[OPINION] Extraordinary occupational hazards: PH migrants during the pandemic

Dada Docot
What are the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on Filipino overseas workers? The author places seafarers and nurses in the spotlight.

The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic prompt us to think about the repercussions of these times on the Philippines, which has 10 million members of its population living and working beyond its borders. With overseas Filipino workers contributing to almost 10% of the country’s GDP, the Philippines does not tone down on its rhetoric of Filipino migrants as heroes, whose labors are critical to the country’s economic survival. What “extraordinary occupational hazards” affecting overseas Filipino migrants are produced during these turbulent times? What are the consequences of these times on Filipino overseas workers?

To think through these questions, I highlight two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Turbulent seas, turbulent homecomings

The world watched with bated breath the horror involving the cruise ships MV Grand Princess and Diamond Princess, which were both quarantined at sea. More than 50% of the crew members of these two ships are Filipinos.

This is not surprising since the Philippines is the source of more than 30% of the 1.2 million seafarers worldwide; in fact, the Philippines is known as the “manning capital of the world.” In an interview in 2018, the head of the Philippines’ second-biggest maritime labor recruitment agency in the Philippines told me that their office receives almost 5,000 applications monthly. Almost 50% of Filipino seafarers are simply classified within “other” occupations. The catch-all category of “other” occupations reflects how overseas Filipino workers are rendered flexible and marginal by global capital.

On February 14, a Filipino crew member of the Diamond Princess posted on Twitter a video of the Filipino crew dancing to Justin Bieber’s “Yummy.” The video went viral, and praises for their exemplary service circulated online. On April 12, Filipino seafarers docked in Manila and faced difficulties in finding accommodation despite completing the required two-week quarantine by the Department of Health. (READ: SC upholds seafarer’s right to post-employment medical checkup)

The period that seafarers spend at home during non-pandemic times could be called “anxious wait-times” because of their lack of security of tenure. Seafarers are on contracts that should not exceed 12 months, which means that they are never regularized. In between contracts, seafarers anticipate callbacks about their next departure date. Homecomings could turn into perpetual wait-times with the seafarer dreading to join the growing number of unemployed Filipinos. 

This condition of irregularity ties in with the so-called 5-5-5 contracts – temporary 5-month contracts for Filipino laborers, designed so that the employee would not get regularized upon 6 months of continuous work as required by the law. A seafarer told me in 2018 that he moved from one 5-5-5 contract to another for 5 years – as a security guard, waiter, noodle cart vendor, among others – before joining the fleet of a Greek oil tanker in 2007. 

Exhausted by the Philippines’ system of irregular employment, Filipino seafarers seek better opportunities on the next departing ship, baited by the lure of higher pay. However, international labor contracts are just as insecure and terminable. Pandemic or not, the livelihood of Filipino seafarers with insecure contracts is always hanging in the balance. (READ: On board and online: Why every seaman needs internet)

It is also important to draw our attention back to the ways that Filipinos were displaced historically. The colonial archives record that in 1805, young men of “3 sizes” were taken from my hometown, presumably for different kinds of labor, including indentured work on the Spanish galleon ships. In 1901, the US started recruiting the first 500 Filipinos to make up the racialized, gendered, and lowest rank of the US Navy as stewards. Today’s labor infrastructure that commits Filipinos to the maritime industry contributed to the creation of an orientation to leave, set against a context that would not provide Filipinos regular employment at home.  

Scenario 2: Instant medical workforce

In 2009, the first batch of Filipino nurses arrived in Spain following what is called the Philippine-Spain Memorandum of Understanding on Migration Flows, which was signed in 2006. Upon the Filipino nurses’ arrival in Spain, which was the Philippines’ former colonizer for 333 years, they faced pressures to reskill despite their training and experience. With the MOU not covering support for their training (e.g., language), a news article reported that nurses found themselves working as babysitters, waitresses, and caregivers.

We recall that Spain had denied the majority of the people in the islands the opportunity for education. In 1898, the US imperial forces advanced to the Pacific. The US colonial strategy was markedly different from that of Spain which focused on teaching the English language as a tool for colonizing the Filipino mind. Advancing training of Filipinos in the medical field accompanied the US empire’s discourse of civilizing the natives. 

Let us return to the contemporary moment when Filipino nurses reached Spain, passing through an educational and labor infrastructure that orient Filipinos about their competitive advantage in the overseas labor market. Upon arrival, their skills were found to be wanting. The same news article also reported that Filipino nurses in Spain took on part-time jobs as language teachers. Fluent in the colonial tongue from the enculturation of American sensibilities in Filipino consciousness, Filipinos utilize the English language as capital – to become English language teachers and call center agents. Unrelenting structures of inequality that were set up by colonialism and global capitalism absorb, make flexible, and expropriate labor surplus to their advantage.

COVID-19 hit Spain hard with 20,852 deaths as of April 20. All of a sudden, Spain expedited the processing of the Filipino nurses’ work permits as it rushed to build a medical workforce. Finally, they could work in the profession that they had trained in, yet they first had to undergo a rite of passage – the flexibilization of their labor. Recruited overnight to labor on the front lines of care, Filipino nurses in Spain face the danger of contamination, with the likelihood of death, away from their loved ones, and without funeral rites to honor their lives and sacrifices on the frontline. (READ: ‘Working with fear and anxiety’: Filipino nurses as UK frontliners vs coronavirus)

Extraordinary occupational hazards

Seafarers’ homecomings are ordinarily anxious wait-times during which they return to a mode of uncertainty that they had hoped to avoid by sailing elsewhere. Protections for them as employees halt upon return. Their experience of precarity intensifies as they return home during the pandemic to a country that facilitates departure, but not warm homecomings. Seafarers come home to face discrimination as communities not equipped with needed public information about the contagion perceive them as carriers of the virus even if they had tested negative. They face an unwelcoming environment run by a regime that is indifferent to ameliorating anxieties from their turbulent journey. 

The occupational hazards that Filipino workers face, in the case of seafarers, have been crafted historically and are contiguous with the precaritization of Filipino labor back home. Occupational hazards experienced by migrants heighten when states, lacking empathy, fail to find solutions and instead weaponize ignorance, fear, and violence during uncertain times. In the case of Filipino nurses in Spain, the hero discourse gets deployed at the cost of absolving states that broker, surplus, and abruptly pull people to the frontlines. (READ: Overseas warriors: Up close with UAE’s Filipino nurses during the pandemic)

What appears to be extraordinary is the persistent capitalization of Filipino labor and of the expectation that they could bear the burden of suffering that trails along, as they leave or come home, or stay in their countries of destination to fulfill their duties, either in ordinary or pandemic times. – Rappler.com

Dada Docot is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Purdue University. She is an anthropologist of her hometown in Bicol, and of the Filipino diaspora.