The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) banned deployment of workers from the Philippines to Kuwait on February 12, 2018. The ban is part of the Filipino government’s response to a highly publicized death of a Filipino domestic helper in Kuwait. The body of the 29-year old maid, bearing signs of strangulation and torture, was reportedly left in a freezer in an apartment for over a year.
POEA’s move reflects the significance of overseas workers to the economy and politics of the country. As of 2017, more than 10 million Filipinos were estimated to be working or living abroad, approximately 10 percent of the domestic population of 100 million. Remittances from overseas Filipino workers accounted for more than 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016. Given the sheer number and volume of their contribution to the national economy, unsurprisingly, migrants form a politically influential constituency in Filipino domestic politics. The current President Rodrigo Duterte receives substantial political support from migrant workers overseas, which explains why POEA is keen on ensuring their proper treatment in the receiving country.
The Filipino government has not always shown the same degree of eagerness to protect its citizens from abuse in host countries. The government, viewing emigration as a tool for development, started promoting temporary overseas migration in the 1970s, evidenced by its adoption of the Overseas Employment Program in 1974. Then, POEA’s role was limited to promotion and monitoring of outward migration. It took 20 years until the POEA assumed the role of protecting workers overseas. A murder of a Filipino worker overseas prompted the passage of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, expressly mandating the POEA “to establish higher standard of protection and promotion of welfare” of migrants overseas. Given this history, the POEA’s swift response to a similar murder case in 2018 certainly deserves praise.
Recurring reports of abuse of overseas Philippines workers, however, raise a more fundamental question. Despite the best efforts by POEA, as long as the Philippines continues to send an enormous volume of its citizens overseas, the problem will likely repeat itself: in host countries, Filipino workers as non-citizens are less protected by the local laws, left vulnerable to the risk of exploitation and abuse. For the Filipino government to successfully justify its use of emigration as a development tool, the benefits must clearly outweigh the costs.
Development literature is inconclusive on the cost-benefits of outward migration and influx of remittance. Economists debate how remittance may spur economic development in the receiving country like the Philippines. The pessimistic view is that remittance cannot directly lead to the economic growth, as the majority, if not all, will be spent on household consumption rather than on investment. The optimistic view is that, even if remittance is not put directly to productive use, it indirectly leads to development-inducing investment by increasing the capital stock of the country, easing capital constraints. Skeptics counter that the negative effect of a decrease in the labor stock as a result of the outflow of population is likely to cancel out any indirect positive capital effects of the influx of remittance.
Even if remittance in itself may not necessarily lead to development, use of proactive outward migration policy may be justified on the grounds that remittance is a superior mode of financing other development projects. This justification does not withstand a careful inquiry either. Traditionally, remittance was seen as a politically stable source of income for the country: unlike humanitarian aid, its volume does not depend on the political goodwill of the donor country. Moreover, remittance was also understood as an anticyclical cushion to macroeconomic shocks in the remittance-receiving country, because migrants tend to send more to their family back home in an economic downturn. However, recent reports show that remittance is susceptible to economic and political shocks in the migrant-hosting country, countering the notion that remittance is more stable a source of financing than its alternatives.
Overall, development literature appears to caution against overreliance on outward migration and influx of remittance and stresses the need for a non-migration-based development strategy. Unlike abusive treatments and human rights violations, these subtle and nuanced economic consequences tend not to culminate in a headline-worthy event, making it harder to create a political momentum to pressure the government for a policy change. While POEA’s ban on Kuwait is a welcome move, the government of the Philippines should remember that inhumane treatment of Filipino workers overseas is the inevitable human cost to its promotion of outward migration. In addition to fostering protection of its citizens abroad, it should reevaluate its development policy to ascertain that these costs are not wasted.
Mae Ji is a second-year J.D. student at Columbia Law School. Her background is in political science and international relations.