An OFW’s Journey

Estrella and Eugenio

In 1965, Estrella and Eugenio B. Chua left Bacolod, Philippines and moved to New York. Eugenio, a fresh medical school graduate, was starting a 2-year medical internship at Cumberland Hospital1 in Brooklyn.

They left behind their parents, their sisters and brothers, their friends, and their 1-year-old daughter. Both barely spoke English and this trip was their first outside of the Philippines. They were alone and uncertain of what was next.

The plan was to complete the medical internship and move back to the Philippines and work in hospital in Bacolod or start a medical private practice.

At Cumberland hospital, none of Eugenio’s colleagues knew how to pronounce his name, so they just called him Gene. Gene proved to be a sure-footed, competent doctor, with a knack for being spot-on with his diagnosis. After the 2-year internship, the hospital offered him a permanent position. Gene accepted, and over the next 20 years, Gene went on to become Director of Pediatrics, Hematology, and Oncology at Cumberland Hospital and Brooklyn Hospital.

During this time, Estrella gave birth to two more children – a son and a daughter. She took care of the home, did “mom” things, and learned how to cook, eventually becoming renowned for her steamed fish, oxtail stew, and mah-kee pork soup.

In the mid-1970s, Estrella, Gene, and their children moved to Long Island, where Estrella and Gene started a private Pediatrics practice. Estrella was responsible for the front-of-the-house, acting as the glue that kept the whole office running smoothly. Gene took temperatures, prescribed medicine, and re-assured the patient’s parents, “don’t worry, everything will be fine”.

Gene continued to work at the hospital, splitting his time between Brooklyn and Long Island till the end of the 1980s. The medical practice thrived, and in over 40 years, together, Estrella and Gene treated tens of thousands of children.

With the path set by Estrella and Gene, family members and friends migrated to the New York City area. The social circle widened. Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners became big events at their house. The loneliness and fear of being away from their family in the Philippines was replaced with a sense of belonging in the US. Estrella and Gene were Americans now.

And they shared their good fortune with their families back home. Eugenio bought a house for his mom. They sent money to support their first daughter’s education and everyday expenses. They funded their sibling’s college education and sponsored their sibling’s migration to the US. When there was a physical, economic, or medical crisis, they sent money “back home”.

In the early years, Estrella and Gene would visit Bacolod every other year. Then as the years passed, the visits decreased. Their last visit to Bacolod was in 2013. They never moved back. 

It has been 56 years since Estrella and Gene left the Philippines. Both are no longer with us. Estrella passed away in 2014 and Gene passed away in 2020.

That move in 1965 from Bacolod to Brooklyn directly affected the lives of many people, including me. I am their son. Estrella and Gene were my parents; their hard work and sacrifice gave me the opportunities to live the life I live now; they instilled in me the importance of education, hard work, and perseverance; and they shaped my moral compass and my belief that “we’re all in this together”.

The More Things Change

Like my mom and dad many years before, Filipinos continue to leave the Philippines to work abroad, in Singapore, Hong, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and the US.

In 2019, it is estimated that 2.2 million Filipino migrant workers work overseas2. In the Philippines, these migrant workers are referred to as “Overseas Filipino Workers” or OFWs.

Because of economic hardship and a dearth of decent-paying jobs, OFWs leave the Philippines and take on any type of work that is available. In many cases, OFWs are over-qualified for the overseas jobs they accept.

Unlike my dad’s time when doctors, scientists, architects, and engineers lead the migration, these days the major occupations for OFWs are domestic helpers, service staff, medical staff (nurses), shipmates, and factory workers. Close to 97% are working on an existing contract3.

In many countries, OFWs are not afforded the same legal, financial, and work-related rights afforded their host country’s citizens and long-term permanent residents. Employee abuse, lack of due process, and deportation are everyday threats that OFWs face. In addition, a path to citizenship is non-existent.

The main method for supporting their family remains the same: sending money (aka “remittance”).

Over the last 50 years, the mechanism for sending money has evolved for the better. Remittance centers, like Western Union, and digital wallet have capitalized on the internet, digitization, and crypto currencies to improve the speed of fund transfers, reducing the transfer time down to within 24 hours. And with new players entering the remittance market, the increased competition has lowered cable charges and transaction fees.

In 2019, OFWs remitted over USD$30 billion back to the Philippines4, representing 8% of the Philippines economy5.

In the provincial and rural areas where jobs employment opportunities are scarce, OFW remittances are critical to the welfare of the whole population. The reliance on OFWs is so pronounced that they are referred to as The Philippines “modern-day heroes” 6.

But have the lives of OFWs and their family improved?

For my mom and dad, they remained in the US because of the opportunities they were given during their initial 2 years in the US. My father’s medical skills were noticed and valued, and he was offered a permanent position at the hospital. The remitted funds to the Philippines were mostly used for basic needs, educations, and medical issues. The result was everyone was well-fed, they had a roof over their heads, and the education led to jobs and successful businesses.

For many current OFWs, when their 2-year contract is completed, they often find that they did not save enough money; because of inadequate financial literacy, their family expenses have increased, and they have incurred debt; and the job opportunities back in the Philippines have not improved.

An OFW’s best option is to renew their contract or seek another employer. As a result, they continue to be away from their families; they continue to be regarded as 2nd class citizens in their host countries; and they continue to be at the mercy of their employer.

I’m a Dad Now

In 2011, I became a dad. My daughter means the world to me. We play chess, thumb wrestle, and continuously try to prank each other. I watch her practice jiujitsu, do gymnastics, and tap dance. And during the school year, I help quiz her on spelling every week. She is a big part of my life.

Before COVID-19, I did my fair share of business travelling: Manila, Davao, Taipei, Tokyo, Hong Kong. Most of those trips last about 3 days, but I would try to shorten them as much as I can. Cause when I am the plane, about to take off, I miss my kid so much. And during the trip, I miss her even more and cannot wait to get back home. That is my state of mind on a 3-day business trip. Only 3 days.

A typical OFW has children. Their contract is usually for 2 years. 2 years away from their family and their children!

And as mentioned above, an OFW usually extends her contract when it is completed. 2 years become 4 years. 4 years becomes 10 years. 10 years becomes 20 years.

That is a real sacrifice and real heartbreak.

I have met OFWs in Singapore who started on a 2-year contract and have stayed in Singapore for nearly 20 years. In one case, an OFW left the Philippines a few months after she gave birth to her son. She would only see him for a few weeks during her bi-annual visits back home. She even missed seeing him graduate from high school. Her only comfort is that she knows her years of sacrifice and hard work contributed to his successful high school graduation.

This is sad. This is a shame. “Modern day heroes” should not have to suffer like this.

An OFW’s path to a successful repatriation back to the Philippines is not always a given and that is also sad and is a shame.

Let’s Change This

Yes, let us change this!

Let us think through the problems that an OFW face and help her leverage the 2-year contract (and all the sacrifice and hard work that goes into it) into a better life for her and her whole family.

Over the next 12 months, I will be publishing 6 articles, sharing my ideas and thoughts on how an OFW can stack-the=deck in her favor with tools to control her finances, supplement her income, participate in savings plans, build her credit rating, and upskill.

The articles will be “food for thought” on how we can lead a movement that results in an OFW landing back in the Philippines with a decent nest egg and hold down a good paying job or operate a sustainable business.

This OFW “journey” will banish the idea that being an OFW is a way of life. Instead, being an OFW should be a mere stepping stone to a better future.

In the next article, I will tackle the issue of responsible spending. Stay tuned.


About the Author

Jonathan E. Chua is the son of Estrella and Dr. Eugenio B. Chua. He grew up in New York, graduated from Colgate University, and now lives in Singapore. Currently, Jonathan is the CEO of BeamAndGo Pte Ltd (Beam&Go).

Beam&Go enables and educates migrant workers to achieve family resiliency and financial security through an inclusive marketplace and financial ecosystem. Beam&Go is a UNICEF & ING Baring Fintech for Impact 2020 Grant awardee and a 2020 Asia Pacific Social Innovation Partnership Award winner.

Jonathan has two dreams. He wants to lead the positive change that will uplift the dignity and lives of every migrant worker, their family, and their future generations. And within his lifetime, he wants to see the New York Knicks win another NBA Championship.

Feel free to email Jonathan at jonathan.chua@beamandgo.com.

Jonathan’s LinkedIn Profile

Notes

1 Michael Jordan was born on February 17, 1963 at Cumberland Hospital (source: https://www.espn.com/blog/new-york/knicks/post/_/id/36271/jordan-where-it-all-started-50-years-ago)

2 Source: Philippines Statistic Authority, 2020

3 Source: Philippines Statistic Authority, 2020

4 Source: Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (https://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/external/Table%2011.pdf)

5 Source: Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (https://www.bsp.gov.ph/Statistics/keystat/sefi.pdf)

6 Source: https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1046084

Published by Jonathan E. Chua

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