OFW tales
SINGKIT (The Philippine Star) - February 18, 2018 - 12:00am

We should be exporting goods, not people, an economist told me some years ago, as the term OFW (overseas Filipino worker, if you still don’t know) started to become officially part of our vocabulary. In the years since then, however, we have continuously exported our workers – skilled and unskilled, welders, builders, artists, designers, chefs, embroiderers and beaders, household helpers, factory and IT workers and even professionals like accountants, teachers, engineers, architects, managers – by the thousands each year. About ten percent of our population now live and work abroad. The money they send home – billions of dollars each year, we proudly proclaim – has kept our economy afloat the past years, and provided countless families with food on the table, education for siblings and children, a home of their own, perhaps even a business and livelihood.

I met a Filipina in Singapore recently – let’s call her Lina – who has been away for 28 years, first in Hong Kong. Ten years into working there she joined the household of an American couple, and has been with them ever since, moving with them to Singapore when they decided to retire there.

She comes home once or twice a year, but never at Christmas, as she is usually in Canada with the family. “Ako ang nagpalaki ng mga apo nila,” Lina says, and they take her to their home in Whistler outside Vancouver at least once a year (she just returned to Singapore mid-January). Unfortunately, Lina could not get a US visa (they’ve tried three times), so as the family is traveling around the US she is back in Singapore, in charge of their condo there. She is trying to convince her employers to come to the Philippines, but they are wary about terrorism and martial law and kidnapping. “Pero i-ko-convince ko sila,” she says.

Lina’a daughter recently graduated with a BS Biology degree, cum laude, from a southern university, and plans to go on to medical school. “Kaya kayod pa rin ako,” she says with her characteristic bright smile, with nary a trace of regret or bitterness, only hope for a bright future for her family.  

Sadly, not all OFWs are as fortunate. The tragic fate of household worker Joanna – whose body was found in a freezer at an abandoned house in Kuwait over a year after her family stopped hearing from her and reported her missing to authorities – once again puts the spotlight on the dark side of working abroad. An autopsy showed multiple broken bones and other injuries, indicating Joanna was tortured and abused. Haven’t we heard that story before? We no longer remember their names or the circumstances of the maltreatment they were subjected to, but the list of OFWs abused, mistreated and even killed is sadly way, way too long.

Between Lina’s and Joanna’s stories are the experiences of million of our kababayans now working abroad, far from home, relying on FaceTime and Viber and What’sApp to keep in touch with family and friends, for that precious sound and feel of home. At the grocery in Singapore I’d see Pinays shopping with their employers’ kids in tow, and my heart breaks realizing that they have left their own kids back home in the care of relatives while they are here taking care of other people’s kids.

It is a sad commentary on us – our economy, our society, our government – that despite all the uncertainties and dangers that may await in some unknown land far far away, thousands of Filipinos still take the risk of signing up with a recruiter – who may be nothing more than a human trafficker – for a job abroad, gambling that this roll of the dice will turn out well for them. Pakialamera that I am, I tend to talk to OFWs I meet at airports and on planes, listening to their stories, helping them with problems when I can, rejoicing at accounts of mababait na amo – but always, at the back of my mind, is a tinge of sadness realizing that for most of them, leaving to work abroad is not a choice freely made.

And so, until we have something better to offer them here at home, we can just pray that there will be more stories like Lina’s than Joanna’s.

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