A Poverty Resource Hub of Focus on the Global South Philippines

Revisiting the State of Overseas Filipino Women Workers

Revisiting the State of Overseas Filipino Women Workers

Jan 14, 2012

Revisiting the State of Overseas Filipino Women Workers

By Aya Fabros

Since the 1970s, the Philippine government has facilitated the deployment of Filipinos for overseas work. What initially began as a stopgap measure over time turned into permanent policy, as seen in the continuous rise in number of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) annually and the creation of agencies mandated to oversee and regulate overseas Filipino employment. In 2004, OFW deployment breached the one-million-a-year mark, and by 2009, the number reached almost two million.

Women make up nearly half of overseas deployment and their numbers increase every year, according to government figures (please see graph below; data from National Statistics Office Survey of Overseas Filipinos). It has been pointed out that women’s migration is double-edged—providing opportunities for women workers, while also presenting risks and threats. The case of Filipina migrant workers, the day-to-day realities they face and the structural conditions they contend with highlight several important issues and concerns that need to be taken into account and addressed, as the country becomes more visibly dependent on labor migration.

It is important to ask what kind of employment opportunities have opened up for women abroad. According to government data, Filipina migrant workers are more likely to end up in occupations considered low-skilled or unskilled. Laborers and unskilled workers make up about a third (32.3 percent) of OFWs in 2009, with a higher proportion of women falling under this category. One striking point here is that more than half of female workers (56.1 percent in 2009; 54.7 percent in 2008) were employed as laborers and unskilled workers. In contrast, among male OFWs, only 11.1 percent worked as laborers and unskilled workers. (Refer to Table 1)

Table 1. Overseas Filipino Workers by Major Occupation Group and by Sex: 2009 and 2008

Major Occupation Group 2009 2008
Both Sexes Male Female Both Sexes Male Female

Number (In Thousands)

1,912 1,010 901 2,002 1,034 968
TOTAL 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Officials of government and special-interest organizations, corporate executive, managers, managing proprietors and supervisors 2.5 3.6 1.3 2.7 3.9 1.3
Professionals 10.1 9.7 10.5 9.6 9.9 9.4
Technicians and associate professionals 6.3 805 3.8 6.2 7.5 4.9
Clerks 4.9 3.2 6.8 5.6 4.4 6.9
Service workers and shop and market sales workers 14.8 11.8 17.1 14.3 10.3 18.5
Farmers, forestry workers and fishermen 0.3 0.6 0.1 0.6 0.9 0.2
Trade and related workers 14.9 26.7 1.8 15.7 28.3 2.1
Plant and machine operators and assemblers 13.9 24.9 1.5 13.0 23.2 2.1
Laborers and unskilled workers 32.3 11.1 56.1 32.4 11.6 54.7
Special Occupations 0.1 0.1


These figures highlight themes that tend to characterize female overseas migration: that (1) women are relegated to the “bottom” of the employment chain, (2) they are confined in “typical women-dominated” occupations that are hinged on “traditional” socially-constructed care and reproductive roles, and (3) they are concentrated in vulnerable sectors characterized by precarious living and working conditions.

Many women migrant workers find themselves in jobs that reinforce notions of suitable work for women, in particular those that tend to undervalue women’s capacity and skills and over-emphasize socially-imposed attributes and expectations, such as a woman’s ‘doting nature’, her sense of empathy, obedience and docility, her place within the home. Overseas employment openings for women are more often than not confined to ‘trabahong pambabae’, such as domestic, care and entertainment work.

As this feature of female migration persists, migration experts call attention to de-skilling, in view of the mismatch of jobs with levels of education, qualification and specialization. On the one hand, Filipino migrant workers are noted for high education levels; On the other hand, many of them, especially women, including a lot of new hires, end up taking jobs in lower-skilled, 3D sectors. It is estimated that 6 out of 10 departing OFWs have obtained college-level education, while 3 out of 10 reached up to high school. (See Figure 2 and Table 2)

This trend has been noted worldwide by agencies such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), which has observed a rising number of educated and skilled women migrants who find better pay abroad by taking on jobs that fall below their qualifications. Among Filipino migrant workers, according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency 2009 Report, the top occupational categories for new hires (land-based) included Household service workers (71,557), Nurses Professional (11,866), and Waiters, Bartenders and Related Workers (11,977). Household workers ranked as the top occupation for new OFWs in 2009, and within this category, 97 percent or 69,669 are females.

Table 2. Number of Deployed Landbased Overseas Filipino Workers by Top Occupational Category and Sex, New hires: 2009

Male Female Both Sexes
All Occupational Categories 156,454 175, 298 331,752
1. Household Service Workers

2. Nurses professional

3. Waiters, Bartenders and Related Workers

4. Charworkers, Cleaners and Related Workers

5. Wiremen Electrical

6. Caregivers and Caretakers

7. Laborers/Helpers General

8. Plumbers and Pipe Fitters

9. Welders and Flame-cutters

10. Housekeeping and Related Service Workers






































*Combined total number of deployed OFWs- new hires with occupational disaggregation covers at least 95% of the total deployed land based new hires

Source: POEA 2009 Overseas Employment Statistics

This trend is further reflected in figures showing destination countries, which also point to the types of jobs that are opened up to foreign workers, and the opportunities made available for migrant women. For example, in Malaysia, according to statistics from its Immigration Department, of the 24,384 work permits issued to Filipinos in 2009, almost half (10,004) fell under the category foreign domestic worker.

The domestic sector and entertainment industries are considered invisible labor markets, which in some countries fall outside the purview of formal employment, and are thus insufficiently covered by labor policies and social protection. For these and other reasons, migrant women in these jobs tend to find themselves in work situations where they are cut off from others, almost fully dependent on their employers, and as a result more vulnerable to unfair treatment, abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

Entertainers in Japan
While Japan is another recognized destination for Filipina migrant workers, the actual number of women workers on entertainer visas has been declining since 2004. More stringent measures have been imposed, after Japan was placed on the trafficking watch list, given that abuse of Japan’s entertainer visa allegedly opened up a tap for prostitution and human trafficking.

From 134,879 entertainer visas issued in 2004 (all nationalities), this has dropped to 34,994 by 2008, according to data from the Ministry of Justice. Despite the huge decline, entertainers still represent the largest number of foreign residents among those coming in for employment. (*note different definitions/categories in Japan; trainees not included)

Table 3. Number of New Arrivals in Japan by Status of Residence

Status / Year 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Entertainer Visa 134,879 99,342 48,249 38,855 34,994

Japan’s entertainment sector drew workers from all over the world and Filipinos dominated a huge chunk of the industry. According to reports, almost a million Filipino workers were deployed to Japan from 1984 to 2006, with approximately 90 percent employed as entertainers. After the implementation of this new policy, a noticeable drop in entertainer visas among Filipinos was observed, with only 3,185 Filipina entertainers, mostly singers and dancers, arriving in 2008.

Analysts however have surfaced some issues that may not be readily gleaned from the statistics. It has been raised that stricter rules and requirements may have pushed many workers to come in through irregular routes, as such, undocumented in official statistics, and therefore even more vulnerable and invisible, within a risky industry that’s associated with trafficking, crime and prostitution.

Another dimension of the entertainment industry is reflected in the rise in number of Filipino spouses and dependents over the years. Studies have noted how marriages and families resulting from relationships that began in the clubs/bars brought forward other issues and concerns of women migrants; which were not simply confined within the arena of the work place. For instance, domestic violence, divorce, single parenthood and other family issues have also been noted, amidst this evolving backdrop.

One organization in Kyoto, APT, has reported that most of the clients of their support programs are Filipinas coming from an entertainer background; seeking assistance on issues such as marriage and divorce and domestic violence. According to APT, immigrant women tend to be in a weak position in Japanese society, where there is almost no support offered. It has been noted that many of the issues have surfaced in the last decade, suggesting a shift in the nature of their stay in Japan, from entertainers/workers to foreign spouses/single mothers. These and other emerging storylines underscore multiple facets underpinning migration and the importance of a nuanced approach in policy frame and enforcement, in order to engender a holistic view that recognizes migrants not just as workers but as human beings.

Foreign Domestic Workers
Foreign domestic workers are also viewed as an ‘isolated workforce,’ as they are hidden away within the household, usually with very limited interaction with peers and the ‘outside world,’ as they work and live under conditions practically fully determined by the dictates and disposition of their employers.

These workers tend to be overworked, undervalued and underpaid/unpaid, since domestic work is still not recognized as real productive labor. At the same time, this perpetuates the thinking that domestic workers are not entitled to the same rights as real workers, assuming that it is difficult to define and enforce labor standards that constitute fair working conditions and treatment. As such, for some domestic workers this translates to working situations that reflect ‘slave-like’ conditions, where their freedoms and mobility are compromised and where they are more at risk to suffer physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Worse, when faced with this situation, migrant women usually lacked access to the necessary legal protection and social services, on top of other forms of social, cultural and political marginalization, on the whole, narrowing down their recourse options or even closing off avenues for redress.

The current campaign regarding the convention on domestic work underscores many of the issues facing this sector, contrasting ‘what is’ from what ought to be. (See below the agenda for the proposed convention).


Place of Work 2009 2008
Both Sexes Male Female Both Sexes Male Female

Number (In Thousands)

1,912 1,010 901 2,002 1,034 968
TOTAL 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
AFRICA 2 3.2 0.7 1.5 2.5 0.5
ASIA 79.3 75.6 83.4 78.2 73.4 83.3
East Asia 17.5 14.2 21.2 18.8 15 22.8
HONGKONG 6 0.9 11.8 5.9 0.7 11.4
JAPAN 4.5 6 2.9 5.1 6.2 3.9
TAIWAN 3.4 2.7 4.2 4.2 3.4 5
OTHERS (inc China, Vietnam, Korea) 3.5 4.7 2.3 3.6 4.7 2.4
Southeast Asia 9.6 7.9 11.6 10.3 7.7 13.1
MALAYSIA 1.8 1.7 2 2.5 3.1 2
SINGAPORE 6 4.5 7.8 6.2 3 9.6
OTHERS (inc Brunei, Cambodia, Indon) 1.8 1.8 1.8 1.5 1.5 1.5
Western Asia 52.1 53.5 50.7 49.1 50.7 47.5
KUWAIT 3.7 1.4 6.2 3.7 1.8 5.7
QATAR 6.1 8.1 4 5.1 7.1 2.9
SAUDI ARABIA 21.6 28.5 13.7 20.3 25.9 14.4
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES 15.4 13.1 17.9 14.6 12.8 16.5
OTHERS (inc Bahrain, Israel, Lebanon) 5.4 2.4 8.8 5.4 3.1 8.0
Australia 2.6 2.9 2.2 2.4 3.2 1.5
Europe 8.3 9.7 6.7 9.4 11.9 6.7
North and South America 7.9 8.6 7 8.4 8.8 7.9
Other Countries 0.2 0.2 0.1

Source: census.gov.ph/data/sectordata/2009/sof0904.htm

Domestic Workers call for a Convention that includes:
1.    The same fundamental rights as other workers, as enshrined in the ILO Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998),
2.    Minimum working age regulations for domestic workers
3.    A legally binding employment contract
4.    A living wage and existing minimum wage regulations applied also to domestic workers
5.    At least one day off in every seven-day period
6.    Regulation of working hours – respecting an 8 hour day – and of payment for overtime and stand-by time
7.    Regulation against abuse and harassment
8.    Occupational health and safety standards applied to private homes where domestic workers are employed
9.    Access to social security and insurance protection
10.    Right to reproductive, family and health services and maternity leave
11.    Access to paths to legalization and regularisation for migrant domestic workers, and immigration status independent of their employers
12.    Freedom for workers to choose whether they live-in or not, and if so, decent conditions and freedom to come and go and respect for privacy.
13.    Right to keep one’s own documentation (ID cards, passports, work permits, etc.)
14.    Enforcement measures such as labour inspection and dispute settlement procedures (right to redress)
15.    Sustainable and elective return and reintegration policies and programs for migrant domestic workers

(Published in Focus on the Global South March 2011: http://focusweb.org/philippines/fop-articles/articles/500-revisiting-the-state-of-overseas-filipino-women-workers)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *