It is a truism that the Philippines’ biggest export is people. The number of Filipinos overseas is more than 10% of the Philippine population, and money sent from overseas workers to family members back at home represents more than 10% of the national GDP.
A few months after we arrived, one of the other missionary families asked if we’d be interested in a part-time cook — they loved the woman who was cooking for them but she really wanted full time work and they didn’t need her for that many hours. We agreed and soon grew to greatly appreciate Helen’s cooking and baking as well as her honesty, industry, and cheerful attitude. Helen was a grandmother and her income helped support an extended family including an aging father and a 10-year-old grandson for whom she was the primary caregiver. Some years before, Helen had responded to the recruiting advertisements and gone to Kuwait as a domestic worker on a two-year contract. It wasn’t long before she discovered that all was not as advertised. Her story is not an unusual one: overseas Filipinas working as domestic servants are frequently exploited and even abused. Helen left her first employer and was able to find another job “under the table” in order to keep sending money back to her family in the Philippines. She was reported for working illegally and spent months in a Kuwaiti jail before returning to the Philippines.
Helen eventually left us for a better job in Manila. A few months later, we learned that the sister-in-law of one of our apartment complex’s security guards was planning to go overseas to work, leaving her husband and two young children in hopes of better financial security for her children’s schooling and future. Her brother-in-law was trying hard to dissuade her: even if she were to get a “good” job with a reputable agency, she would not see her family for several years. It did not take much persuasion for us to offer her a job with our family. Of course, this solution is not generally available for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Filipina mothers who leave their children behind to work overseas, believing this is the best choice they can make for their families.
Getting a good job here in the Philippines is difficult. Because of an abundance of workers, the job market is saturated and even college-educated workers often struggle to find employment or make a liveable “middle-class” income. Employers can pick and choose and job specifications, especially for retail work, almost always list specifications that would be quite illegal in the U.S.: “Must be female, over 5’2″, and under 25 years old.” (To work at a grocery store check-out counter.)
Mary, one of my former patients, texted me today to tell me she was planning to apply to work overseas. She is 26 and had been working at the grocery store where I usually shop, so I saw her regularly. Her contract had expired and despite her experience and work ethic she was not going to be hired back again because she was “over the age limit.” She saw overseas work as her only option now.
“Maguol ko sa akong mga anak … wala ko trabaho wala sila makaon,” she texted. (I will be sad for my children but if I don’t work they are not able to eat.)
(She is still looking for a job here in Davao as well though she is running up against the “age limit” in many of the retail jobs for which she is qualified; please pray with me that she will find something.)