To recognize the contributions of migrants and their rights, the United Nations declared December 18 International Migrants Day.

To quote UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “Migration is a powerful driver of economic growth, dynamism, and understanding. It allows millions of people to seek new opportunities, benefiting communities of origin and destination alike.”

People migrate for various reasons. They are seeking better lives to escape tyranny, poverty or persecution, or just to change their location.

Between 2013-2017, an estimated 164 million people were migrant workers, which means there was a 9% rise in global migration, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Of these, 96 million were men (58%) and 68 million were women (44%).

Due to the influx of migrants, UN member countries signed and ratified several treaties for the protection of migrants such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and recently the Global Compact for Migration.

The number of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) deployed around the world reached 1 million in 2006, making the country the biggest exporter of labor. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) has estimated that the number of Filipinos overseas is about 10 million, including 2.3 million OFWs. With such a large number, overseas Filipinos contributed 10% of the country’s GDP ($US31.3 billion) in 2017, thanks to which, despite the record-breaking 6.7% inflation rate, the Philippine economy is surviving.

Feminization of migration

In contrast to the 2% decrease in the number of female migrants globally, the Philippines now has more female OFWs (51.1% female versus 48.9% male). Saudi Arabia is still the leading destination of OFWs along with other Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar. Among Asian destinations, Hong Kong comes first, while the rest are deployed in the US, Europe, Africa, and other Asian countries.

The division of labor in migration is also visible. Males migrated for industrial work and females for employment in social and domestic services. Even though migration created mobility for many women, it does not improve their lot in life; it even increases their burdens in some ways.

Despite the high literacy rate and higher educational attainment, government data shows that one in every three OFWs works in elementary occupations. The ILO defines elementary occupations as those that involve simple and routine tasks that mainly require the use of hand-held tools and some physical effort. Fifty-nine percent of female OFWs are working in this category, which includes domestic work and jobs in the hotel and hospitality industry. They are mostly working in the sectors locals do not wish to be employed in, which are categorized as the 3Ds – dangerous, dirty and demeaning.

Interventions

Marie Sol Villalon is a pastor in charge of the Mission for OFWs of the United Methodist Church and has been working with OFWs since 2005. She says that women opt to migrate because of the limited jobs in the Philippines. However, their jobs abroad are still just an extension of their unpaid labor back home – domestic work. Many also end up in the sex trade.

Most female migrants they have rescued have been in the Middle East and the latest one was in Kuching, Malaysia.

“Our role in the church is not only a sanctuary for the rescued migrants. We also help in providing board and lodging as well as pressuring the employer to return the (OFW) passport and to provide airfare,” Villalon explains.

The Mission for OFWs also works with various non-governmental organizations like Migrante and Tenaganita, a Malaysian-based organization that helps migrants.

Since it is almost impossible to stop sending workers overseas due to the lack of job opportunities in the Philippines, Villalon is calling on the government to provide legal, health and security services for OFWs.

The economic contributions of the migrant women, highly skilled or otherwise, in their countries of origin and in host countries must not be undermined. Remittances significantly contribute to the education and general welfare of their families back home. However, they remain the most vulnerable migrant sector.

Despite international treaties and international labor laws that are supposed to protect migrants, they are still facing uncertainties due to a lack of information about their rights and the prevailing laws in their host countries.

Until the receiving country and the sending country both recognize the contributions of migrants in economic, political, and overall societal development, treaties and declarations on migrants’ rights are just lip service.