“It is the right time. Everyone is vulnerable”

Why OFWs need to talk to their families about money, now more than ever

By Fiona Wildgoose

Meet Claire.

She is 36, and she works in the corporate body of a highly successful multinational hotel company in Dubai.

She is beautiful, with a ready smile and an infectious enthusiasm for her work. And she is glamorous, with her long, sleek hair and stylish clothes.

She is an overseas Filipino worker.

Surprised?

Whether you say yes or no reveals your perception of OFWs.

If you said yes: you may have seen OFWs as closer to the stereotype of impoverished and exploited labourers.

If you said no: you may have seen OFWs as closer to the stereotype of glamorous money-makers.

In many ways Claire embodies the second stereotype – well-paid, high-flying, and working in a glamorous industry. Her career has been part-hard work, part-adventure, and when I ask her about her experiences as an OFW she tells me, laughing, about the hectic learning curve at her first job as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant: “I thought I was going to be making cute little sushis, [but] I was a server. I had no idea how to do it!”

Whatever negative experiences she has had don’t rate a mention.

She seems every inch the superwoman that OFWs are so often made out to be, but there are specific reasons why Claire has flourished as a migrant worker while the majority experience extreme hardship.

First, Claire is single, and has no children.

Second, her family in the Philippines – her parents, plus a sister and brother – is financially settled and don’t rely on her to send remittances home.

And third, Claire has been fortunate enough to find work with companies that take good care of their OFWs.

Claire doesn’t need to send home a huge proportion of her pay, and as a result she has had many doors open to her, and has been able to grow her career in line with her potential. Also, without a partner and children, the emotional burden of leaving home has been minimal. After all, her parents are comfortable, and her brother and sister are adults with families of their own. They can look after themselves.

While Claire is an extraordinary person who has earned every inch of her success, the reasons she has been able to soar so high are that she doesn’t have people who depend on her wage at home in the Philippines, and her employers haven’t attempted to exploit her labour. So, we can’t assume that the “money-maker” stereotype is true, and that every OFW is going to be as successful as Claire. Life just doesn’t work like that.

Claire is the first person to acknowledge her position of privilege. “UAE looks very posh and very chill,” she says, “but I am one of not very many who are in a situation with a nice bed to sleep on and good money.”

“I am [lucky] because I went here under different circumstance, but the majority of Filipino’s who are working abroad it’s because of the money, it’s financial. It’s to send their kids to school and support their families.”

Unfortunately, while the spectrum of OFW experience is diverse, many fall closer to the “impoverished and exploited workers” end, due to both their life circumstances and the weak protections for OFWs in many popular destination countries.

Claire has experience working alongside other OFWs in service. She has worked in many different parts of the hotel, including the white-collar position she now holds, so she can see OFW struggles from many sides. In her view, improving OFW’s lives requires community effort as well as government initiatives and policy reform, but also a major commitment at home from the families and friends of OFWs being willing to sit down to have an honest conversation about money.

“Filipino’s have this thinking that once you’re abroad you’re rich, and then you’re okay, but they don’t really know what’s happening here,” Claire says, “They are thinking, because they are getting a lot of money, that the lives of their [OFW] relatives are good. They don’t think we are working 10-hour days, 12-hour days, without days off.”

Claire is very open with her family about her finances on purpose, but she isn’t one of the people who needs it. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, OFWs the world over are suffering in silence about the reality of how little money they make, and how little of it is left after they send their remittances home. The pandemic has made the cracks in the system wider, and it has become glaringly obvious how close many OFWs are to homelessness and abject desperation.

The time is now to call your OFW family and friends and talk candidly about how much they earn, and how badly they are affected by COVID-19. Unless they have the same advantages and luck as Claire, they are likely to be struggling badly, and in need your support, love, and understanding.

Claire believes the pandemic has opened up channels of empathy that were not there before.

“People are more receptive to it now, because it’s happening to everyone. People know a CEO can lose their job, so if you are a household worker of course you can lose your job, too. It doesn’t matter where you are working or what position you are working, you can lose your job. It’s the right time. Everyone is vulnerable.”

OFWs are unlikely to want to send less money home, because for most the whole point of becoming a migrant worker is to provide for their family. It is an act of extraordinary sacrifice and love. But knowing their loved ones understand their hardship – and are willing to put pressure on the government in support of migrant worker rights – that might just make the sacrifice worth it.