Lala Abalon spent five years bouncing between temporary office jobs in Dubai before she found steady work as a customer service agent at a real estate company. Then the pandemic struck, and she, along with hundreds of thousands of other Filipino guest workers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, was sent packing.
Nine months after returning to her parents’ home in the Philippines, she can’t wait to go back overseas. “I don’t see a future here,” says Abalon, 33, who now manages her family’s noodle shop north of Manila. “Life is difficult in the Philippines. The pay is better and everything is more accessible abroad.”
As countries began closing their borders in an attempt to keep out the novel coronavirus, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government launched an operation to repatriate Philippine migrant workers stranded abroad. At last count, more than 560,000 have returned. It hasn’t been an ideal homecoming, though: The economy contracted 9.6% last year, the most of any country in Southeast Asia, and a spike in Covid-19 cases is hampering the recovery.
“The workers I send abroad often tell me, ‘We’ll die of hunger here if we stay with our families,’” says Alicia Devulgado, president of the Overseas Placement Association of the Philippines, a trade group that represents recruitment agencies. A survey released last month by the International Organization for Migration shows that almost half of the returnees intend to leave again.
Since the start of the year, about 60,000 Filipinos per month have been leaving the country to take jobs in other nations, though that’s only one-third of the pre-pandemic average. The departures bode well for an economy that’s reliant on remittances. Money sent home by Filipinos working abroad amounted to 9% of gross domestic product in 2019. Those flows declined by 0.8%, to $29.9 billion, last year—the first annual drop since 2001. The central bank predicts they’ll rise 4% this year.
The Philippines has been exporting workers for years, but the trend picked up in the 1970s as neighboring Asian economies opened up and growth took off. Nowadays, Persian Gulf countries also host large numbers of Filipino migrants. Across the globe, the Filipino diaspora numbered 10 million in 2019. Many are employed in construction, nursing, and household work.
“Filipinos are the preferred labor across the globe in a number of skills, with their work ethic and knowledge of English,” said Philippine Central Bank Governor Benjamin Diokno in April. “The long-term prospect for Filipinos abroad is basically high.”
There’s a downside, however: The exodus of so many citizens—including scientists and engineers—has hollowed out the domestic workforce, causing a shortage in skilled professionals. Health workers also are leaving for better pay abroad, even as many localities lack doctors and nurses.
Demand for Philippine workers has picked up in recent months, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K., according to Devulgado of the Overseas Placement Association. The government has prioritized Covid vaccinations for those flying out soon, which is also enticing some to leave.
Den Cantara left her job as a domestic worker in Lebanon last year when that country’s economy descended into crisis. On her return, she briefly worked as a security guard but quit when her employer didn’t pay her salary on time. “The money I had quickly dried up,” says the 29-year-old single mother. “It’s really difficult choosing to be away from my children again, but I need to work abroad so that they can finish school.”
The pace of departures would be higher if not for local movement curbs designed to halt the spread of the virus and a cap the government imposed on health-worker exits. Additionally, some host countries such as Taiwan have tightened border controls in response to Covid outbreaks.
“We need to take into account that some employers have closed down,” says Bernard Olalia, head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. The Duterte administration has identified Russia, Germany, and nations in Eastern Europe as countries that have potential to admit more Filipino workers.
Advocacy groups are concerned that the economic straits caused by the pandemic may erase years’ worth of work in boosting protections for guest workers. “This can roll back gains in promoting decent wages and work conditions, as people may take on jobs with employers that don’t make these a priority,” says Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila.
The government is encouraging returnees who want to stay in the country to retrain for jobs in call centers and education. Some have been hired to build a railway linking a nearby province to the capital, part of a national infrastructure drive. Loans of as much as 100,000 pesos ($2,100) are being offered to former expats who want to set up businesses.
With presidential elections due next year, the Duterte administration has a vested interest in catering to the needs of overseas Filipino workers—almost 2 million were eligible to vote in the last election. Also, as breadwinners, they can sway their families’ votes, says Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. “They will consider, among several other factors, how they were treated by the government agencies and other citizens and whether there are other opportunities or economic alternatives provided to them,” she says.
Since returning from Dubai, Abalon has been weighing retraining to become a caregiver in the U.S. or applying for a waitressing job in Canada. “Maybe I’ll consider staying in the Philippines if another pandemic happens, or once I have enough money to retire,” she says. “For now, I have to work abroad for my future.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.