What it takes to send a family of Filipino domestic workers abroad

Before boarding the plane to Saudi Arabia, Maritess Laurente stopped her mother and siblings from crying. The decision to become a domestic worker abroad had already taken most of her courage, and “it was bad luck to send me off with tears,” she said.

Then-34-year-old Laurente was leaving behind her mother, a former domestic worker, who was afraid of history repeating itself. When Maritess was 13, her mother had to fend off rape attempts from her male employer in Saudi Arabia, forcing her to return home after only three months abroad. She didn’t file charges.

She also grew up watching overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) like Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan, both domestic workers, get thrown behind bars and sent to death row.

“[I was afraid that] my employer might also mistreat me. When I was in second year high school, I saw so many [OFWs] dying and being forced into refrigerators abroad,” Maritess told TNP, describing her initial fear of becoming a migrant worker.

These horror stories were playing at the back of her mind even when she already landed in the Arabian Gulf in 2015. Of all people who made the quintessential OFW sacrifice, Maritess was one of those who understood the risks the most.

Months before April 2015, her younger sister Mary Jane Veloso barely escaped a death sentence at the eleventh hour after former President Benigno Aquino III appealed to the Indonesian government to let Mary Jane live. Mary Jane was arrested in 2010 upon arrival at the Yogyakarta airport on drug trafficking charges.

Mary Jane Veloso (right) greets her mother (left) and sister, Maritess Laurente (center), during her family’s visit to Indonesia in 2013. Veloso remains behind bars eleven years later. Photo by Migrante International

Even as Veloso remains behind bars for 11 years and counting, all three of her sisters eventually became OFWs — all domestic workers like Maritess and her mother.

In a bitter twist of fate, when their mother learned of Mary Jane’s situation, she cautioned the other siblings back in the Philippines who also wanted to go abroad: “You see, this is exactly what I’m telling you.”

Maritess recalls to this day how the absence of a government-issued lawyer doomed her sister in her first court trial. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) had promised back then to provide timely legal assistance, but none came until Mary Jane was already on death row.

Upon arriving home, Maritess said her family never heard from OWWA or the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) again. The OWWA has not responded to our request for comment as of press time. 

Despite becoming a national reminder of OFW injustice overnight, Mary Jane did not stop her siblings from leaving the country. She only told them through phone calls not to accept shady favors from recruiters.

“I don’t have the right to stop you because I know you have dreams too,” Maritess recalled Mary Jane saying.

Leaving in droves 

Year after year, despite new cases of OFW abuse cropping up abroad, aspirations to escape the worsening economic situation in the Philippines have forced out generations of Filipino migrant workers.

Every administration since President Gloria Arroyo’s has failed to deliver on the tall ambition to significantly reduce the number of Filipinos leaving to work abroad each year. Data from the National Economic and Development Authority and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) show that since 2004, the number of OFWs has increased yearly, reaching an all-time high of almost 2.3 million OFWs in 2019.

Not even the pandemic, which caused mass layoffs around the globe, stopped OFWs from sending remittances totaling $33.2 billion in 2020 to their families back home. Despite worse projections, cash and personal remittances only dropped by 0.8% that year from the record high of $33.5 billion in 2019.

When OFW children become OFWs too 

One family member leaving the country after another is driven by what researchers call chain migration, where they become prospective migrant workers with a similar set of motivations for doing so: among others, to bring home more money than they can make back home.

Twelve percent of the 34,935 Filipino households surveyed in the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA)’s National Migration Survey have or had an OFW member in 2018.

Family members were found to “play an almost exclusive role in facilitating the movements of Filipinos to the US,” according to a dissertation by UP Diliman Sociology Assistant Professor Rizza Cases, who traced migrant networks in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Families usually help first-time migrants by providing information, encouragement and material aid and support in settlement and integration, Cases added.

But this can only be possible if family members have enough resources to help their newly-arrived migrant kin — a privilege not enjoyed by Maritess. Her siblings work in other countries.

Struggling to find work without a high school diploma and unwilling to keep gambling her money away in jueteng, Maritess set her sights overseas to give her family a house of their own.

“[My three other siblings] and I didn’t think about the risks because it was more important for us to change our lives,” Maritess said. “We still flew abroad even if our mother warned us that we might get raped or killed.”

After seeing Mary Jane narrowly escape death, Maritess feared meeting the same danger. But for her, a poverty-stricken life was worse than death—one that could have easily become her family’s future, unless she risked her chances abroad. 

The path overseas is both costly and risky, migration experts say, but Filipinos often have to leave the country in droves wrestling with rising poverty and unemployment. The PSA noted in its migration survey that 44% of first-time international emigrants reported that they could not cover the costs of their households prior to leaving.

In Maritess’ hometown of Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, PSA data from 2015 show that poverty incidence was 12.36%, four percentage points lower than the national average. Legal and illegal recruiters take advantage of jobless locals and approach those they knew who were struggling financially, Laurente noted.

The situation is so dire that many of Maritess’ townspeople crawl their way back to OFW recruitment agencies even after experiencing abuse from their foreign employers and neglect from their recruiters.

When Maritess returned home in February last year, she began seeing the same scenes from her childhood: her eldest daughter, Mary Rose Laurente, planned to leave for South Korea to become a factory worker along with her husband. Her daughter married at 23. 

Migration has become culturally ingrained among Filipino families “as migration aspirations seem to be passed from one generation to the next,” a 2016 study by the Institute for Labor Studies found.

Despite Maritess’ protests, she eventually conceded to her daughter’s decision. Without a college diploma, her daughter hopes to find better opportunities abroad to eke out a living—not so different from the other women in her family.

But Maritess advised her daughter not to work in low-paying jobs like many of her relatives. “I told my daughter: it only sounds good to hear about working abroad, but in reality, it’s a dead-end,” Maritess said. “Especially if you’ll work in low-paying jobs like being a domestic worker — don’t even dream of going abroad.”

For Mary Rose and her husband, they found relief and support while working abroad because of the husband’s relatives who also work in South Korea.

Some OFWs can draw strength from being around people they already know in their countries of destination, said Cases. “Mary Rose [and her husband] would have an easier time than me because they already have relatives there. She wouldn’t be at the mercy of bad employers,” Maritess said.

Mary Jane’s eldest sister, Leah Veloso, is the only sibling currently working abroad as a domestic worker. The rest have returned to the Philippines. “She (Leah) wants to come home and never go back,” Laurente added.

Cases said that having ties to family and friends abroad can make or break a migrant worker’s experience. “Aspiring migrants who do not have access to [family or friend ties] that are more secure have little choice but to enter riskier relations to facilitate their mobility,” she wrote.

Championing OFW rights 

With migrant workers vulnerable to abuse, pressure mounts on the national government to protect OFWs’ rights and pursue legal cases hurled against them in foreign countries.

“The likes of Flor Contemplacion, Mary Jane Veloso and Sarah Balabagan can be attributed to the lack of timely legal assistance that should be granted to these overseas workers,” said Dennis Blanco, a political science assistant professor from UP Diliman.

Blanco added that the creation of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) might be the needed political push that could reduce the “bureaucratic excesses,” which makes it harder for the government to crack down on illegal recruiters.

On Dec. 31, 2021, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a measure creating a department dedicated to the protection of OFWs. Republic Act No. 11641 will establish the DMW that consolidates the overlapping functions of agencies handling OFWs such as the OWWA and the POEA.

“If the offices are disgruntled or scattered in terms of their functions, and their budgets are very meager and scarce, there’s really no way they could alleviate the conditions and sufferings of the OFWs,” Blanco added.

OFW group MIGRANTE said, however, that the measure would only reinforce the labor export policies from the Marcos era.

“A new and separate OFW department will not solve the labor migrants’ problems, not when the government’s poor services remain. The DMW will only be a one-stop shop recruitment agency for OFWs,” MIGRANTE told TNP last year.

READ: For OFWs, repatriation is no heroes’ welcome

“It’s a good start, but it remains to be seen how the succeeding administration would sustain the mandates of the DMW,” Blanco said.

Maritess herself is no stranger to the failings of a government that does not keep its promise.The government’s initial word-of-mouth promises to provide long term support to Mary Jane’s family also did not pick up steam even with the change of administration in 2016.

Sitting in the single-storey house she built in Cabanatuan with all her savings as a domestic worker, she lamented how their house was the only fruit of her labor after years of sacrifice abroad and that their lives did not ‘radically’ transform like she expected.

“If my grandchildren one day decide to go abroad, I might tell them first to work hard here in the Philippines,” she said. “But that’s about it. I know there’s no stopping them.”

NOTE: This article was originally written for J195 Labor Migration Reporting under Assistant Professor Adelle Chua.