Why 10 million Filipinos endure hardship abroad as overseas workers

Families in the Philippines receive billions from the ‘new heroes’—nannies in Hong Kong, sailors in the Arctic, and domestic workers in the Middle East.

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Cadets at a merchant marine academy near Manila train for one of the most prestigious jobs for workers in the diaspora. Those who succeed are ensured a path to a middle-class life for their families. A quarter of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines.
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Returning overseas workers are often treated to a hero’s welcome. Each December, Manila’s airport is crowded with families greeting mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, on the generally rare occasions loved ones come home to celebrate Christmas.
This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Recuerdo Morco was 22 when he first saw snow. Wrapped in four layers of coveralls and parkas, he looked up into the swirling sky as huge flakes settled onto the deck of his cargo ship.

He carved his girlfriend’s name into the snow and circled it with a heart. Recuerdo had grown up in the Philippines on a tropical island rimmed with white sand and coconut palms. Standing on the cargo ship slicing through the icy waters near the Arctic Circle, snowflakes tickling his face, was a dream come true. “I’m really here,” he thought.

They pulled into the port of Kemi, Finland, in the wake of an icebreaker, jagged blocks of white peeling off the sides of their ship. Recuerdo stepped ashore and went on what he calls the “seaman’s mission”: find the nearest shop and buy a SIM card so you can call your mother.

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Recuerdo Morco shares a beer with his shipmates in General Santos City after delivering a cargo of dried coconut from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. For Morco the freedom and adventure of life at sea are laced with homesickness.

Now 33, Recuerdo has spent the past decade working as a merchant sailor on cargo vessels. He has called his mother, Jeannie, 66, from Finland, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, and nearly every country with a port between Sweden and Australia. Jeannie can’t keep track of where her son calls her from, but she’s always happy and relieved to hear from him. Hearing her voice, Recuerdo says, “takes away the boredom, homesickness, and sadness.” He adds, “She’s the most important person in my life.”

Recuerdo is one of an estimated 10 million Filipinos—roughly a tenth of the country’s population—who work overseas as a way of escaping unemployment, low wages, and limited opportunities at home. The money sent back by overseas Filipino workers (known as OFWs) amounts to $31 billion a year—about 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product. Filipinos are domestic workers in Angola and construction workers in Japan. They staff the oil fields of Libya and are nannies to families in Hong Kong. They sing on the stages of far-flung provinces in China and help run hotels in the Middle East. A quarter of the world’s seafarers are Filipino.

It’s a phenomenon that has reshaped the economy and the education system in the Philippines. Each year about 19,000 nurses, certified and fresh from language training, are deployed to hospitals around the world.

Meanwhile educational institutions and vocational schools in the Philippines funnel students into industries likeliest to get them a job abroad. Merchant marine academies, like nursing schools, churn out thousands of graduates yearly. Training centers for domestic workers school women in how to set a table according to different cultures’ standards, fold a sheet into tight hospital corners, and whisper a greeting in Arabic or Chinese. Government agencies were founded to deal with the migration of registered workers, negotiate international labor terms, and rescue workers when a diplomatic row flares up or a war breaks out—as when a delegation of government officials traveled to Syria to find domestic workers and ferry them to safety.

The steady stream of cash from Filipino workers abroad has helped edge poorer families out of poverty, and houses built with cash from migrant workers have sprouted up in the rice fields of backwater provinces.

In the Philippines, December is celebrated as the national month for overseas workers. Movies and television shows romanticize their hardships and dedication. Those who are part of the diaspora are called bagong bayani—the new heroes—for sacrificing themselves for the betterment of their families and the country.

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The glittering skyscrapers of Manila’s central district overlook the Christmassy rooftop of working-class tenements. Home for the holiday from her job as a nanny in Hong Kong, Bernardita Lopez (at the railing) takes in the scene. Lack of opportunity and low wages drive millions of Filipinos abroad. For many the ultimate goal is a better life at home.

Embarking on a life as an overseas worker, as the Morco family knows all too well, means entering a seemingly endless cycle of longing—forever reaching for your dream abroad and pining for the home you’ve left behind.

Four of Jeannie’s five children are named for loss and longing: Memorie, Souvenir, Remembrance, and Recuerdo, a Spanish word that encompasses all three. She couldn’t have known how prescient two of those names would become: Along with Recuerdo, Memorie, now 48, has been working abroad for years. In their sleepy hometown of Taytay, on Palawan, Jeannie has had to accept that she won’t grow old surrounded by all her children and grandchildren.

The Filipino tradition of bringing home a gift from every trip has crowded Jeannie’s dressers with bottles of scented soaps and lotions. Recuerdo’s bedroom holds his collection of baseball caps, one from each country where he has docked. Meanwhile the plot he bought across the road sits empty, waiting for his house to be built.

Recuerdo is proud to be able to send his mother several hundred dollars out of the $1,300 he earns a month. He’s now saving so she can have cataract surgery. Jeannie, a widow, had worked tirelessly running a streetside food stall to send her children to school. Being able to give her what she needs is why Recuerdo left the Philippines. “I’m willing to take on any kind of hardship,” Recuerdo says, “as long as I can save and send money.”

Out at sea Recuerdo often dreams of going home to Palawan, the same way he used to stand on his beach and dream about working as a merchant sailor. But there’s always a new reason he needs a few more paychecks, and the day he comes home to live in Palawan seems always to be just beyond the horizon.

“Masakit na masarap,” Recuerdo says about life as an OFW. It’s “a pain that gratifies.”

His sister Memorie had originally studied to be a midwife, but the pay at hospitals is low in the Philippines, so she took a job at a pizza restaurant in Manila. She wanted to send her son, Ryamm, to a private school, wanted to be able to buy him uniforms and notebooks. She didn’t want to depend on Recuerdo. “I wish I studied harder in school,” Memorie says, “so I could have found a job in the Philippines.” The only thing she could do was become an OFW.

Memorie lived in Morocco for six years working as a nanny, and before that she worked at a gas station in Palau. During the past year she’s been raising someone else’s baby in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

As a live-in nanny in the Middle East, Memorie has one of the most perilous jobs in the Filipino diaspora. A 2011 study documented numerous testimonials of physical or psychological abuse from domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Employers confiscate passports, and workers may be starved or forbidden from leaving their employer’s house for months, if not years. Many Filipinas return with stories of rape. Memorie says she has not been abused by her current employer.

These dangers are part of what Filipinos weigh as they prepare to work abroad, but Memorie brushes them off. “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” she says over the phone from Abu Dhabi. “But the homesickness—that never goes away, even if it’s been a long time.”

Ryamm is now 19. He’s lived much of his life without his mother, and for Memorie the irony of having a son and then feeling compelled to leave him behind is inescapable. She says they send each other a few messages every day but that talking on the phone or by video is too sad: “We don’t do anything but cry.” She says Ryamm asked her not to call so often—he doesn’t want her to see him crying.

Ryamm was accepted into an elite merchant marine academy but chose instead to study architecture, a choice he may not have had if Memorie hadn’t worked abroad to pay for his education. When his time comes to enter the job market, he’ll be searching in a much more prosperous Philippines than the one in which his mother came of age. That’s in no small part because of the contributions—and sacrifices—of OFWs.

Memorie says that after Ryamm finishes college, she’ll come home, back to the beaches of Palawan. She may use some of her savings to open a small dry goods shop and take care of Jeannie.

Aurora Almendral is a Filipino-American journalist who reports on Southeast Asia from Manila. Photographer Hannah Reyes Morales, also based in Manila, is a National Geographic explorer. This is her first story for the magazine.