The Costs and Advantages of Labor-Brokerage: Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in the Middle East
On May 1st, 1974 — two years into Ferdinand Marcos’ twenty one year US-backed military dictatorship, Ferdinand E. Marcos “signed Presidential Decree no.442 into law, inaugurating the Philippines’ state-sponsored labor export policy.” Intended as a means “to afford protection to labor, promote employment and human resources development, and ensure industrial peace based on social justice,” the passage of Presidential Decree no.442 fundamentally transformed the Philippine State’s relationship to national labor while shaping the rituals and expectations that have come to delimit presidential power for the post-dictatorship era.
Later that day, Marcos would inform the Philippine public of these newly passed reforms to the national Labor Code in his presidential Address for the Occasion of Labor Day Celebrations, entitled, ‘Labor — Our Greatest Weapon,’ with the following statement: “The strategic moment has arrived for us to employ to the fullest extent the greatest weapon that we possess and the competitive edge that we enjoy in the world economy…[the] Filipino labor force.” Thus, inaugurated a period that saw the Philippine state’s “trans-national migration apparatus” transform into “an ‘export-processing zone’ for a singular commodity: workers.”
As for the rituals and expectations of the presidential office following Decree no.442, these are perhaps best seen in two visits — 2003 and 2023 — by future Philippine presidents.
2003–2023: On Labor Brokerage & Philippine Presidents
During a 2003 visit to the United States, former Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, offered the following comment regarding one of her country’s most exported commodities; i.e., human labor in the form of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), “Not only am I the head of state responsible for a nation of 80 million people. I’m also the CEO of a global Philippine enterprise of 8 million Filipinos who live and work abroad and generate billions of dollars a year in revenue for our country.”
According to Rutgers University sociology professor, Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, by referring to herself as a “CEO,” Arroyo effectively presented “herself not as a head of state but as an entrepreneur, the ideal neoliberal subject who rationally maximizes her country’s competitive advantage in the global market.” It is for these reasons that, following Rodriguez, researchers and analysts have defined the Philippines as “a labor brokerage state,” where “labor brokerage” refers to a neoliberal strategy comprised of “institutional and discursive practices through which the Philippine State mobilizes its citizens and sends them abroad to work for employers throughout the world while generating a ‘profit’ from the remittances that migrants send back to their families and loved ones remaining in the Philippines.”
As with Arroyo’s visit to the US in 2003, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s — son of the former dictator — visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, the Philippine president painted a flattering, rather than critical, portrait of the labor conditions OFWs face in the most popular destination for OFWs in the region, Saudi Arabia. As Marcos, Jr., remarked: “Nearly 70,000 Filipino migrant workers have chosen Saudi Arabia as their destination this year, making the Kingdom the top destination for new overseas Filipino workers.” “The Philippines,” Marcos continued, “is witnessing a rise in overseas deployment with an increase of around 62 percent in 2022, the same year that Filipino migrant workers contributed about $32.5 billion to the country’s economy.”
As reported by Arab News, after “the Philippines lifted a ban on the deployment of workers to Saudi Arabia in November, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] committed that same month to compensate thousands of unpaid Filipino workers during a meeting with Marcos.” Moreover, during his State of the Nation Address, Marcos, Jr., stated that, the “unpaid salaries and other related claims of some 14,000 OFWs, who have been put out of work in Saudi Arabia during the pandemic, are now being processed.”
Moreover, Speaking with journalists while still in Dubai, Marcos Jr., once again assured his audience that the dispute over unpaid salaries and related claims has all but been resolved, saying “He [Prince Mohammed] told me this is their gift to us.” However, by the end of last August, CNN Philippines reported that Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary, Eduardo de Vega, announced that the receipt of back pay and overdue compensation for OFWs in Saudi Arabia “is not expected to happen this year.”
If a situation were tens of thousands of OFWs have to wait until 2024 to receive the salaries and claims that were ostensibly already being processed this past spring is anything to go by, it is unclear what exactly Filipinos (whether living within the country or abroad) can expect from Marcos Jr.’s attempts at improving economic relations and diplomatic ties between the Philippines and other states such as Iraq, Egypt, the UAE, and even Ukraine. The following survey provides a summary breakdown of the key areas of trade and investments proper to each respective countries relations to the Philippines:
Iraq: After a 10 year hiatus in diplomatic relations, Iraq has proposed plans to improve bilateral relations. Included among these proposals are: study abroad programs for Filipino students; establishing training programs for Filipino nurses in Iraq; sending Iraqi nurses to training programs at Philippine medical schools; and improving the flow of tourism from the Philippines (a majority Catholic country) with the allocation of 9,000 square meters of land for a future ‘tourist city’ at the ancient city-state of Ur and the birthplace of Abraham.
Egypt: In addition to Egypt’s 2022 trade deal with the Philippines, allowing for the export of agricultural products given Egypt’s standing as one of the top exporters of citrus (5.9% as of 2021) to the Philippines, Marcos, Jr., recently sought to further improve bilateral relations between the two countries, with Egypt expressing interest in “areas of innovation and technology,” such as space exploration and renewable energy.
United Arab Emirates (UAE): While bilateral trade between the UAE and the Philippines amounted to $1.52 billion in 2022, current and future economic relations between the two countries remains founded on “people-to-people” relations. That is, trade between these two countries largely depends on “a million Filipinos [i.e. OFWs and their families] that live and work in the UAE.”
Ukraine: Moreover, after the 2022 total ban on OFW deployment to Ukraine due to the Russia-Ukraine War, in March of this year, Ukrainian ambassador Denys Mykhailivk raised the prospect of OFW migrating to Ukraine to aid in the “reconstruction effort” due to the on-going war with Russia. In return, Mykhailivk offered to help Manila build a ‘grain bank’ and export more crops through the Black Sea. As Mykhailivk put it, “We have proposed to the Government of the Philippines so the ball is on your side. We can deliver immediately. Our silos are full of grain.”
The Impact of OFWs on the Philippine Economy and Diplomacy
The shift from “land-based products to labor-based products” inaugurated by the 1974 Decree no.442 remains a structuring dynamic shaping Philippine labor to this day such that some analysts have described OFWs as a ‘permanent phenomena’; and state-actors from the Gulf coast to Ukraine interested in improving diplomatic relations with the Philippines for the purpose of increasing the portion of OFWs that comprise their domestic labor market seemingly attests to this fact. And yet, if OFWs are a “permanent” phenomena, it is only because the Philippine ‘labor-brokerage’ state remains invested in the export of Philippine labor given the percentage of the country’s annual GDP is comprised of remittances from OFWs.
In the World Bank’s June 2023 Migration and Development Briefing report, in 2022, the top five recipient countries for remittances were India ($111 billion), Mexico ($61 billion), China ($51 billion), the Philippines ($38 billion), and Pakistan ($30 billion). In 2022, “remittances from overseas Filipino workers accounted for 8.9% of the country’s gross domestic product,” according to the Central Bank of the Philippines (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas). For 2023, however, the World Bank’s latest Jobs Report has estimated that remittances from OFWs accounts form roughly 10% of the Philippines annual GDP.
While it is unclear whether OFWs will, in fact, receive the wages and fees they are owed in 2024, what is certain is that 2024 will mark 50 years of the Philippine’s OFW program. That is to say, 50 years of state-driven relocation of various segments of Philippine society. In the words of longtime critic of the government’s labor export program, Antonio Tujan: for almost 50 years “the Philippine state [has] engage[d] in nothing nothing more than ‘legal human trafficking.’”