Y2K marks century-old Philippine labor migration

ONE hundred years ago, the first group of Filipino workers left the Philippines for Hawaii. They were two hundred in all and soon were followed by thousands more until they formed about 70 percent of Hawaii’s plantation labor. This was according to a Primer on Philippine Labor Migration prepared by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

Officially, labor migration in the Philippines began in 1900. The nearby Hawaii was then experiencing severe manpower shortage. The few hundreds who initially left the Philippines turned into thousands within a span of five years. The majority made Hawaii their second home and became permanent residents. Shortly thereafter, Filipinos were sent to California as apple and orange pickers. It’s there where the Filipinos gained a reputation as “fruit pickers”.

In 1946, Filipinos became in demand as construction workers and laborers in Guam, Okinawa and the Wake Islands as a result of the just-concluded World War II. The US military stations were then in immediate need of rehabilitation and construction. And when both the Korean and Vietnam wars broke out later, the Filipino workers were again institutionalized in the US defense and civilian projects.

As early as the ‘60s, quite a number of Filipinos were hired as medical workers in the USA, Canada and Australia. The nurses, as early as then, formed the most-numbered of all medical manpower sent by the Philippines abroad. Filipino laborers, at about the same time, were sent to Borneo, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia when these Asian nations opened their labor market in construction and logging.

Although the Philippine government’s overseas employment program reached its high peak in the early 1970s because of the manpower shortage in oil-rich Middle East countries, Filipinos, were hired by the thousands as early as 1969. From 3,694 deployed workers in 1969, as recorded by DOLE, the number reached almost half a million by 1983. The majority of the workers were then sent to the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia. This was complemented by the increasing demand for service workers, particularly domestic helpers, in Europe, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore.

It is a known fact that of all labor host countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is number one in terms of Filipino workforce hiring. According to POEA statistics, a total of 2,012,800 Filipino contract workers were absorbed by KSA alone from 1984 to 1993.

Asia, however, particularly the region’s newly industrialized countries (NICs), has lately become a major labor market for Filipinos. Hong Kong (which is still the Philippines’ biggest labor market in Asia), Singapore and Malaysia are continuously opening employment opportunities for skilled and professional workers. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as early as 1990s, have also opened their doors to Filipino overseas workers for both skilled and unskilled workers. To date, Taiwan, since it started hiring Filipinos in late 1991, is fast becoming a major destination for OFWs because of its proximity and attractive salary.

Today, there are nearly seven million OFWs spread in 181 countries worldwide. The following are excerpts on Philippine Overseas Migration from a paper, prepared by KAKAMMPI (Association of Filipino Migrant Families and Returnees) for the Southeast Asian Regional Conference on Migrant Workers and the Asian Economic Crises: Towards a Trade Union Position, held November 5-6, 1998 in Bangkok, Thailand:

Among Asian countries, the Philippines has emerged, as the biggest sender of workers for overseas employment, out-stripping India, Pakistan and China. Government statistics place annual departures at about 700,000 for both land- and sea-based workers. Today, there are nearly seven million overseas Filipino workers spread in 181 countries and destinations worldwide. They now constitute about 10% of our population or nearly 20% of our productive age population. Of these, 4.2 million are classified as overseas contract workers (OCWs) who work on fixed terms of six months to two years. Philippine overseas migration has become a pair of crutches for the local economy, serving two main objectives – to ease the unemployment situation and to generate foreign incomes to fuel the faltering economy.

As people become more and more aware of the “enforced” role the OFWs play for their country, there is now an accepted reality: OFWs ARE HERE TO STAY!


Author: Freda Editha O. Contreras
Published on: January 4, 2000





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