E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
The Philippines: Beyond Labor Migration, Toward Development and (Possibly) Return

The Philippines: Beyond Labor Migration, Toward Development and (Possibly) Return

Young people ride motorcycles in Batac, Philippines.

Young people ride motorcycles in Batac, a city in northern Philippines. (Photo: Bernard Spragg)

In the Philippines, a deeply rooted and pervasive culture of migration has made moving abroad common, acceptable—even desirable—as an option or strategy for a better life. For decades, sizeable numbers of Filipinos have left home in search of permanent settlement or temporary work overseas, trends long attributed to the fragile economy (and exacerbated by frequent natural disasters). Today, more than 10 million Filipinos—or about 10 percent of the population—are working and/or living abroad. While a markedly improved economic situation in recent years has not diminished the outflows, it has allowed the country to move beyond its longstanding labor migration policy to incorporate migration into long-term development planning and strengthen the return and reintegration of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

When the Philippines launched an overseas employment program in the 1970s, the thrust was finding labor markets: The state not only promoted Filipino workers to the oil-rich but labor-short Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, it also sold these uncharted Middle East destinations to Filipinos. By the latter half of the 1970s, as deployment and competition with other origin countries increased, surfacing labor migration problems (including poor working conditions and abuse by employers) prompted the government to address migrant welfare and protection. As destinations diversified and women joined the labor migration flows, the protection aspect assumed more importance.

The government subsequently developed a number of institutions, laws, and policies aimed at enhancing the protection of OFWs and their families, spurred on by civil-society advocacy. This dual approach of facilitation and protection contributed to making the Philippines a major source country of workers and talent for the global labor market, while also providing protection to OFWs. The “success” of this approach, however, may have trapped the Philippines into complacency: Large, steady flows of remittances have become the country’s lifeline. The Philippines ranks third after India and China as major recipients of remittances. In 2016, the country received US $26.9 billion in money transfers, according to the Central Bank of the Philippines. There are concerns that reliance on remittances may have delayed the implementation of needed reforms.  

Recent attempts to link migration policies with development policies demonstrate a remarkable shift in governance in the Philippines, earning positive reviews from the international community. After several boom-and-bust decades, in the 2000s the Philippine economy entered a period of impressive growth: Between 2011 and 2016, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by an average of approximately 6 percent yearly, and the economy proved resilient through political crises and transitions. Nonetheless, the positive economic news has not slowed or halted emigration. This is likely because Filipinos have more resources to migrate, and though the economy has grown, unemployment has yet to be tempered. Thus, sustainable development that provides decent work opportunities continues to elude the Philippines. This country profile examines the evolution of migration policymaking and trends over the past several decades and through the present administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Background: The Centrality of the United States in Early Filipino Migration

After more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines became a U.S. territory as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. For much of the 20th century, "international migration" for Filipinos meant moving to the United States and its Pacific territories.

The first batch of Filipino workers arrived in Hawaii on December 20, 1906 to work on sugarcane and pineapple plantations. More workers, mostly single men, followed; others left Hawaii to work in agriculture in California, Oregon, and Washington, or the salmon canneries of Alaska. On the mainland, low-wage service work in the cities provided income between agricultural seasons or when other jobs were not available. Some 4,000 Filipinos were employed in the merchant marine, but this employment possibility ceased with the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 requiring the crew of U.S. flag vessels to be at least 90 percent American citizens.

Box 1. Definitions

Overseas Filipinos is the term encompassing all Filipino migrants, whether permanent or temporary, legal or unauthorized.

Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs, represent a subset of Overseas Filipinos, and are temporary migrants. The OFW term is commonly used, a further sign of the pervasive role that labor migration occupies in Philippine society.

The Commission on Filipinos Overseas includes the following categories of migrants in its stock estimates:

  • Permanent Migrants - Filipino immigrants and legal permanent residents abroad, Filipino spouses of foreign nationals, Filipinos naturalized in their host country, Filipino dual citizens, and their descendants.
  • Temporary Migrants – Filipinos whose stay overseas, while regular and properly documented, is temporary, owing to the employment-related nature of their status in their host country. Include land-based and sea-based Filipino workers, intracompany transferees, students, trainees, entrepreneurs, businessmen, traders, and others whose stay abroad is six month or more, and their accompanying dependents.
  • Irregular Migrants - Filipinos who are not properly documented or without valid residence or work permits, or who may be overstaying their visa.

Estimates place the number of Filipino workers coming to the United States, chiefly to Hawaii, between 1906 and 1934 at 120,000 to 150,000. A small number of scholars, known as pensionados, also migrated to the United States before the 1920s. They were typically either sponsored by the U.S. government or by missionary-related programs. Some returned and assumed important positions in Filipino society, while others remained in the United States.

Because the Philippines was a U.S. colony, the movement of Filipinos to the United States was considered internal migration. As U.S. nationals, Filipinos could enter and leave the country freely, but could not access citizenship. It was not until the passage of the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Law, which provided for the granting of Philippine independence within ten years, that the Philippines became subject to immigration quotas, and Filipinos in the United States became aliens. The law limited the Philippines to 50 visas per year, and migration dropped off dramatically. But even so, there was an exception clause: In case of a labor shortage, the governor of Hawaii was authorized to hire Filipino workers. World War II intervened and further migration to the United States stalled, until the Philippines became independent in July 1946.

Following passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which struck down nationality-based restrictions, Filipino immigration grew and diversified. Other countries of settlement also dismantled their pro-European immigration policies in the 1970s, paving the way for Filipinos to enter Canada, Australia, and New Zealand under family- or skills-based provisions. The Philippines eventually became one of the top ten origin countries in these traditional immigration destinations.

This permanent migration, however, was overshadowed by the larger and thornier temporary labor migration that started in the 1970s. Although the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) estimates the stock of permanent migrants (which includes Filipinos born overseas; see Box 1) is larger than that of temporary migrants, the country’s migration policies have focused on the significant annual outflows of temporary workers, their distribution throughout the world, and the myriad related issues.

Becoming a Source Country of Workers

A number of factors led to the ascent of the Philippines as a major labor exporter in Asia and worldwide. When large-scale labor emigration began in the 1970s, the push factors—already quite strong—were worsened by the 1973 oil crisis. Economic gains could not keep pace with population growth, and the country was hard pressed to provide jobs and decent wages while grappling with severe balance of payment problems.

At the same time, the GCC countries needed workers to realize their ambitious infrastructure projects. With supply and demand converging, the Philippines was ripe for large-scale labor migration, an opportunity the government of Ferdinand Marcos recognized. In 1974, the Labor Code of the Philippines established the framework for what became the government's overseas employment program.

The Philippines' foray into organized international labor migration was supposed to be temporary, lasting only until the country recovered from its economic problems. However, the ongoing demand for workers in the GCC countries and the opening of new labor markets in other regions, especially in East and Southeast Asia, fueled further migration. On the supply side, the push factors did not abate. Lack of sustained economic development, political instability, unabated population growth, persistent unemployment, and low wages continued to compel people to head abroad.

The flow of OFWs, numbering a few thousand per year in the early 1970s, surged past 1 million beginning in 2006 (see Figure 1). In 2015 alone, more than 1,844,000 Filipinos worked abroad. The data on deployed workers include seafarers, who account for 20 to22 percent of all OFWs every year. Filipinos dominate the global seafaring industry, accounting for 25 to 30 percent of the world's seafarers.

Figure 1. Annual Deployment of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), 1975-2015

Source: Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), “Compendium of OFW Statistics,” accessed July 6, 2017, available online.

As of December 2013, the stock of overseas Filipinos totaled slightly more than 10 million, including some 4.9 million permanent settlers (64 percent of whom are in the United States), about 4.2 million temporary migrants (mostly labor migrants, or OFWs, with Saudi Arabia hosting close to 1 million), and an estimated 1.2 million unauthorized migrants worldwide (primarily in Malaysia and the United States).

Filipinos are present in the far reaches of the globe, mostly because of work. Although the destinations of OFWs have diversified, to this day, the Middle East still receives the largest share, with 64 percent heading to the region in 2015, followed by Asia with 28 percent (see Figure 2). In 2015, six of the top ten destinations for both new hires and rehires were in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain), and the remainder were in Asia (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia).

Figure 2. Deployment of Land-Based OFWs by Region, 2015

Source: POEA, “Compendium of OFW Statistics.”

Filipino women are very visible in international migration. They not only compose the majority of permanent settlers, i.e., as part of family migration, but are as prominent as men in labor migration. In fact, since 1992, females have generally outnumbered men among the newly hired land-based workers legally deployed every year. In 2015, domestic work was the top occupation for new hires, at 38 percent.

While the demand for domestic workers has long been the main driver of female migration from the Philippines and Asia in general, until 2005, the demand for entertainers, mostly in Japan, also fueled this migration. With work in the domestic and entertainment sectors unprotected and prone to abuse, the safety and well-being of women migrants became a significant concern. Entertainer migration was particularly controversial and stigmatized because of perceptions that women ended up in the sex industry. From a deployment to Japan of tens of thousands of Filipino entertainers annually, the numbers dropped sharply in 2005 following Japan’s decision to adopt more stringent requirements for foreign entertainers. Likewise, the significance of domestic worker migration was a major push for the Philippines to ratify the 2011 Convention on Domestic Workers, which recognizes domestic work as labor that must be protected.

Beyond Labor Migration

The growing volume of labor migration from the Philippines has increased the incidence of problems and challenges faced by migrants and their families. The participation of private recruitment agencies in matching workers with employers abroad has contributed to the challenges. The problems that emerged in the 1970s remain the same today: illegal recruitment, contract substitution, illegal placement fees, long working hours, and no days off (in the case of domestic workers), among others.  

Over the years, institutional and policy development in the Philippines was geared toward worker protection. The 1995 Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, a landmark law, aimed to provide protection to OFWs from predeparture through arrival and return. The focus on protection shifted during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-10), when the government for the only time to date set a target for the deployment of workers. The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan 2004-2010 set a goal of sending 1 million workers overseas every year.

This thrust was reversed by the subsequent administration of Benigno Aquino III (2010-16). His social contract with the Filipino people included the goal of moving “from a government that treats its people as an export commodity and as a means to foreign exchange, disregarding the social cost to Filipino families, to a government that creates jobs at home, so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity; and when its citizens do choose to become OFWs, their welfare and protection will still be the government’s priority.”

This stated desire to a return to welfare and protection was accompanied by legislative and executive actions to further regulate labor migration and expand services for OFWs. Soon after Aquino took office, he signed Republic Act (RA) 10022 into law, aiming to further strengthen measures to protect migrant workers, their families, and other overseas Filipinos in distress. Among the law’s key provisions is the restriction of deployment only to countries that have been certified as safe and offering protection. Implementation-wise, certifying a country as safe or unsafe can be politically and diplomatically sensitive, and deployment bans (even for good reasons) have not proven effective in stopping migration. The law also mandates recruitment agencies or employers to provide OFWs with compulsory insurance to cover accidental death or disability, among other protections.

The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) also amended recruitment industry regulations, resulting in the 2016 Revised POEA Rules and Regulations Governing the Recruitment and Employment of Seafarers, and a separate set of rules and regulations applying to land-based workers. These measures were aimed at curbing the illegal practices of recruitment agencies, such as exorbitant placement fees and contract substitution, which negatively impact migrants.

The welfare and protection of OFWs received another boost in 2016 with RA 10801, which launched a new charter bolstering the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). This agency’s mandate is to provide programs and services for the welfare of OFWs and their families, and to manage the funds from member contributions and interest from investments. The contributions come from the OWWA membership fee of US $25 per contract (which employers or recruitment agencies are supposed to cover but instead pass on to OFWs).  A number of nongovernmental organizations had criticized the government for not financially contributing to OWWA operations. The 2016 OWWA charter changed this, stating that the national government would allocate a regular budget for the operations and personnel expenses of the agency, which would free up more funds for programs and services. The law also identified the reintegration program as a core function for OWWA, shifting responsibility from the Department of Labor and Employment.

The government’s antitrafficking measures also strengthen the protection environment (although trafficking can also occur internally). The Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012 (RA 10364) amended the 2003 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act to enhance concerted efforts to combat trafficking and increase penalties for violators. Those who are identified as victims of trafficking can access support and assistance.

Growing marriage migration also has caused anxieties about the welfare of women who marry foreign nationals. A new law (RA 10906) strengthening the Anti-Mail Order Bride Act of 1990 was enacted in 2016. Unlike the earlier law, the amended version applies to Filipino men as well as women (though marriage migrants are overwhelmingly female), and takes into account trafficking and new developments, such as online transactions. The law mainly prohibits commercial or for-profit matching or offering of Filipinos to foreign nationals through the mail, in person, or over the Internet, for the purpose of marriage or common law partnership.

Linking Migration and Development

Beyond the now-traditional facilitate-and-protect policy framework, migration governance in recent years has also started to make inroads on migration and development. The global discussion on the migration and development nexus may have influenced reflections in the Philippine context. A 2007 conference and a 2010 comprehensive study on migration and development in the Philippines brought to the fore five key observations:

  1. Migration policies in the Philippines were primarily focused on temporary labor migration.
  2. The development impact of migration was mostly discussed in terms of economic benefits, particularly remittances.
  3. The social costs of migration to families were often mentioned.
  4. National, regional, and local development plans did not take international migration into consideration.
  5. At the regional and local levels, there were few migration institutions.

In other words, the migration and development nexus was more of a disconnect: Except in the case of remittances, policies in these areas were not linked, and the national framework was out of sync with local frameworks. The Central Bank of the Philippines had taken the lead on improving the remittance environment, likely driven in part by the enormous importance of these money transfers as well as the relative ease of monitoring formal remittances, compared to other impacts such as social costs. However, other migration and development initiatives were not as persistently pursued, implemented, or monitored.

Despite this implementation gap at home, the Philippines has become a global leader in discussions on migration and development. It has actively participated in the Global Forum on Migration and Development, and hosted the second such forum in 2008.

These development-related discussions have also expanded the domestic migration conversation to encompass the broader population of overseas Filipinos, not just OFWs. At the start of the Aquino administration in 2010, the CFO, created in 1980 to look after the concerns of permanent migrants and nurture their links to the Philippines, embraced the task of “Responding to the Challenges of Migration and Development.” The commission began more actively reaching out to the Filipino diaspora through global and regional summits and developed a one-stop online portal for diaspora engagement, BaLinkBayan.

CFO also lobbied and cooperated with the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the key government agency responsible for development planning and policy, to integrate international migration issues into the Philippine Development Plan 2011-16. Sixty provisions on migration and development appeared in seven out of nine chapters of the plan. Further, in 2014, NEDA created an interagency structure to promote attention to migration and development and improve coordination among migration-related agencies and other government agencies.

There has also been movement toward involving local governments in developing institutions, policies, and programs on migration and development, including under Phase II of the Joint Migration and Development Initiative (JMDI). In the past, local officials tended to think of overseas employment as a national government concern and responsibility. While few local governments have established migration centers, the POEA and OWWA have forged partnerships with local governments to enhance the reach of their programs and services.

Migration Governance under Duterte: Is Change Coming?

After campaigning on the promise of “change is coming,” Rodrigo Duterte became the 16th president of the Philippines on June 30, 2016, succeeding Aquino. Like Filipinos at home, those overseas largely voted for Duterte.

A year into the Duterte presidency, his administration has sent mixed signals on how it will handle international migration. In his first State of the Nation Address in July 2016, Duterte rattled off a list of migration-related goals, namely to combat human trafficking and illegal recruiting, provide mandatory financial education to migrants, and consolidate offices and agencies dealing with overseas Filipinos to more efficiently respond to their concerns.

The first—waging “war against traffickers and illegal recruiters”—basically continues predecessors’ protection thrust. Similarly, the nod to financial education for migrants and their communities was part of the package of migration and development initiatives in the 2000s.

In its first 100 days, the Duterte administration introduced some immediate moves to hasten government processes affecting OFWs, including setting up one-stop shop service centers at the POEA. These centers gather in one location the government agencies where applicants or overseas workers secure documents needed to process their papers. Other changes, such as dropping the requirement for vacationing OFWs to secure an overseas employment certificate and the introduction of an online seafarer registry, were hailed by OFWs. Discussions are underway to cut through more red tape, such as extending the validity of Philippine passports from five years to ten years.

However, Duterte’s proposal to create a single department to effectively address various OFW concerns would be a departure from the multiagency approach that the Philippines has fashioned over the years.

To Consolidate, or Not To Consolidate?

Duterte’s allies in Congress lost no time in proposing versions of the bill to create a single migration department. Proponents argue that the proposal is intended to fulfill Duterte’s campaign promise to better serve OFWs, suggesting a single department would be more efficient. Civil-society organizations are divided on this proposal. Opponents argue that the various agencies that cater to different types of overseas Filipinos and/or have different mandates have already developed competencies to perform their functions. Rather than create another bureaucracy whose components will be carved out from existing departments or divisions, opponents argue it would be more constructive to improve coordination among agencies.

Interestingly, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has a different idea. He sees a department devoted to OFWs as further institutionalizing overseas employment, which he claims is the very opposite of what this administration wants. He said, "Our final goal is to bring them back to the country and we can only do that if we give them decent jobs, decent pay." However, while the goal of bringing OFWs home one day has been expressed by all presidents, it has largely been unrealistic.

Duterte Finds Approval Among OFWs

The response of OFWs to President Duterte is one of overwhelming support . In his first year as president, he made 21 overseas trips, visiting 18 countries and touching base with Filipinos abroad, who greeted him enthusiastically.

In his visit to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar in April 2017, Duterte stated he was ready to kneel before OFWs to show his appreciation for their sacrifices in sending remittances home. Appearing before Filipino communities in these GCC countries, he repeated his promise to deliver better services through the proposed Department of Overseas Filipino Workers.

When he met with Filipinos in Japan, the crowd applauded his promise to end the Filipinos’ search for opportunities outside the country: “I work hard that we will earn more so that by the time, this is my promise to you and God and to those working abroad, this will be the last. The next generation of Filipinos will work in the Philippines. So we will do away with so many things. Corruption, then drugs.”

Indeed, in his visits abroad, Duterte never fails to discuss the central program of his administration: the war on drugs. His overseas audience sees his hardline stance, which has received international condemnation, as decisive and the war on drugs as necessary to rid the country of drug addicts. Since he took office, more than 7,000 alleged drug users and dealers have died in extrajudicial killings carried out by police or vigilantes, according to Human Rights Watch. The reactions of Filipinos abroad to the killings, mostly of poor Filipinos, as well as the disregard for human rights and the culture of violence that the war on drugs has bred have been muted.

Long-Term Development

Offering another glimpse into how the new administration will address migration, in February 2017 it approved the Philippine Development Plan 2012-22. The new PDP builds on the previous development plan, but also situates the development agenda within the longer-term AmBisyon Natin 2040 (Our Vision 2040; literally, ambition), which reflects the aspirations of Filipinos for themselves and their country.

This long-term view in the new PDP is novel, as development plans are typically anchored on the six-year cycle of each administration. The new PDP explains, “As one of Asia’s better-performing economies today, the Philippines is in a more favorable position than it has ever been in the last four decades. No longer weighed down by an unmanageable fiscal deficit and more secure in its political legitimacy, the government can now afford to think about national goals based on a longer time horizon.” The Duterte administration’s target is to achieve annual GDP growth of 7-8 percent in the medium term, and the PDP aims to cut the poverty rate from 21.6 percent to 14 percent overall, and from 30 percent to 20 percent in rural areas. It also seeks to reduce the unemployment rate of 5.5 percent by 3-5 percentage points by 2022.

The new PDP gives special attention to overseas Filipinos by incorporating international migration issues, often referencing migrants directly, throughout. It gives attention to the special circumstances of migrants and their families, and aims to protect their rights and improve their well-being, strengthen their engagement in governance, facilitate their participation in the country’s development, and ensure their smooth reintegration upon return.

In its chapter on human-capital development, the PDP acknowledges the push factor in labor migration, noting that “Limited employment opportunities force Filipinos to migrate by necessity and not by choice.” It points to regional integration initiatives such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and efforts to strengthen ties with China and Russia as opportunities to diversify destinations. ASEAN Member States, notably Singapore and Malaysia, have long been OFW destinations. In the case of China and Russia, Duterte overtures to these two countries may have played a hand in identifying them as potential future destinations. For now, these two receive a small number of Filipino workers, although reports indicate some 200,000 unauthorized Filipino domestic workers live in China, where they earn a higher income than in Hong Kong.

Limited employment opportunities also affect higher skilled Filipinos. A study assessing the country’s innovation found that the supply of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers outpaces local demand, which leads to emigration and underemployment of skilled scientists and engineers. And their emigration results in brain drain, which deprives the country of human capital important for development. The PDP calls for strengthening the long-running Balik Scientist (Return Scientist) Program and similar schemes, and is open to the idea of tapping foreign experts, including overseas Filipinos, for institutional capacity building and development expertise.

Since 2016, the National Reintegration Center for OFWs has been conducting consultations with stakeholders nationwide in preparation for the reintegration summit that will be held in August 2017. The summit aims to produce thoughtful reflections and action plans that will respond to the opportunities and challenges that return migrants carry with them.

Looking Ahead

In the past decade, migration governance in the Philippines has gone beyond labor migration policies and remittances, making strides toward linking migration policies to broader development goals. The last two Philippine Development Plans have integrated migration into national development planning; the government’s key planning agency, NEDA, has come to appreciate the importance of migration; and a mechanism, the Subcommittee on Migration and Development, has been established within NEDA to improve coordination among government agencies and devote more attention to migration and development.

These are important milestones that need to be fleshed out and sustained over time. At the local level, mainstreaming and upscaling projects for local institution capacity building, the setting up of Migration Resource Centers and similar structures in local government units and integrating migration in local development plans, among others, have been implemented in selected regional and local governments. In other words, the groundwork for the expansion of migration policies in the Philippines has been started; the next task is to keep up the momentum to maximize the development potentials of migration, while continuing to look out for the well-being of migrants.


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