ARTICLE: The Breadwinners: Female Migrant Workers

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Jyothi Kanics---Global Survival Network (jkanics@igc.apc.org)
Tue, 10 Nov 1998 09:21:16 -0800 (PST)


1) 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.


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