A Hero’s Welcome? Repatriated Overseas Filipino Workers and COVID-19

This article discusses the emerging impacts of COVID-19 to the Philippines through the lens of its migrant workers, domestically known as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) many of whom have since been repatriated due to the pandemic. Since the 1980’s, OFWs have been hailed as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes) for keeping the Philippines afloat through remittances, which in 2019 reached USD 30 billion (PHP 1.56 trillion), or about 8% of the Philippines’ USD 377 billion (PHP 19.52 trillion) economy. With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing a significant portion of the global economy to a halt, more than 153,000 OFWs have been forced to repatriate to date (Mercere, 2020). Based on August 2020 reports from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (2020), OFW remittances fell by a total of USD 840 million (PHP 42 billion) from March to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

While many OFWs in the health sector are hospital frontliners in the US, UK, Europe, and the Middle East, many who returned to the Philippines find themselves unemployed and stranded outside domestic airports. Some who have been able to get domestic flights through the infamous programs Balik Probinsya and Hatid Probinsiya (return/bringing back to the provinces) have tested positive for COVID-19. Others who have not been able to repatriate but have lost their jobs are in equally desperate straits–some with lapsing visas, others forced to sell blood. The article explores the multiple layers of displacement and uncertainty experienced by OFWs who were displaced to find work outside and are now displaced in their own country as it battles the pandemic.


This article discusses the emerging impacts of COVID-19 on the Philippines through the lens of its migrant workers, domestically known as Overseas Filipinos (OFs), Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs), or Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)[1] who have since been repatriated due to the pandemic. Since the 1980s, OFWs have been hailed as bagong bayani (modern-day heroes) for keeping the Philippine economy afloat through remittances, which in 2019 reached USD 30 billion (PHP 1.56 trillion), or about 8% of the Philippines’ USD 377 billion (PHP 19.52 trillion) economy. Official government estimates suggest that there are 2.2 million OFWs scattered worldwide. Close to 97% are working with an existing contract, while the remaining 3% are those working without a contract (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2020).

With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing a significant portion of the global economy to a halt, Ang and Opiniano (2020) estimate that 300,000 to 400,000 OFWs are affected by lay-offs and pay cuts, and some of them will require repatriation. At the end of August 2020, there are now about more than 389,000 returning overseas Filipinos, around 60% of whom are land-based workers coming from badly hit industries such as logistics, construction, and the oil sector, while the rest are sea-based (National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, 2020, Department of Foreign Affairs, 2020, Mercene, 2020).

The extensive literature on Filipino migrant work stretches back to the early 1900s, when Filipinos were first hired as temporary plantation workers across the United States. In the 1970s the oil boom in the Middle East prompted a mass exodus of male construction and oil refinery workers to countries like Saudi Arabia (Orbeta and Abrigo, 2009). The gender ratio shifted by the 1980s as more women pursued opportunities abroad as domestic, administrative, and healthcare workers. The Philippines is now the world’s largest source of seafarers, where an estimated 700,000 seamen are deployed in domestic and foreign-flagged seagoing vessels (Maritime Industry Authority, 2020). Approximately 380,000 Filipino mariners make up a quarter of all global merchant shipping crews (Watkin, 2019), while a third of all global cruise ships are staffed by Filipinos. Shipping has screeched to a halt due to restricted trade and the drop in oil prices due to the pandemic. Cruise ships became floating COVID-19 hotspots at the beginning of the year–examples including the infamous Diamond Princess and Ruby Princess, each vessel carrying 200 to 400 Filipino crew members that had to be repatriated (CNN Philippines, 2020a; The Economist, 2020). While thousands of sea-based OFWs have returned home, an estimated 80,000 more are stranded in ships with lapsed contracts as of June 2020 (Bondoc, 2020).

Out-migration of Filipino healthcare workers has been steadily rising since the 1960s and was estimated at more than 20,000 migrant health personnel in 2012 (Dayrit, et al, 2018). The Philippines has been a reliable source of this specialized labour, illustrated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s post-COVID convalescence photograph wearing a t-shirt with a ‘Philippine’ logo that fueled speculation he was paying tribute to the numerous Filipino nurses working in the UK during the pandemic. While many OFWs in the health sector are hospital frontliners in the US, UK, Europe, and the Middle East, others who returned home to the Philippines find themselves unemployed and stranded outside domestic airports, at the height of one of the longest and most stringent COVID-19 lockdowns in the world.

Despite draconian efforts, the Philippines, as of 06 October 2020, has more than 324,000 confirmed cases, highest in the ASEAN region (National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, 2020; Department of Health, 2020). Intermittent lockdown cycles halted approximately 75 percent of economic activities and rendered nearly half of the country’s adult labour force jobless, leaving repatriated OFWs scrabbling to retrain during the worst recession since the tail-end of the Marcos dictatorship. In the same national mobile phone survey, 79% of adult Filipinos reported that their quality of life decreased in the past 12 months. Among those that received government assistance,  81% still reported that their quality of life decreased.

Elsewhere we have written about misplaced priorities that have created unnecessary effects on vulnerable communities–a term that now applies to newly-repatriated OFWs who have lost their jobs (Quijano et al, 2020). How do we begin to understand these multiple layers of displacement and uncertainty, and what are the options available for this cohort?

Economic saviours no more?

Overseas Filipino (OF) cash remittances fell by a total of USD 840 million (approximately PhP 42 billion) from March to June 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019.  Five sources[2] accounted for USD 692 million (PhP 34 billion) or 82% of the decline in cash remittances during the first four months of lockdown. Three of the five, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, are oil-producing countries that are dealing with a collapse in oil prices. Close to 920,000 Overseas Filipino Workers[3] (OFWs) are employed in the three Gulf states. This represents almost 42% of the estimated 2.2 million OFWs globally (PSA, 2020). Figure 1 shows the cash remittances from OF across a 12 month period.

Figure 1: Comparative Table of Overseas Filipinos’ Remittance per month, July 2018 – June 2020. Bango Sentral ng Pilipinas, Graph by Justin Muyot.

According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank), the decline resulted from the repatriation of Filipinos in countries heavily affected by COVID-19 and the disruption in banking and money transfer services in both the sending and receiving ends. Table 1 presents the top five countries with the biggest decline in OF cash remittances from March to June 2020.

Table 1: Biggest Declines in OF Cash Remittances by Source (in thousand USD). Bangko Pilipinas, 2020 

The prospects for returning OFs are not any better at home. During the first few weeks of community quarantine, 3 million left the labor force and an additional 5 million became unemployed based on the April 2020 Labor Force Survey. As the community quarantine dragged on, its economic impact became worse. The Philippine economy experienced its steepest decline[5] of 16.5% in the second quarter of 2020. For the first half of 2020, the economy contracted by a total of 9.0%. On the demand side, gross capital formation (i.e., construction activities and purchase of machinery and equipment) and household spending contracted as economic activity was limited to essential goods and services. On the supply side, the stay-at-home restriction led to manufacturers operating well below capacity and public transportation ground to a halt. Malls, restaurants, hotels, and other retail and service establishments also remain predominantly closed or running at limited capacity, with mobility restrictions being modified by the Philippine government every fortnight.

Table 2: Contribution of Change in GDP (in percentage points). Philippine Statistics Authority, Computations by Justin Muyot.
Implications to the Philippine economy: a gutted middle class

The once-burgeoning Filipino middle class is often attributed to OFWs, who boost economic mobility by improving their families’ income status just within a span of a year (Ducanes and Abella, 2008). The latest National Migration Survey finds that around 12 percent of all Filipino households “have or had an OFW member” (Philippine Statistics Authority and University of the Philippines Population Institute, 2019). A study also revealed that 73% of OFWs are middle-income, with most belonging to the lower-middle income bracket. Benefits from foreign remittances trickle down to other members of the community, including those who do not directly have an OFW member in the household. Around 45% of these recipients say that foreign remittances comprise at least 25% of their entire household income (Albert, Santos, and Vizmanos, 2018).

However, these middle-income families relying on OFs also end up being economically vulnerable (Bird et al, 2009 cited in Albert, Santos, and Vizmanos, 2018), as many of these families are single-income households. Remittances from overseas are usually spent on basic needs and the education of children left behind in the Philippines or used for health expenses (PSA and UPPI, 2019). Once the OF breadwinner becomes unemployed, the family is prone to sliding back into poverty.

For a repatriated OF, the loss of employment and the economic recession greatly affects their family expenditures–most notably for private school education. Latest enrollment figures show that 90 percent of public school students have re-enrolled but only 27 percent of private school students have returned. Some 300,000 have transferred from private to public schools (Ramos, 2020; Dancel, 2020). The reason cited by the Department of Education was that parents can no longer fund these education expenses because of losing their jobs, although the data presented did not explicitly identify children coming from OF households.

To support these families, the government faces the responsibility of putting together responsive and sustainable social protection packages for repatriated OFs as well as the millions of Filipinos who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Government responses:  Balik Probinsya and the rise of Locally-Stranded Individuals (LSIs)

To buffer the economic impact of the mass repatriation, up to 2.5 billion pesos was earmarked by the Philippine government for displaced overseas workers. This package includes one-time cash assistance of USD 200 (PhP 10,000) through its AKAP (Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong or Help is Within Reach) Program, as well as an interim monetary assistance and welfare package for OFWs awaiting repatriation from host countries. The  Overseas Worker Welfare Administration (OWWA) has also announced a USD 8 million (Php 400 million) emergency educational fund for children of COVID-19 affected OFWs (OWWA, 2020a).  The government has also approved a USD 3.5 billion (PhP 165 billion) recovery package locally known as the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, a portion of which will provide support for repatriated OFWs, specifically USD 17 million (PhP 820 million) for repatriation, medical assistance, and shipment of remains for those who die of COVID-19 (Gotinga, 2020). OFWs and their families may also qualify and avail of the food and livelihood assistance provided through the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

However, the situation faced by repatriated OFWs is alarming especially when compared to the less-than-robust government solutions on the table. The number of OFWs seeking government assistance has reached more than 600,000 individuals but only close to half of the requests have been approved. The labor department said that most of those seeking assistance (349,977 individuals) are on-site workers or those displaced and stranded overseas. The remaining 254,426, are repatriated land-based and sea-based OFWs whose employment was likely terminated in their host countries (Santos, 2020). Others who have not been able to repatriate but have lost their jobs are in equally desperate straits–some are forced to sell blood so that they have money for food (Casilao, 2020). Photos of organ donation scars began to surface on social media in July.

While the government’s emergency cash assistance was helpful, it was barely enough to cover for costs incurred by repatriates while undergoing the mandatory 14-day quarantine as well as the costs of domestic flights to their home provinces. This partly explains why around 136,000 OFs were part of the more than 250,000 locally stranded individuals who waited to be sent home through the infamous Balik Probinsya and Hatid Probinsya (return/bringing back to the provinces) Programs, since public transportation was suspended therefore restricting people’s mobility (National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, 2020). Figure 2 shows images of a fraction of the 297,243 registered locally stranded individuals (LSIs) (National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, 2020), including displaced OFs, who were forced to camp outside airports or within the Rizal Memorial Stadium (a sports stadium) while waiting to be transported back to their home provinces (CNN Philippines, 2020b). These LSIs risked getting infected with COVID-19 as the national government negotiated with local government units to lift moratoriums on local repatriation. With poor systems in place for testing and other health protocols, the national government set itself up for further outbreaks losing the Philippines’ geographic advantage and this time at the expense of its citizens.

Figure 2: Locally Stranded Individuals in Rizal Memorial Stadium, July 2020. CNN Philippines, 2020b.

The now-suspended national program Balik Probinsya, which offers urban poor families and out of work OFs with cash and livelihood assistance provided that they return to their provinces, was rebranded into an equally problematic internal repatriation program called Hatid Tulong (literally translates to Sending Aid) or Hatid ProbinsiyaHatid Tulong was pitched as a “short-term humanitarian effort to assist residents, tourists, students and overseas Filipino workers through transportation provisions to bring them back to their home provinces” (Kabagani, 2020). This is the government’s attempt to compensate for the lack of public transportation and other travel restrictions during the various stages of quarantine.

The misery of the OF as locally stranded individuals does not end with getting an elusive slot in the Hatid Tulong or Hatid Probinsya Program. The ordeal only intensifies as push back from their local government units become more pronounced every day the national government fails to get them home. Local government officials have been consistent in their request for the suspension of the various local repatriation programs like Balik Probinsya and Hatid Tulong.  Officials from Eastern Visayas cited facts in their petition that the increase in COVID-19 cases in their localities were brought about by returning residents who were stranded in Metro Manila as LSIs, including OFWs (Moya, 2020). The provinces of Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi in the southernmost region of the Philippines also experienced the consequences of this poorly executed repatriation program, with LSIs being dropped off the wrong port, in Cagayan De Oro, which is close to 500 km away from the intended destination (Arguillas, 2020).

Preparing for the influx of LSIs is just one of the multitude of responsibilities that local governments now carry in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the poorest rural localities now have to allocate resources for isolation facilities in case repatriated LSIs test positive for COVID-19.  The magnitude of the local and international repatriation and reintegration problem coupled with staggering local unemployment requires resources for social services, livelihood, and employment support that not all local government units possess.

Time to return the favour: What else can be done for repatriated Overseas Filipinos? 

At best, the national government’s response to the crisis and its handling of repatriated OFs can be described as fragmented. At worst, it is a display of a vacuum in leadership that has resulted in poor planning, haphazard execution, and callous communication.

So, what can be done for OFs whose remittances and service has kept the country’s economy afloat even in times of crises? The logic is simple–it is time for the Philippine government to return the favour by keeping OFs and their families alive and safe during this pandemic.

The first thing that should be done is to ensure the safe return of OFs who need to go home. The OWWA already has preexisting repatriation programs, inclusive of capacity building activities, job placements, livelihood packages, and individual loans for returning OFWs. About USD 14 million (Php 700 million) has been allocated for this program pre-pandemic (OWWA, 2020b; Department of Budget and Management, 2020). The government must scale-up this program to absorb the sudden increase in the number of OFs that would need emergency repatriation–the current USD 103 million (PhP 5 billion) might not be enough to provide for the 600,000 affected OFs. Upon their return to the Philippines, there has to be a seamless process for testing and quarantine and the government must ensure the repatriated OFs will not incur any out of pocket expense.

Social protection packages must be put in place for OFs and their families while they are being linked to livelihood and employment opportunities. Immediate social assistance will not be difficult to implement since the OWWA would have a database of repatriated OFs, which can easily be matched with other government databases for various financial assistance programs. Majority of the displaced OFs perform elementary or low-skilled jobs in the tourism, construction, oil, and logistics industries, the very same industries heavily hit by the recession.  However, it should be noted that the welfare services offered by the government through OWWA is only a stop-gap measure to the more pressing problems of unemployment and financial vulnerability among OFs. Both local and national governments must therefore work together to develop and implement a comprehensive program that would create employment opportunities for displaced OFs.

The recent Philippine government pronouncements about job generation through the Development Outreach for Labor, Livelihood, and Advancement of Resources (DOLLAR Program) that will offer up to 60,000 jobs to OFWs attempt to “to promote and accelerate industrial, economic, and social development of the country so that jobs can be provided for the Filipino people especially among those living in rural areas” (Philippine Economic Zone Authority, 2020) are minuscule compared to the demand of OFs affected by the crisis.  The government has also pledged to create jobs in the construction sector because of the ongoing infrastructure-led growth strategy of the Duterte administration called “Build, Build, Build” (CNN Philippines, 2020c). However, no detailed plans have been revealed about these programs.  The national government must step in, not just in the form of programs like Balik Probinsya or Hatid Tulong but more towards comprehensive and sustainable support and employment packages.

In the face of continued restrictions as the Philippines struggles to contain the virus, the onus will be on local governments, together with the private sector, to serve as catalysts for economic activity in their respective localities. Repatriated OF’s will look into their localities for opportunities or kick-start businesses there on their own. Directly, local governments can shore up demand for goods and services. Several LGUs have already started doing this by purchasing agricultural produce and entering service contracts with transportation providers. Indirectly, LGUs play an important role by matching supply and demand of available skillsets with jobs. Through developments in e-commerce, online selling of food, personal protective equipment, and other items has been booming, alongside motorcycle-based delivery and logistics services. These two industries are small but it can easily absorb OFs and it is not dependent on government subsidies. Instead, it is propelled by individual/household level consumption and demand.

In the absence of publicly funded safety nets, the burden of survival is carried by neighbours, friends, family, and fellow Filipinos through various mutual aid arrangements. Adhering to the principle of Bayanihan (collective effort), it is often support and direct assistance from individuals and the private sector which keeps OFs and their families afloat, along with the millions who have lost their jobs. For example, a group of OFWs began a relief initiative for other OFWs in Dubai who lost their jobs or have exhausted their resources by giving food aid and emergency assistance. Similar efforts were seen across other countries with OFW communities (Dass, 2020; Caranto, 2020).

Global evidence points to how any hope of economic recovery is hinged on how well the Philippine government is able to address the health crisis. Nevertheless, it is clear that the pandemic is forcing local public and private actors to creatively piece together long-overdue reforms to create and sustain local jobs, and support families now battling multiple rounds of economic displacement. The old romanticised rhetoric of OFWs as long-suffering heroes is no longer tenable–this time, it is the old saviours that need saving.


[1] The term Overseas Filipino captures Overseas Filipino Workers as well as Filipinos who have migrated and have since taken citizenship in other countries.

[2] Sources of cash remittances should not be automatically understood as the country of employment of Overseas Filipinos. The source represents the headquarters of the financial institution through which the remittance was coursed through. For instance, an Overseas Filipino employed in continental Europe may have coursed the remittance through a financial institution headquartered in the United Kingdom. The source would be the United Kingdom and not the country of employment.

[3] The number is estimated through the annual Survey on Overseas Filipinos conducted by the Philippines Statistics Authority. Determining an exact count of Overseas Filipino Workers is made difficult by cases of Filipinos working in other countries without proper legal documentation.

[4] Sources of cash remittances should not be automatically understood as the country of employment of Overseas Filipinos. The source represents the headquarters of the financial institution through which the remittance was coursed through. For instance, an Overseas Filipino employed in continental Europe may have coursed the remittance through a financial institution headquartered in the United Kingdom. The source would be the United Kingdom and not the country of employment.

[5] This is the steepest quarterly decline since 1981 when the Philippines first started to record quarterly data. Prior to 1981, economic performance was recorded annually.

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