Migrant Workers as National Heroes

December 14, 2015

In the Philippines, Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs, as migrant workers are known, are often referred to as mga bagong bayani – “the new heroes.” OFWs comprise about one-tenth of the overall Philippine population, and the remittances that they send home measurably spur consumer spending, driving up the national GDP. This significant contribution to the Philippine economy has not gone unnoticed by the government, which not only actively promotes the labeling of OFWs as heroes but has also enacted measures to ensure that their experiences leaving and returning to the country are relatively easy. While I cannot conclusively say whether the idealization of OFWs has a direct effect on government policies or vice-versa, it is clear that there is a nationwide appreciation of the sacrifices migrant workers make to support their families and the country.

Sacrificing for one’s family by leaving the country is clearly the underlying reason that most OFWs leave the country. You will be hard-pressed to meet a Filipino who leaves her or his family to work abroad for non-economic reasons. Family is the most important social unit in the Philippines, and it is this familial relationship that is often highlighted in portrayals of OFWs as heroes. Migrant families are not only depicted in advertisements for Western Union, box-shipping companies, international telephone cards, and other services commonly associated with migration, but also in local ads for food and other consumer products (Google and Coca-Cola advertisements featuring OFWs are well-known in the Philippines). In a sense, OFWs are part of our national psyche; the stories of migrant families are a thread that runs through the entire society.

While growing up in the Philippines, and later as a student in the UAE, a country with over 800,000 Filipino OFWs, I never questioned this narrative. As I’m sure is the case for many Filipinos; it just seemed to make sense.

This semester I have had the chance to work as a fellow with the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights’ project on the recruitment of Gulf-bound migrant construction workers. I have been struck by how consistently stakeholders refer to the Philippines as having the most comprehensive migrant processing systems in Asia, and that Philippine embassies in the Gulf are known to offer far more protective services to their nationals than any other nation. There are many theories as to why this is the case, but it is s likely that the national idealization of migrant workers plays a major role.

Other countries that send large numbers of migrant workers to the Gulf and elsewhere could learn from the power of the Philippine narrative around OFWs. For example, though Indian officials often proclaim “our people built the Gulf,” that same pride is not translated into policy or effective enforcement.

Some have argued that the Philippines can exercise more leverage over Gulf nations than other South Asian countries due to its relatively higher economic stature, while others trace the national narrative on migrant workers to the feminization of migrant labor from the country (the Philippines sends a higher proportion of female domestic workers than other countries in the region). Still others point to Filipinos’ reputation for emotionality. But none of these arguments is satisfactory, since there are counter-examples for each. India, for example, has a larger overall economy than the Philippines, and the family looms large as a social institution in every major “labor-sending” country.

In fact, political and civil society leaders in countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan can and should embrace and reinforce the contention that migrant workers are heroes. It should be plastered on billboards, portrayed in commercial advertisements, and featured in political stump speeches. The statement has tremendous power to affect policy – and perhaps more importantly, it is true.


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