How the pandemic is revealing the ways we are failing our OFWs

“You do it all alone, and they don’t care”

How the pandemic is revealing the ways we are failing our OFWs

By Fiona Wildgoose

If anyone deserves to be called a “modern-day superhero”, it is Awheng Ocado.

In 2014, with support from her partner looking shaky, Awheng made the difficult decision to become an OFW to sustain her family. She took a job as a cook in a casino in Macau, leaving her two children, then aged 9 and 7, with her mother. Since then, she has seen them in person only twice a year.

When I ask her how this makes her feel, she says, “It is heartbreaking. You cannot bring back the time that is lost.”

“I always explain to them the situation: I want to go home. I want to stay with them, [but] I need to bring them to college before I go back.”

This noble goal is now under threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 first appeared in Macau in January, and the outbreak has been small: 46 cases, no deaths. However, the economy has suffered enormously. Macau is heavily reliant on tourism, being home to 39 casinos in just 33 square kilometres. Having learnt from the 2003 SARS outbreak, authorities moved quickly to counter the virus, implementing compulsory hygiene measures in January and closing all casinos on February 5, for 15 days.

Awheng has been on forced leave ever since.

While some work is available, and Awheng’s casino is trying to give its workers shifts when it can, there simply isn’t the money coming in to support the economy. In February, casino revenue fell a staggering 87.8% compared to 2019, and has only fallen further in the months since.

Awheng was able to secure a small emergency stipend from the government but it was not enough to pay for her basic needs for long. Many of her OFW friends and acquaintances have been taking any job, at any pay, in order to keep a roof over their heads.

“They don’t have any option but to agree to it,” she says, “Where [else] can we get the money to pay the room rent, our bills?”

The community is trying to rally round. Word of mouth can line up casual work, and there is a Filipino bulletin board where good Samaritans sometimes post if they have spare food. Awheng initially found work as a cleaner, but then she realised she can use her skills as a cook to sell home-made Filipino food online.

Not all OFWs are so lucky, and their options for survival are limited.

Going home isn’t an option, even if they could get a flight. If they leave Macau they can’t come back because of the pandemic, and they will lose their working VISA.

Leaving their current employer is also a bad option, because working VISAs are dependent on the holder having a full-time job. Those who have already been laid-off face the prospect of being homeless in a foreign country without a valid VISA, and if your work contract ends before the fixed date Macau law forbids you from taking another job for six months.

OFWs like Awheng are essentially trapped: the pandemic on one side and the strict controls placed on migrant workers on the other.

The pandemic has also made it harder to get help.

Pre-COVID, it was simple enough: you went to the consulate, took a ticket, waited, and then someone helped you.

But now the consulate is encouraging everyone to use their online services, and replies are slow. Awheng knows OFWs who have tried and tried to get help this way, and have eventually given up in favour of praying for a miracle.

To add to this, without an income, OFWs are unable to help their families at home, which is the point of working abroad in the first place.

Before the pandemic, Awheng had attended financial seminars that helped her learn how to save, and she had a reasonable amount of money put away for the future. But then her father died, and she had to use her savings to support her family.

“Who [else] will take care of the situation? I had to give whatever I had,” she says, “[Now] I am back to zero.”

She had no savings to fall back on when the pandemic began, and nothing more to send home. All she could do was watch while cases spiked in the Philippines, and worry. When her 68-year-old mother contracted COVID-19, Awheng could only wait and pray that she would be alright.

Thankfully, her mother recovered, but the stress of worrying about her family is a daily burden on Awheng, and it is only compounded by the lonely and difficult reality of being an OFW.

Awheng talks about how being isolated from her family and friends has made her feel disconnected from love: “I almost lost the feeling of caring to other people”. This isolation is a terrible price to pay for choosing to support your family, and it has serious consequences for OFW’s mental health, as does the way OFWs are perceived as rich and heroic back in the Philippines.

OFWs are not rich. Their wages may be greater than what they could earn in the Philippines but the cost of basic necessities in their new country is often much, much higher. And they often send home a huge proportion of their wage to their families – Awheng sends 40%, and often more – leaving them with just enough to pay for necessities such as board, bills, food, and insurance. Their hours are long, and their work is often menial and dangerous.

It is not a glamorous existence: it is a difficult and exhausting one.

Awheng likes the superhero label, and it certainly describes her combination of optimism, pragmatism, and innovation, but it only serves to paint them as people who don’t need the protection of policy reform because they can handle anything.

They can’t. And we shouldn’t expect them to.

OFWs sacrifice so much to support the Philippines. It’s time we return the favour by supporting them through this crisis.