Population & Society

Protection – or Bureaucratic Burden?: Behind the Philippines’ Regulation of Overseas Contract Workers

Thursday, September 15, 2022

There are over two million overseas contract workers from the Philippines employed in every kind of occupation around the world. Every Philippine government pledges to create more and better-paying jobs at home so that Filipinos do not need to go abroad to provide for their families. But for decades, the number of Filipino workers in foreign lands has generally kept growing. New Zealand barrister and politician Paulo Reyes Garcia reviews the regulatory framework that the Philippines enforces to manage the recruitment and deployment of overseas Filipino workers, arguing that the burden of meeting the requirements is necessary to protect this highly vulnerable community. 

Protection – or Bureaucratic Burden?: Behind the Philippines’ Regulation of Overseas Contract Workers

New recruits: The Philippines is the biggest source of nurses worldwide, with the government capping the number allowed to go abroad to work at 7,500 a year (Credit: filipinawomensnetwork.org)

Consider the recent experience of “Jane”, a Filipino in her 60s with an employment contract to work as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Her employer there had agreed with her a short-term arrangement to travel to the United Kingdom to work for them for two weeks. On that basis, the British government issued Jane a temporary work visa valid for six months. But to travel from the Philippines, where she had gone on a home visit, to meet her employer in Europe so that they could together enter the UK (a condition of the visa), Jane needed to have the short-term contract validated by the Philippine labor office in London. She was not able to do so in time and therefore could not obtain the necessary exit certification required for overseas contract workers from the Philippines (overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs) to travel. Jane attempted to exit her home country as a tourist to Singapore, aiming to then to head for the UK, but was prevented at Manila immigration control from departing. She ended up unable to take up the short-term opportunity, for which she would have been compensated at a rate over four times her Hong Kong pay.

A worker frustrated by the bureaucratic hassles and the loss of bonus earnings. An employer disappointed by disrupted plans who had to rush to make other childcare arrangements with minders that she neither knew nor trusted. It is easy to blame government laws, regulations and processes such as those that the Philippines has in place to manage the deployment of OFWs around the world for the difficulties Jane and her employer experienced. But while a case such as theirs was unfortunate and could have been avoided or remedied had there been more time, there is rhyme and reason for the complex framework that govern such employment. The aim: to protect migrant workers, including those who choose to leave the families and homes to take up contracts to work abroad.

Arrival rules, 2020: Despite the pandemic, the overseas Filipino worker is ever more in demand globally (Credit: Zerin A / Shutterstock.com)

Arrival rules, 2020: Despite the pandemic, the overseas Filipino worker is ever more in demand globally (Credit: Zerin A / Shutterstock.com)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 169 million international migrant workers in the world, representing about five percent of global labor force. The number of OFWs is currently about 2.2 million, down about 18.6 percent over the pandemic. Over 45 percent work in “elementary” occupations, with about 15 percent in sales and service, and about 12 percent as plant and machine operators. The Philippines is the biggest source of seafarers in the world, while Filipinos are well represented in the healthcare and domestic worker fields. Nearly 60 percent of OFWs are women, with the median age between 30 and 40. Some 84 percent work in Asian economies (Hong Kong 6+ percent, Singapore 5+ percent), with over 26 percent in Saudi Arabia and 14 percent employed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). About 6 percent are in the European Union (EU).

The army of OFWs is crucial to the Philippine economy. Their total remittances home in 2021 amounted to US$31.4 billion, up from $29.9 billion in 2020 (which was a drop from 2019 due to the pandemic). The average monthly OFW income is between about US$252 and US$293. Compare that to the monthly minimum wage in the Philippines of just US$211. The vast majority of Filipinos of working age, however, are unable to find regular paid minimum-wage work. While the gap between the average monthly earnings of OFWs and the domestic minimum-wage figure seems not so wide, keep in mind that the pay for workers holding elementary jobs at home would be far below minimum wage. The lack of employment opportunities at home, the declining quality of domestic education and training opportunities, and the deterioration of social conditions over the past three-plus decades and the ever-increasing deployment of OFWs and resulting division of families have produced an impoverished and highly vulnerable but relatively young workforce in the Philippines.

A highly vulnerable community

Because many in this community of OFWs may not have the education and support from family required to be discerning and appreciative of the high level of protection offered them by the Philippines’ system in place to manage the OFW’s employment process from recruitment to deployment to return, the rules appear to be oppressive and excessively bureaucratic.

Over the decades, the Philippine government, through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and its overseas arm, the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), has developed a system and structure of requirements aimed at protecting the OFWs, ensuring all work opportunities for Filipinos overseas are legitimate. The POEA has been recognized by the ILO, a UN organization, for its efforts to protect workers. The pursuit of protection, however, can be a double-edged sword. 

Dire economic circumstances for many, the absence of real options for regular paid work, and the level of pay offered overseas prompt OFWs to want to leave the Philippines urgently and take up work abroad. There are other socio-cultural influences that come to bear on top of employment opportunity – the idea of leaving one’s hometown or city and venturing to a foreign land is considered a badge of honor, a matter of pride and excitement not only for the worker but also for their entire families – no matter what the work. The Philippines is a highly online society, with social-media usage considered the highest in the world at an average of 248 minutes a day in 2021. So in the digital world, Filipinos physically going global to make a living does not carry any stigma or sense of shame. At home, OFWs are widely held up as heroes, whose hard work often in elementary jobs such as domestic help has for years been a major support for the Philippine economy, especially in bad times. 

One-long-stop shop: The rules and regulations for OFWs have been developed over decades of managing the recruitment and deployment abroad of millions of Filipinos (Credit: POEA)

One-long-stop shop: The rules and regulations for OFWs have been developed over decades of managing the recruitment and deployment abroad of millions of Filipinos (Credit: POEA)

In this context, OFWs and employers alike often perceive the inflexibility of onerous requirements enforced by the POEA system as burdensome, as they frequently result in departure delays, often as in Jane’s case all parties want to implement a valid arrangement as soon as possible. But before any OFW is allowed to board an aircraft out of the country. POEA requirements must be met. In host economies, employers are often eager or in a rush to receive the worker they have hired. This is especially true for a family urgently needing someone to care for a newborn or to replace a helper who returned home on short notice. The shared objective of employer and employee to get contracts started as soon as they are set can frequently be thwarted by the length of time required to meet POEA regulations.

Crucial safety net

Both OFWs and their employers, oftentimes on the suggestion of middlemen who have some understanding of the POEA requirements, look to an often used sidestep. The OFW is asked to travel first to a visa-waiver country as a tourist/visitor. From there, the worker gets engaged by contract and is then asked to travel to a third country where the employer is. By leaving for employment from a country other than the Philippines, the OFW and the employer effectively avoid having to deal with POEA requirements. But this “sidestep”  is fraught with danger for the OFW.

POEA requirements aim to ensure that the OFWs are well protected. They include employer vetting, the insistence on contracts that include insurance cover for accidental death or permanent injury, the repatriation of remains, airfare to the country of work and return to the Philippines under specific conditions. They also require the involvement of the Philippine labor attaché or any authorized representative of the Philippine embassy or consulate or the nearest competent and appropriate government body in the host country to help settle employment disputes through resolution mechanisms required in employment contracts.

By resorting to the “sidestep”, the protective POEA provisions may well be missing from overseas employment contracts simply because they may not be required by the laws of the employer’s country – whether or not the employer wished to avoid being bound by these rules. I have observed firsthand instances when an OFW has died or been injured but the worker’s contract did not include the usual POEA requirements. That has meant that, apart from relying on the New Zealand system of compensations for workplace injuries and fatalities, the OFW or their family have little recourse other than to appeal to the employer for compassion and assistance. 

The risks of avoiding the normal contractual standards may be far more serious than missing repatriation costs. While most employers going for the sidestep are most likely motivated by urgency and the need to get an employee started immediately and are not intent on abusing their recruits, there are unscrupulous recruiters who prey on vulnerable workers, especially those desperate to start working and earning, who could become victims of exploitation by criminal elements including human traffickers and slave masters. 

Perpetual protection

What many OFWs and employers often do not expect – and what makes the Philippine system both onerous and effective – is that the POEA requirements must be confirmed as met every time an OFW seeks to depart from the Philippines to work overseas. This includes even departures after a short visit home for vacation or family event or emergency. That means that OFWs need to present all the evidence required to depart and return to their country of work. Considering that time away is typically short, especially after long absences, having to spend the time to obtain necessary clearances can reasonably seem to be an undue burden. 

But enforcing the protections each time ensures that OFWs who may have changed employers are fully protected. There are employers who purposely seek third-country OFWs for the ease of recruiting them after they have been brought in by others and might then be contracted to avoid meeting POEA requirements and the time and costs related to fulfilling them. 

Pandemic homecoming: Workers are vulnerable not just to contractual oversight and lesser employment standards but also to schemes of the corrupt and the criminal (Credit: DFA)

Pandemic homecoming: Workers are vulnerable not just to contractual oversight and lesser employment standards but also to schemes of the corrupt and the criminal (Credit: DFA)

Ever more in demand, ever in in need of security

Despite Covid-19, the OFW is ever more in demand globally. OFWs largely enjoy a good reputation around the world for integrity, hard work and tenacity with a smile, an ability and eagerness to get along, and dedication to self-sacrifice as they send money home to their families. In New Zealand, OFWs dominate the healthcare sector, the dairy and farming industries, and the hospitality and tourism trades. OFWs are in practically ever profession, business or vocation, from packer to police officer, from lawyer to longshoreman. 

Every migrant worker should be valued for the work that they do – and be looked after. The rules and regulations for OFWs that the Philippines implements and enforces have been developed over decades of experience managing the recruitment, deployment and fulfilment of millions of Filipinos who heroically left their homeland to take work that people in their host countries refuse to do or are unable to handle, all to support their families and improve their lives. 

To be sure, meeting the requirements can be burdensome and officials could always do a better job in making the processes more time sensitive to all involved, while maintaining a keen awareness that employers and employees will always want to get everything sorted speedily. The foundation of the POEA framework, which is rightly recognized around the world as the gold standard for overseas contract worker protection, is the Philippines’ ingrained sense of responsibility to its hard-working citizens, particularly those most vulnerable not just to contractual detail and oversight or lesser employment standards in other countries but also to schemes of the corrupt and the criminal.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Paulo Reyes Garcia

Paulo Reyes Garcia

Barrister and solicitor, New Zealand politician

Paulo Reyes Garcia is a New Zealand politician and was from 2019-20 member of Parliament in the House of Representatives for the New Zealand National Party. Garcia was born in the city of San Juan, part of Metro Manila, Philippines, in 1965. He is a graduate of the University of the Philippines and also attended the Academy of American and International Law in Texas in the US. He was a barrister before entering Parliament. In the Philippines, where he practiced for ten years, his focus was commercial law, particularly as it applied to foreign and multinational companies operating in that country. After moving to New Zealand, he practiced commercial law and immigration law with a focus on investor migration. After initially working for McLeod & Associates and Corban Revell Lawyers, he established his own firm, Garcia Law – now called Paulo Garcia Barristers & Solicitors. Garcia was appointed honorary consul general of the Philippines in Auckland in 2012 and was also involved in establishing the New Zealand Philippines Business Council. In the 2017 general election, Garcia stood for the National Party and was ranked 50 on their party list. He entered Parliament in 2019, becoming New Zealand's first MP of Filipino descent. In 2020, he was briefly deputy chairperson of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, defense and trade. He ran as a list-only candidate ranked 25 in the general election that year but was not returned to the legislature.

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