In the first edition of the “ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work” released in March 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO) suggested that in determining the impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on labor, the following be examined: health impact, quantity of jobs (both unemployment and underemployment), quality of jobs (wages and social protection) and specific vulnerable groups. In this thinkpiece, I examine the plight of women Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) as a specific vulnerable group and present some facts and musings regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their health, jobs and wages.
I decided to focus on women OFWs for three reasons. Firstly, it’s International Women’s Month and it is thus an opportune time to push women’s concerns into the heart of public discourse.
Secondly, the starting point is compelling: there are now more female than male OFWs. According to the pre-COVID, 2019 Survey of the National Statistics Authority (NSA), female and male OFWs constitute 56% and 44% of total OFW deployment, respectively. Thus, of the 2,202,000 OFWs deployed in 2019, 1,233,000 were women and 969,000 were men.
Thirdly, I recently had the privilege to be part of a multi-stakeholder conversation on the proposed law for the creation of a Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFil) that was organized by the Safe and Fair Migration Program of the Country Office of the ILO in Manila. In this public conversation, a female OFW emphatically claimed: “Hindi namin kailangan ng bagong departamento, kailangan namin ng trabaho! (We don’t need a new department, we need jobs!).” Those words have not left my mind since.
At the very start of this pandemic, we already knew that most of the OFWs, especially women OFWs, were in countries that had become the epicenters of the deadly COVID-19 virus. In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared that Europe was replacing China as the epicenter, with Italy having the most cases of infection outside of China (i.e., with 15,000 infections), followed by Spain (i.e., with more than 4,000 infections). Cases were then also increasing in the United Kingdom and the United States.
At that time, 81% of OFWs deployed or 1.78 million were in Asia and of these, 1.12 million were women while a little over 660,000 were men. In Hong Kong alone, of the 29,000 deployed OFWs, only around 1,500 were men. In Western Asia, women OFWs also outnumbered the men, with the deployment of 675,000 women and 267,000 men. In Qatar, there were 38,000 women OFWs and 15,000 men. In Europe and North and South Americas, there were more men than women, but the latter’s numbers were still substantial: 44,000 and 51,000, respectively.
In October 2020, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) publicly announced that 9,402 OFWs had been COVID-infected, 4,938 had recovered, and 864 had died. As per DoLE’s latest data released on Jan. 17, “countries in Europe and the Americas listed 3,078 cases with 265 deaths while there were 1,239 reported cases of OFW infection in Asia and the Pacific.” OFW infections have reportedly been highest in the Middle East Region with 7,844 cases and within this region, the most affected OFW population is in Qatar, with 3,873 cases and 19 deaths.
While the DoLE figures regarding cases and deaths among OFWs are not sex-disaggregated, it is safe to assume that most of those affected are women OFWs. In many of the abovementioned countries or regions where COVID-19 cases are very high, women constitute the bulk of the OFW population.
Moreover, women OFWs are in jobs (i.e., healthcare, domestic work, hospitality and accommodation) where social distancing seems impossible. Attending to the sick or caring for entire households require proximity and contact, not distancing.
It is estimated that 25% of the total deployed OFWs, roughly 500,000 in total, are healthcare workers. Healthcare work — especially the nurses’ sector — has been highly feminized and thus, it is women OFWs who are at great risk. Despite the pandemic or perhaps because of the pandemic, there is continuing demand for Filipino health workers. Very recently, no less than DoLE officials claimed that the Philippine government was willing to lift its 5,000 persons-ban of OFW health workers to countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, in exchange of 600,000 vaccines supposedly for OFWs who want to continue to work abroad. Needless to say, this piece of news regarding the possible exchange of nurses for vaccines (as if nurses were tradeable goods!) has been met with public outrage.
JOBS AND WAGES AT-RISK
In the seventh edition of the ILO Monitor released in January 2021, the ILO claims that in 2020, 8.8% of global working hours were lost and that this was equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs. Half of these entailed employment loss while the other half involved reduced work hours.
The DoLE claims that by December 2021, at least one million OFWs will be displaced. This seems to be a realistic claim, given that by October 2020, DoLE figures showed that 486,446 OFWs had already been displaced due to the pandemic.
Of these, 275,619 had been repatriated, 131,047 were preparing to be repatriated while 79,780 were displaced but decided to stay in their host countries. Of those who stayed, the majority (41,581) are in the Middle East.
According to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Uwian na Program figures, 41.6% of total OFW returnees were women, at least half of whom came from the Middle East; 22.9% of the returnees were domestic workers. More women OFWs are expected to be displaced given that they are in occupations or sectors most affected by the pandemic in terms of economic output. Very early on, the ILO claimed that on top of manufacturing, the services, tourism, travel and retail trade sectors had been hit the hardest. Most women OFWs are in services and elementary occupations (this includes domestic work). As per the 2019 NSA data, almost 40% of those deployed, or roughly 870,000 workers worked in elementary occupations. Of these, around 770,000 were women OFWs. In the services and sales sector, meanwhile, there were 385,000 or 17.5% of total OFWs deployed. Of these, almost 220,000 were women. Women OFWs, thus, work mostly in sectors where pay is low and social protection is very limited and now, because of the pandemic, these women are likely to lose even such meager jobs.
The loss of jobs and wages due to the pandemic redound to the loss of income. At the global level, the ILO estimates that labor income loss for 2020 was at $3.7 trillion or 4.4% of the 2019 global gross domestic product (GDP).
In the Philippines, civil society groups and trade unions have been calling the public’s attention to the phenomenon of wage theft, not just wage loss. According to the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA), many OFWs experienced non-payment or reduction of wages/benefits at the onset of the pandemic. Claiming these wages have apparently been very difficult for OFWs, prompting the MFA to call for an “international claims commission” and a “compensation fund” to address this phenomenon of migrant workers being deprived of wages and benefits due them. The pandemic, after all, should not be used as an excuse to invalidate the rightful money claims of workers.
The decline of OFW income is further revealed in the decline of OFW remittances.
According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, personal remittances from overseas Filipinos have declined by 4.2%, from $2.876 billion in August 2019 to $2.756 billion in August 2020. This loss of $120 million is by no means insignificant since many Filipino families rely on remittances for their daily needs.
What we are facing today is a development conundrum. Even if we deny it in paper, our practice says otherwise: labor migration continues to be this country’s main development strategy. If in the past, we asked “isn’t it wise to promote migration?,” today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we probably should be asking: “isn’t it foolish to further migration?”
Carmel V. Abao is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept. of the Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches political theory and international political economy.