More than 2 million Filipinos were employed as overseas workers in any given year over the decade preceding the pandemic; their remittances accounted for about 10 percent of the Philippines’ output.
But as the coronavirus savaged the world economy, many lost jobs abroad or were unable to take up positions because of travel restrictions. The government has set up an assistance program, offering cash payments of about $200 each to 280,000 migrant workers displaced by the pandemic at home and abroad, according to the Labor Department.
About 170,000 overseas workers have returned to the Philippines since February, official data show. In many cases, they find themselves just as vulnerable as when they were abroad — if not more so.
Now, returnees are recalibrating their lives, coming to terms with diminished earning power and prospects for their families.
Bong Florentino, 40, and Yllang Montenegro, 38
Before the Philippines imposed a lockdown in March, Bong Florentino, a software engineer, and Yllang Montenegro, a part-time hotel housekeeper, were already planning to head home from Japan.
Montenegro had taken a leave of absence after her first year back at college to help her husband earn a living abroad. She had worked in Japan before, and the couple needed the extra income. Their children remained in the Philippines.
Right after their contracts and the lease on their small Osaka apartment ended in April, their return flight was canceled. Suddenly homeless and jobless, they ended up in a dorm in Kobe, working as extra hands in a restaurant that employed migrant workers. He cooked, while she designed prints and shirts for a fundraiser to keep the small business afloat.
They were stranded for three months before they returned to the Philippines in July.
Florentino is still unemployed, while Montenegro is set to begin her sophomore year in a fine arts program. Their kids, ages 13 and 16, will also start school online.
Florentino estimates a senior software engineer in the Philippines earns around $1,200 a month — less than half what he made in Japan. He worries local employers might assume his asking salary is too steep, factoring into the difficulty of finding a job in Manila, but says he’s willing to negotiate.
“Everyone needs to earn a living nowadays,” he said. “I can still do my usual job, at 100 percent.”
Now, the couple are using the skills they acquired abroad to make ends meet. Montenegro sells prints and paintings online, while Florentino dabbles in T-shirt printing. He converts her designs into a digital template, then puts them on a silk screen.
One shirt can sell for at least $12, Florentino said. Each is hand-painted individually, and most orders are requests from personal connections. The T-shirts can bring in between $200 and $600 a month, Montenegro said, but it’s not consistent.
The family moved to a small apartment in Quezon City in late August to be closer to work opportunities. The space is tight, but they say they will have to make do.
Montenegro would like to set up a social enterprise, like the one that helped them when they were struggling in Japan.
“I dream of setting up a restaurant-gallery,” she said. “It would be nice to bring it to the Philippines.”
Edilberto Trinidad, 47
Edilberto Trinidad, an electrician, had been based in Kuwait for a year and a half, earning up to $600 a month. But then someone on-site contracted covid-19, he said, and Trinidad and his colleagues stopped going to work in May.
He spent two months stranded in the Middle Eastern country before he was able to fly home. Before departing, he packed — as many Filipino overseas workers do — a “balikbayan” box, containing supplies like shampoo, soap and toothpaste. He also brought tools: grinders, socket wrenches, drills.
Back home in Bulacan, north of Manila, Trinidad found a job in construction, but that fell through when the capital region briefly reimposed strict lockdown measures, he said. The restrictions have since eased, but the project has not resumed.
Now, his box of toiletries and tools is keeping his family alive. While he searches for a job, he sells the supplies online. Outside their house, his wife, Tess, sells secondhand clothes. Business has not picked up — some days are good, but on others, they have nothing.
“It’s not like before, when the pay would be continuous,” said Trinidad, who previously worked in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
He was initially torn between whether to use his remaining savings to start a small business or put it toward tuition for his two teenagers. He used to make the full payment, but the school agreed to accept monthly installments, he said. His children will take the current semester online, using their cellphones in the absence of a regular computer.
The couple also have a 4-year-old boy.
Recently, Trinidad and some neighbors split money to buy a pig. He earned a little from selling his share of the pork — enough to get by a little longer.
“You come up with all sorts of things just to survive,” said Trinidad.
“Whatever happens, I’m with my family. But of course, I can’t help thinking about the future.”
Jennifer Burdeos, 37
At her home in Rizal, east of Manila, Jennifer Burdeos packed her uniforms and other belongings in March as she prepared to resume work as a bartender on a luxury cruise ship.
Her departure was then derailed by the lockdown in the capital. The following month, her mother-in-law died and her husband, Antonio, a traffic enforcer, fell into a depression, she said.
Burdeos had been a junior waitress, mixing drinks and entertaining guests on board. But that all came to a rapid end during the pandemic. Many of her colleagues who had also lost their jobs started small businesses — from burger stations to street food carts — to make ends meet.
Burdeos set up a “sari-sari” shop, a kind of corner store that sells food and other goods in small amounts. But she missed mixing drinks, so she decided to put that skill to use.
She set aside $100 and started an online milk tea business. She and her husband always loved the drink, and she had watched video tutorials on playing around with the flavors. She designed a logo and menu, then began delivering orders around her village. The business pulls in a bit over $80 a week.
Now that her husband is back at work, the family earns enough to get by — but it’s still a far cry from the $1,800 a month she could earn on the cruise ship, including bonuses and tips.
“It’s a big loss for us seafarers,” she said, adding that she had repayments to make on a car. “If I were to compare my business with my work on board, there’s a big gap,” she added.
She hopes to return to sea soon. She misses traveling — a perk of working on a cruise ship — though she aims to return to the Philippines for good when her 12-year-old son is in college.
Maybe by then, she said, she will have enough to start a food establishment of her own, “so I won’t be on a ship my whole life.”