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For years, the growth of wealthy countries has relied on a supply of willing labor. The pandemic has called that into question.   © Illustration by Eric Chow
The Big Story

Crucial yet forgotten: the Filipino workers stranded by coronavirus

What happens when the world's largest migrant workforce disappears?

AURORA ALMENDRAL, Contributing writer | Philippines

BANGKOK -- Norman Eleazar has spent the last 14 years working in high-end hotels in the glittering capitals of the Gulf states. He was in Tehran, working as corporate director for sales at the Espinas Palace Hotel, the city's only five-star property, when he first heard murmurs about a new virus spreading across China.

Eleazar asked former colleagues who had moved on to Beijing what they knew. By February, before Iran became home to the first major outbreak outside of China, Eleazar had already requisitioned stocks of sanitizer, masks, gloves and temperature guns for the hotel.

By early March, all of the Espinas' international bookings were canceled. The 400-room hotel consolidated operations to three floors, staying open for around 30 tourists who were trapped in Iran when the borders closed. Resumes flowed into Elezear's inbox from former colleagues laid off from shuttered corporate chain hotels across the Middle East, asking for work.

Eleazar felt lucky to keep his job but still had cause to be nervous. The hotel was deserted. "Any time, the owner can call me in and say, 'You have one month left,'" Eleazar said. "Everything is uncertain right now. I cannot predict tomorrow."

Eleazar is one of the 10 million Filipinos who live and work overseas. Filipinos -- along with millions of international migrant workers of other nationalities -- are the foot soldiers of globalization. A 2017 study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that international migrants make up 3.4% of the world's population but account for 10% of gross domestic product.

As native English-speakers, thousands of Filipinos work in hotels and casinos from Las Vegas to Macao and Phnom Penh. Filipinos are nurses and doctors in Milan, Jiddah and Miami. Some 400,000 work aboard cruise ships or cargo ships, where they make up the largest share of any one nationality in the industry. They are engineers at oil refineries and nannies in homes. At airports from Singapore to San Francisco, Filipinos handle baggage, man security and staff customer service desks. When weary travelers transit through the once-bustling airport of Dubai, there's a good chance the person serving them coffee is Filipino.

At the same time that their labor has powered economies abroad, their money has supported households back home. Remittances make up 35% of financial flows to the Philippines -- more than foreign direct investment, tourism and overseas development assistance -- and 9% of the country's GDP.

As the coronavirus pandemic closed borders and countries shut down, the industries Filipino workers have gravitated to -- tourism, airport services, shipping and cruises -- were among the hardest hit. With borders shut and economies shrinking, many are now trapped in foreign countries that feel a limited sense of responsibility for their welfare.

The pandemic has highlighted how much the global economy depends on migrant labor, and how countries have treated their migrant populations as disposable resources. Migrants are struggling with indefinite furloughs and lost jobs; they are being neglected by institutions and face rising xenophobia in many countries. Despite the contributions they have made to the countries where they work -- often at great personal cost -- and even though their labor will be critical to the economic recovery of their host countries, few governments have proved willing to help them through this crisis.

"The pandemic has made existing inequalities worse," said Itayi Viriri, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. If migrants are left behind, the "social and economic consequences for both countries of origin and destination may be more severe and protracted."

National heroes

Filipinos found their foothold in globalized labor in the 1960s and 1970s, when professionals -- including teachers, doctors, nurses and scientists -- were recruited to the U.S. as permanent immigrants. As a former colony of the U.S., Filipinos were familiar with America's language, culture and institutions. Many Filipinos raised in the American colonial period spoke English, were taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and fought in the U.S. Army. Nearly everyone who left sent back money and gifts to the Philippines and spread the word of the opportunities available overseas. Migration became part of the Philippine national dream.

Overseas work has since become embedded in the culture of the Philippines as well as its economy. Overseas Filipino Workers are referred to as bagong bayani, or the new national heroes, in deference to their personal sacrifices for the common good. Songs, television shows and news segments are dedicated to celebrating OFWs.

The reputation is frequently well-deserved. OFWs have pulled their families out of poverty, built homes for their parents and sent younger siblings to university, paving their way into better jobs in the middle class. The personal costs are often high, as lifelong overseas workers must usually leave their families behind.

By the early 1980s, there were three government agencies dedicated to managing migration: the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. As global labor demand shifted from the U.S. to places like Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East, and into industries like domestic work, tourism and shipping, an eager crop of Filipino strivers moved to fill the jobs, most of them migrants on temporary contracts.

Filipinos could always count on their breadwinner relatives abroad, and, by extension, so could the Philippine economy. According to a central bank survey, 80% of remittance inflows are spent, not saved -- an indication of how central remittances are to consumption in the Philippines, and how closely some Filipino families are to running out of money should those remittances stop. Seventy percent of the Philippine economy is consumption-driven.

Remittance flows have also given the economy a degree of resilience against shocks, according to Nicholas Antonio Mapa, ING's senior economist in the Philippines. Remittances are motivated by altruism, not profit, he said, so when there are disruptions or disasters at home, overseas workers tend to send more money. The global distribution of OFWs means that if there is a crisis in one region, workers in less-affected regions make up the difference. This has meant that remittance flows have consistently grown for decades; 2019 was a record year, when overseas Filipinos sent back over $30 billion.

COVID-19, however, is a different kind of crisis and has hit the global economy more broadly and more deeply than any other this century. The industries that traditionally attracted Filipino workers have been disproportionately affected. People who, in the past, might have been able to ride out the disruption or find employment elsewhere are forced to pack up and return home.

So far, the Department of Foreign Affairs has repatriated over 48,000 Filipino workers. Others have paid for their own passage home, and thousands more are seeking repatriation as the pandemic drags on and companies fail to reopen.

Stranded passengers, mostly Overseas Filipino Workers, take shelter under the expressway outside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila.   © Reuters

In May, the testing facilities at Manila's international airport were overwhelmed by the influx of returning migrants, forcing the airport closed as they worked through the backlog. The government strung up yellow caution tape and commandeered hotels as quarantine centers. A dozen cruise ships docked in Manila Bay for weeks, the workers quarantined onboard.

Jene Bartenilla, 45, who worked as a chef for luxury yachts, has spent most of the last 10 years sailing to Monaco, Monte Carlo and ports in Italy and France. The day he arrived in Manila in March, he found out that his latest assignment -- to crew a private yacht in Australia -- had been canceled. He was trapped between a lost contract and the Philippines' strict lockdown, which prevented him from going back to his hometown on the island of Cebu.

Bartenilla endured the first month of the lockdown at a dank and crowded seaman's dormitory in Manila, where about a hundred seafarers -- some returning from months at sea, others denied deployment -- scraped together what money they had for lean communal meals of canned sardines and rice.

"We're just surviving," Bartenilla said, after a month and a half trapped in the boardinghouse. "It's like we're in jail."

Carlos B. Garcia Jr., of Magsaysay Shipping Lines Maritime Corp., the largest manning agency for commercial and cruise ship workers in the Philippines, says about 50,000 to 100,000 Filipino seafarers have lost their jobs. Ships are down to skeleton crews, with as little as 10% left onboard, mostly security and engine maintenance personnel. The industry is not likely to recover until 2022, Garcia said, and will depend on countries like Australia and Canada lifting their restrictions on cruise ships.

Workers are returning to an economy that is already struggling. The Asian Development Bank downgraded its growth expectations for the Philippines from a modest 2% in April to -3.8% in June -- a significant drop from the country's brisk pre-pandemic growth, which has hovered around 6% since 2012.

ING's Mapa said that consumer confidence, and the recovery of the broader economy to pre-pandemic levels, will depend on a vaccine or an accessible, reliable treatment for the virus. "A lot of the things that we relied on in the Philippines that made it such a 6% star will be affected substantially or gravely this year," he said. "I don't think the economy will be back at 6% any time soon."

In June, the Philippine central bank announced that it expected that remittances will fall 5% this year, down from its previous projection of 2% growth -- the first time in decades that annual overseas remittances have not grown. Globally, the World Bank predicts that remittances will decrease by 20%.

The shift from high earnings overseas to hardship at home could push many families that depended on remittances out of the middle classes and into more fragile territory, warned Aiko Kikkawa Takenaka, an economist for the Asian Development Bank who specializes in migration. "There is a risk of them falling back to a very vulnerable situation, including possibly crossing the poverty line," Takenaka said.

Households without much in savings are most under strain. Miriam Prado, a domestic worker in Beirut, lost her income in February when her employers left the country ahead of Lebanon's lockdown. She used to send between $100 and $200 a month to support her two sons. Back in the Philippines, her younger son Keanu Prado, 20, in their seaside village of Dumangas in Bohol, spent the last of the money his mother sent in March on rice, water, salt and oil. He now depends on neighbors to give him fish and meat when they can spare it.

His plans have been thrown into uncertainty. He was in his first year of college to study hospitality management, so that he could also work in hotels abroad.

"I want to give back everything that she spent on me," Prado said of his mother, "to repay her for the exhaustion and hardship that she took on."

Disposable resources

Returning workers have found themselves in a precarious situation, but it is often worse for those who decided to stay overseas.

Of the Philippines' 2.2 million overseas workers on temporary contracts, more than half went to the Middle East. In many of the rich Gulf states, migrant workers -- from the Philippines and other countries like India, Bangladesh and Nepal -- make up a larger part of the population than locals -- more than 70% in Qatar and Kuwait, and more than 80% in the United Arab Emirates, according to World Bank figures.

"All these economies need migrant workers," said Houtan Homayounpour, head of the International Labor Organization Project Office in Qatar. "if you don't have migrant workers, your economy will be shut. They're a fundamental part of the economy."

Despite the critical role that they play in the economies of the Middle East, support for migrant workers has been uneven across a region where human rights abuses, xenophobia and limited labor rights are common and social protections are largely non-existent. The result has been thousands of migrant workers left with limited access to cash, cordoned off into migrant neighborhoods and quarantined in densely packed dorms, putting some at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

One Filipino worker in Dubai, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal -- since the government is highly sensitive to criticism of its treatment of migrants -- described dire quarantine conditions. In her room, six people were packed into three narrow bunk beds, with an open space in the center no larger than 1 sq. meter, a setup typical of housing in Dubai's migrant neighborhoods. "We are fed up of having no distance in our small room," she said.

She added that she has received help neither from the government of Dubai nor the Philippines. (Her country did offer $200 in aid to workers abroad, but many who applied, like herself, did not receive it.)

Her days were reduced to thinking about how to get the next meal for herself and the other migrants she lives with. "I feel low and dishonorable to stand in line to get food," she said, but the charities handing out food are a lifeline. "It's torture for me that I am the provider," she said of her small group that has come to depend on her during the lockdown.

Fishermen sail past a group of cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay as crew members undergo quarantine.   © Reuters

Qatar stood out from neighboring Gulf countries by moving quickly to provide policy guidance on how companies could support their foreign employees during the pandemic, providing emergency loans to business owners to continue paying furloughed migrant workers and loosening restrictions on contracts that would allow workers to move between jobs if they become unemployed.

While enforcement has been imperfect, Homayounpour said, "They've been trying. There are challenges. I'd be lying if I didn't say there weren't challenges. I really am afraid that there will be many more."

Several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, are treating sick migrants for free to try control the spread of the virus but have done little else to look after migrant workers. Reports of hunger and mistreatment are common. A member of parliament in Kuwait called on the government to "purify the country of illegal workers." On local television, an actress suggested that migrants should be put into the desert, and a Kuwaiti journalist called Egyptian migrants "burdens to the state" who should be deported.

In Saudi Arabia, unemployed domestic workers report being locked into small rooms in their recruitment agencies. In Lebanon, Ethiopian women were reportedly dropped off by their former employers at their embassy, stranded on the sidewalk without enough money for the flight home.

Rima Kalush, program director for, an advocacy group, said the pandemic has intensified existing problems in Gulf countries and exposed the lack of protection for workers. Workers with open court cases alleging wage theft have been repatriated without their unpaid wages, and employers have broken or unilaterally changed contracts, citing force majeure conditions brought on by the pandemic. "The system was never good," Kalush said. "And the crisis made it even worse."

Countries that have given subsidies to workers and businesses have rarely included migrant workers in their support programs. "When they think of protecting the economy they don't really have migrant workers in mind," Kalush said. "While they're of course necessary during normal economic times, they're also very dispensable."

"In practice, I think the unsaid policy -- if you can call it that -- in the Gulf, is: If there is a crisis, people go back home," said Ryszard Cholewinski, a senior migration specialist for ILO in the Middle East.

Cholewinski said that access to social protection, like unemployment benefits, would allow migrant workers to stay on in the country and reenter the labor market more quickly after the crisis subsides.

For years, the prevailing assumption in many wealthy countries relying on migrant workers has been that there will always be a supply of willing labor. The pandemic has called that into question.

When the casual restaurant where Cams Alejandro, 26, worked in Doha, Qatar, shut down in March after COVID-19 broke out in their commissary, the company offered their employees two months' pay, full end-of-term benefits -- the equivalent of a pension for temporary contract workers -- and a ticket back home.

The package was generous, but Alejandro turned it down. She preferred to work, and gambled that the restaurant would open again soon. She remained in Doha, living off her savings and a housing stipend from the company.

In May, the restaurant called an all-staff meeting. Everyone was laid off. Even though she stayed, in pursuit of her dream of becoming a flight attendant for Qatar Airways, Alejandro said the experience has given her a new perspective. As she waits for a repatriation flight, she has been reflecting on whether she wants a life so far away from her home and her family. She has been taking online classes and now plans to stay in the Philippines.

"Instead of just work, work, work," Alejandro said, "now I'm exploring different jobs."

Alejandro, however, may be an outlier. Even as the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the power imbalance between migrant workers and their employers, and shown how little obligation many countries feel toward imported staff, the same economic pressures that drove millions of people to leave home in the first place could become more acute in the coming global recession.

Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist and first vice president at BDO Unibank, says that while the landscape has changed, facing down hardship is something Filipinos have done before. "The OFW who sacrifices their lives and their time away from their family will still have that same dedication today, amid COVID-19," he said. "I think the resolve is there. ... The Filipino model and the Filipino have always been this resilient."

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