In 2007 the US ABC network offered a ‘sincere apology’ to the Philippine medical community. The apology followed a comment made in the TV series Desperate Housewives by the character Susan Meyer. Reluctant to accept the diagnosis of an early menopause, Meyer demanded that her doctor’s qualifications be checked to ‘make sure that they’re not from some med school in the Philippines’. Cue protests from the Philippine government.
One reason for the outrage, apart from the obvious slur, was that Philippine medical workers abroad are part of a ten million strong diaspora of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) whose remittances keep the Philippine economy afloat. OFWs are also commonly employed as construction workers, IT personnel and housemaids, often holding jobs for which they are massively over-qualified.
As I argue in this article, the reason for the size of this diaspora is simple. The Philippine manufacturing base is extremely narrow and this overcrowded, predominantly Roman Catholic country has a rapidly expanding population, currently numbering 93 million. Since the early 1970s this economic under-development has resulted in the commodification of humans as export goods. Unsurprisingly this process has led to social dislocation at home and increasingly peril abroad particularly amongst Filipinas who work behind closed doors as domestics. Everyday a number of OFWs return to the Philippines in a coffin, victims of abuse.
In light of the current Libyan crisis the Philippine government has formally advised the estimated 30,000 OFWs working there to leave the country. However it is unclear how many Filipinos have escaped; nor do we know how many – especially domestic workers – remain voluntarily. Manila has been criticised for its uncoordinated approach the OFW evacuation and the Libyan situation has highlighted the longstanding inability of the Philippine authorities to protect its nationals abroad.
However, some reports suggest medical workers have chosen to remain to fulfill their professional obligation to minister to the increasing number of Libyan sick and wounded. It has also been reported that Libyan employers have doubled the wages of the migrant medical staff who stay on during the crisis.
The harsh reality is however that if OFWs leave Libya there are no jobs for them in the Philippines and their families will suffer as a result. Welfare provision in the Philippines is non-existent. That so many Filipinos remain in a country wracked by civil war and now subject to UN-sanctioned bombing suggests the lengths they are forced to go to simply find a living wage.