Many Filipino migrant labourers and migrants are ageing in their host countries, facing challenging circumstances with few resources to overcome them. What can the Marcos Jr. administration do to support these older Filipino heroes who serve the rest of the world’s needs?
The global population is growing older. Meanwhile, millions of labour migrants from the Philippines – with its young median age of 25 – are seeking greener pastures abroad. These migrant labourers address the receiving states’ labour shortages in healthcare, manufacturing, construction, and domestic work. While to these states, the ideal immigrant and labour migrant should be youthful, healthy, and employed, migrants do not stay young forever. The precarity of their condition is compounded depending on whether they achieve permanent residency or citizenship – an arduous process, especially in the age of nationalist backlash against globalisation.
Filipinos comprise one of the largest and most diffused groups of migrants that fill labour niches in the global economy. Filipino men are over-represented in shipping, while Filipino women mainly work in the healthcare, hospitality, and domestic work sectors. For over 50 years, starting from President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s presidency, the Philippine government has facilitated the outmigration of Filipinos. Many Filipino migrants and overseas foreign workers (OFWs) have spent decades working in another country and now face the challenge of growing old in their host countries. Others are permanently retiring from overseas contract work and returning to the Philippines for good.
OFWs expect and are expected by their families and the government to have invested and prepared for their successful, permanent return to their homeland when they do not wish to or can no longer work abroad. Immigrants, in contrast, are expected to have assimilated successfully in their host countries and to have a plan for either return migration (to the Philippines) in their old age or to undertake transnational retirement. (Transnational retirement is the practice of retiring in another country to maximise one’s pension while having improved healthcare, caregiving, and leisure options.)
However, the reality is often different. The Philippine government’s current migrant services focus more on recruitment and deployment, including protection from exploitation, but less on reintegration. Former OFWs returning after decades of working abroad can find themselves without sufficient pensions, access to affordable health care, or reliable sources of additional income, and worse, they may even be expected to provide for their entire family’s needs.
There is evidence that older Filipino permanent migrants to popular destination countries such as the U.S. and Canada experience financial difficulties; some are unable to stop working (in their host countries) as they have inadequate retirement provisions and have no income to support their needs if they leave their jobs. Those who return to the Philippines find that the pension programme and healthcare provisions are as inadequate for them as for the general population.
The promise of a good life (maginhawang buhay) through migration is not being fulfilled for many Filipinos who work abroad. While Filipino migrants and OFWs have buoyed the country’s finances over the last few major crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, many find themselves without sufficient social protection in old age. Although they have cared for their own families’ needs from afar throughout their lives, they may have no one to care for them in their own time of need. While host countries welcomed them in their youth, as these Filipino migrants and OFWs age, they might find their living conditions increasingly hostile as their capacity to work and live independently diminishes. For temporary migrants, rejection can be abrupt – employment contracts can be terminated or not renewed at short notice.
The promise of a good life (maginhawang buhay) through migration is not being fulfilled for many Filipinos who work abroad.
How can the Philippine government better care for older Filipino migrants and OFWs? The Marcos Jr. administration can protect their current and future welfare through several strategies.
First, there needs to be better data collection on the status, needs, challenges, and opportunities of older Filipino migrants and OFWs. The application of indigenous knowledge and approaches may be helpful for this purpose, as would reorienting government agencies’ structures and capacities from their limited focus on sending migrants abroad to more holistic labour welfare approaches.
Second, reintegration programmes need to be better supported. Initial research points to a lack of appropriate options for livelihood and training for returning OFWs. Beyond focusing on income generation upon their return, the government must also explore social integration opportunities and psychosocial support programmes.
Last, social protection mechanisms such as public pensions and health insurance must be strengthened. The government already plans to extend and improve social protection for OFWs, senior citizens, and poor households. For instance, senior citizens with pensions should increase from 60.27 per cent of their cohort in 2021 to 62.98 per cent in 2023 and up to 66.53 per cent by 2028. For Filipino migrants who have qualified to receive pension benefits in their host countries, the Philippines can conceivably negotiate for the portability of their benefits so that those who plan to return to retire in the Philippines can continue to rely on them.
With President Marcos Jr.’s plan to continue his father’s legacy of labour export, many Filipinos will continue to leave the country in search of better lives and futures. Their remittances are expected to boost the Philippine economy. Filipino migrants’ excellence as workers and their sacrifice as modern-day heroes help make post-pandemic recovery possible. However, as they grow older, they are confronted with growing challenges and possibly diminishing resources that make securing their comfort increasingly difficult. With so much already on their shoulders, fulfilling the promise of migration should not be entirely their burden.
Michelle G. Ong is a faculty member of the University of the Philippines Diliman Department of Psychology.