I cannot even think of an adjective to properly describe how it is to be an Overseas Filipino Worker or OFW. Being away from the Philippines for six months now and working in a foreign land, I must say it is quite a humbling experience for me. To be in the most beautiful modern place I have ever been, the most popular tourist destination in the world, while working on domestic chores as most, if not all, of the OFWs here do in Paris.
Surprisingly, I adjusted to French ways of life easily, as I experience it day-by-day. I get to travel in the very efficient Metro, which is their version of our LRT and MRT. I now say “Bonjour” as a formal greeting and even do “beso-beso” as in place of “Hello” or “Uy, Kamusta” in the Philippines. I can now compute in terms of Euros—both the nominal value and the utility of a product—to say which is cheap, which is not, which is worth it every once in a while (mind you, fastfood meals from the likes of McDonald’s here cost 8 euros on the average or P400). I get to eat baguette for breakfast at times and have a selection of cheese to eat it with. Kissing couples in the metro or public areas is no longer new to me here as I’ve learned that French people are very romantic and passionate. It is easy to adjust because the seven to nine hours of work would surely get you in the grind quick.
But what’s hard to get used to is seeing the kind of sacrifices I have seen from all Filipino migrant workers I have met so far. What we all have to do just to provide for families and loved ones back home. I feel mixed emotions every time I hear their stories and when I experience it myself as well.
Do I feel sad because they have to endure back-breaking jobs daily as I do? Do I feel awful knowing that they are roughly 6,910 miles away from home with no family member to take care of them when they get sick or when they need help as I am? Do I feel anger every time I see the pain in their eyes when they get to share their stories of abuse and exploitation, mostly before landing a more regular livelihood here? Do I feel alarmed at the situation of growing number of Filipinos without working papers, still being employed by French households to scuttle government fees for having employees? And do I feel proud that Filipinos have the good reputation of being hard working employees, trustworthy persons and law abiding expatriates? I tend to be consumed with all those thoughts at once and that pushes me to try even harder to understand.
Filipinos working tirelessly from Mondays to Sundays, seven to nine hours everyday, only squeezing breaks for lunch and transferring from one job to the next to earn that money remittance to send back home. That is why, in all my ramblings in my current disposition, the news a few days ago on the proposal to increase the value-added tax or VAT from 10% to 12% on the service fee of money remittance centers hit a snag.
The immediate reaction is a wave of disillusionment and fear that remittance centers will pass the additional burden to migrants instead of shouldering the costs. To say it directly, we individual workers can no longer manage the additional taxes. Why not go after big corporations who can muscle their way in paying their taxes correctly for all the big profits they rake in? OFWs worldwide sent $29.92 billion back to the Philippines last year. That’s 1.20 trillion pesos.
A lot of money sent to the country and what’s left with us migrants are just receipts and dues or bills at the end of the month. We stay in cramped rooms or sometimes share a room since rent is costly (300 to 600 euros for spaces as small as studio condo units) especially if you are in the center of Paris. We take advantage of hand-me-down items to save money and we go to open markets such as Belleville or Barbes-Rochechouart because commodities there are cheaper.
Living abroad has some of its perks, like seeing on a daily basis the most beautiful attractions in the world. But if you really try to see the bigger picture, being away from home creates vulnerable situations for the OFWs and their families. We are forced to leave behind our loved ones, family, country and home. Nothing could feel as vulnerable as that.
We were branded new heroes of the nation because our money remittances keep the Philippine economy afloat. Just hearing that line over and again, surely one would believe in a silver lining in every (dark) cloud. But how ironic that a glimmer of hope for the future of families and for the stability of the nation should be on the expense of the people being with family and having job security—supposed to be basic things a sovereign nation must look after.
That is why when I see in the news that peace talks have been cancelled, I felt falling in another confusing din. (As you might have guessed by now, OFWs watch out for news back home all the time.)
Just almost two years before I came to Paris, I joined activities commemorating the Hacienda Luisita massacre that reached 10 years that year. I find it heartbreaking that the farmers still did not get justice for what happened and the Congressman in the area and part-owner of the hacienda was then the President of the Philippines. That the farmers still did get the land even if the 1985 and 2012 decisions of the Supreme Court said they rightfully own the land now.
There is a compelling reason for me to support the peace talks between the government and the revolutionary forces, especially when I heard that social and economic reforms were on the table last January in the talks in Rome. Land reform and rural development—so we have enough food, so we don’t import rice, so farmers do not die of hunger, so we don’t all have to flock to the metro in hopes that it has greener pasture there—Yes, I want that. National industrialization and economic development—so we would learn to make our own steel, cars, computers, etc., so there will be enough jobs to go around with decent wages—Yes, I want that, too. That higher tuition fees be eradicated and inadequate basic social services be improved —Yes, I want all of that.
If not through the peace talks, then how would this be achieved?
All those years and the Philippines is still backward. That’s why OFWs like me leave the country and work in foreigner’s homes even if in our own nation we had finished good schooling. All the administrations and leaders that promised changed and progress for the country had only differing glamorization of what their achievements were. They say there has been progress, the economic indicators are good, and other descriptions unlike what our lives really are like. Because here I am in Paris, the second generation in my family to go abroad to work.
The government and those up in arms against them sitting on the peace tables and trying to reach agreements and showing sincerity to push for social economic reforms—that brings hope to OFWs like me. I appeal for the leaders in the nation to give lasting peace and real progress a chance in my homeland.
Like any OFW, I hope to someday soon come home to the Philippines, feeling safe and secure for the rest of my days.