Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 19 September 2012


Filipinos who hold jobs overseas on special work visa arrangements have an obligation to return home, unlike those who migrate. Philippine statistics on OFWs include all Filipinos who live abroad. In 2010, these statistics list 8.579 million Filipinos. But these numbers are an overestimate.

Last week’s discussion of labor migration stated that all Filipino immigrants in other countries numbered 4.06 million. Deducting these from the total number of Filipinos living abroad, OFWs could be around 4.55 million. A total of 3.86 million hold “temporary” work permits. The rest, 0.66 million, have irregular status.

There are many possible interpretations of “irregular.” They could be undocumented or expired holders of work permits or overstaying tourists who have found work. Some of these irregulars could be “illegals” in the context of the host country. And they would have the status of “TNT” – tago nang tago, that is, in hiding – according to our colorful colloquial reference to them.

The OFW: land-based workers. The OFW is on a temporary work visa and usually holds a contract of work that is consummated before leaving Manila. He might be able to bring his family with him for the duration of his contract if it is a high-paying job and has sufficient provision for family living support abroad. Often, this type of contract is given to highly paid professionals. The other type of OFW is the skilled worker. Most of the OFW laborers do not bring their families with them. The wage can hardly cover his living expense, but his family stays in the Philippines and he has to support its members.

There are as many seamen as there are land-based OFWs today. In 2010, there are close to 780,000 who left the country as OFWs. In recent years, land-based OFWs had surged in number, surpassing Filipino seamen who used to be more numerous.

Land-based OFWs. The growth of land-based OFWs was given a big push when the government – during the late 1970s – created an office that promoted and oversaw Filipino labor migration for contract work abroad. Such a move took advantage of the jobs opened up for foreigners in the Middle East as a result of oil prosperity among the oil exporting countries after the energy shock raised their incomes immensely. The jobs that opened up included a rise in demand for construction workers, oil company technicians, commerce and industry arising from boom economies, and all forms of service workers.

Saudi Arabia today accounts for about one-fourth of land-based workers in the Middle Eastern countries. Close to 2.4 million OFW workers are located in this region. Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE (United Arab Emirates) account for most other workers in the region.

Even as the Middle East jobs got saturated, other regions of the world opened up specific demand for OFW skills. The flow of workers to Europe were confined to a few professionals, but a large inflow of domestic household and service workers have subsequently flooded Europe. Italy and UK hire mostly domestic workers. Also prevalent are those who got employed in the service industries: hotels and restaurants and other service sectors. Nurses and other health workers have been attracted to these countries as well.

The newly prosperous countries of Asia have also begun hiring OFWs. With their labor markets tightening, temporary industrial foreign workers became the solution. So, South Korea and Taiwan have begun to import Philippine factory labor at fixed term contracts. These types of labor supply mechanism depended heavily on industrial demand in these countries. Today, Japan’s demographic situation of old people has created extra demand for medical workers, led by nurses.

Some types of Filipino skills are found in our ASEAN member neighbors, who filled up their temporary need to develop their local labor supply, by importing Filipino labor. Thus, when some banks in Indonesia expanded, they hired Filipinos with banking experience.

Philippine OFW labor supply is also found in nations less developed than us (where their particular type of skill was available at a premium). There are OFW workers in many countries of Africa, although these are relatively few compared to those who have trooped to more well-known places. For instance, Filipino pilots have flown African air traffic routes.

Two personal anecdotes provide us rare examples but true testimonials. Anecdote 1: On a June day sometime in the 1990s, after a tiring World Bank mission day, as I was finishing dinner at a restaurant near the only major hotel in Kampala, Uganda, I heard a big group singing Bayang Magiliw, the national anthem! It turned out that there was an active Filipino community there.

Anecdote 2: About the same time, a colleague scientist from U.P. was recruited to do a multi-month research study during the subzero cold summer of Antarctica. Thinking he might be the first Filipino to work in that subcontinent, he was surprised to find countrymen already working there in varying capacities.

Occupational work of OFWs. Most of the new hires among OFWs in 2010 are generally workers tied up with production, sales, agricultural workers and service workers. In this year, there were 340,279 OFWs. According to data from POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Authority), 80 percent of these are either “production workers” (35.4 percent of total) or “service workers,” (45percent). Many of the service workers are employed in the home as maids and production related workers are skilled workers often assigned to construction and telecommunications workers. The rest of the workers are agricultural workers and sales clerks. We will refer to these as “general workers.”

The most skilled types of OFWs are classified as managerial and administrative and also professional, medical and other technical workers. Professional, medical and technical workers represent 12.3 percent of total OFWs. Finally, administrative and managerial workers represent only a small amount, 1,400 workers, that is, 0.43 percent of the outstanding OFWs during this year.

For every managerial type worker who is hired as OFW, there are 207 general type OFW workers. If we add the large number of professionals and medical and technical workers to the managerial OFWs, there are 6.9 general workers for each manager and medical workers so classified.

Seamen OFWs. There are two types of OFWs: land-based workers and mariners. Long before land-based OFWs started the migratory flux of Filipino labor, seamen were already working in the world’s oceans and seas.

Filipino seamen offered very special skill sets and their wages were very competitive against the highly unionized mariners that used to dominate the world’s industrial shipping routes. Twenty percent of seamen in 2010 worked in passenger vessels. Another 20 percent work in bulk carriers in merchant trade and 13 percent are workers in container vessels. The rest of them work in all types of tanker vessels (oil/energy, chemical, cars, general cargo and so on). In all, 86 percent of all seamen are thus identified, with the rest of them unclassified.