwinner and to travel abroad alone.

In the past decade, the number of overseas workers has risen beyond everyone's expectations to become an essential part of the economy. Between 22 to 35 million Filipinos -- 34 to 53 percent of the total population -- are directly dependent on remittance from migrant workers. The per capita income in the Philippines is $2,681, and unemployment is high.

"Many migrant households continue to send members to work abroad to maintain the lifestyle and income they have grown accustomed to," says Asis. Otherwise, she adds, if they decide to come home and find themselves unemployed, "they run the risk of moving back to square one."

That women constitute an increasingly larger part of the work force bodes well for the general economy since, as wage earners, female overseas workers tend to remit 71 percent more than their male counterparts. In the Philippines, it is the women who are supposedly the "purse holders" in the family. Having known how hard life is back home, women workers tend to send all they can to help their families. For instance, Filipino workers in Hong Kong, mostly domestics, sent home $36 million during the first two months of 1995. In contrast, the more numerous and largely male Filipino overseas labor force in Saudi Arabia remitted only $1.2 million during the same period.

Overseas work has its risks. Some 700 workers, mostly women, die each year following mistreatment by their employers, according to recent figures released by the Filipino House of Representatives Committee on Overseas Foreign Workers. But women activists say the mortality figure is likely to be even higher. An anonymous source at Ninoy Aquino International Airport says that 40 foreign workers arrive home in coffins each week.

Most cases of death and abuse against female overseas workers occur in Arab countries. The best-known case involved Sarah Balabagan, a domestic worker in the United Arab Emirates, who in 1995 stabbed her male employer after he tried to rape her. Balabagan was sentenced to death, but international outcry led to the reduction of her term, and she returned to the Philippines after serving nine months in jail. Earlier, another Filipino domestic worker was executed in Singapore for double murder.

But such incidents have not translated into a decline of Filipino women ready to work. A 1997 survey by McCann Erickson, the Philippines' largest advertising agency, revealed that six out of ten adults prefer working abroad. Competition for such jobs is fierce.

"The danger is always there. I have heard a lot of horrible stories of people who suffered abroad, but life is a gamble," said Chona Sacedon, a domestic helper who recently returned from Singapore.

Trying to protect the rights of female migrants workers is NOVA (Network Opposed to Violence Against Women Migrants), a network of 16 Filipino women's organizations. Two years ago, NOVA conducted a survey to evaluate government enforcement of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, designed to protect overseas foreign workers. NOVA concluded that the government had failed to keep its commitment, and that there were many abuses against Filipino workers abroad. Using this survey as a reference, NOVA is lobbying for legislation to protect female workers.

But there is little NOVA can do to deal with the social costs of overseas foreign labor. With workers away on contracts ranging from ten months to five years, many female, as well as male workers, leave behind children to be raised by grandparents.

"I would have loved to work here, where I can be close to my children, but my earnings as an elementary school teacher can never sustain my five kids," says Virgincita Cepeda, a widow who'll be returning to Canada for the third time as a nanny. "When I left home for abroad, my youngest child was only two years old. When I returned home after two years, she didn't recognize me any more. The older kids seemed cold and distant." The eldest, now a 15-year-old boy, says Cepeda, is already smoking cigarettes.

In some cases, the children grow up undisciplined and disrespectful of their parents and also suffer health problems, according to a recent study by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. Infidelity or marital dissolution also occurs more often among couples separated for long periods.

Their families' high expectations add to the overseas workers' list of anxieties which pressure them to perform beyond their limits. They also suffer greatly from homesickness. "There are nights when I couldn't sleep," said Cepeda. "I always worry about my kids and their condition; if they are eating well; if they are doing their schoolwork."

But when asked to weigh the benefits of sending home $400 monthly -- compared to the P5,000 ($180) she earned working as teacher back home -- against the problems of working abroad, Cepeda concludes that "...when it's a matter of family survival, do we really have a choice?"


Gina Mission, who lives in the Philippines, writes for CyberDyaro http://www.codewan.com.ph/CyberDyaryo, an on-line newsmagazine for. She has been writing about women's issues for several years.