In the early months of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic raised concerns over serious disruptions in global supply chains. Photos of empty grocery shelves stood in stark contrast to news of vegetables rotting in farms. Meanwhile, governments restricted the export of essential supplies like masks and medicines, diverting production for national needs.
Yet, Covid-19 also affected a different kind of supply chain: a global exchange of migrant labor based on the movement of people, not things. While news agencies ran countless features on how the pandemic affected nations that depend on migrant labor, we knew little about the places that actually trained and supplied these workers to the world.
With support from the SSRC Rapid-Response Grant on Covid-19 and the Social Sciences, our research team examined how the pandemic impacts migrant-sending nations such as our own, the Philippines. What we found were stories of people coping with sudden immobility and the struggles of being “stranded” at home.
The Philippines: A model of labor export“Before the pandemic, state agencies deployed close to 1 million Filipino workers to overseas jobs every year.”
Contrary to the image of passive, “left-behind” nations, countries in the Global South have long used emigration as a development strategy, deliberately brokering their citizens’ labor to foreign employers in order to maximize the monetary remittances these migrants send back home.1Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2020More Info → Philippine state officials in the 1970s had justified these strategies as a “safety valve” for the nation, allowing an outflow of workers to ease the pressures of an overcrowded local economy.2Neil Ruiz, “Made for Export: Labor Migration, State Power, and Higher Education in a Developing Philippine Economy” (PhD Diss, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014). Decades later, this safety valve has become a national system of labor export, cementing the Philippines’ status as one of the largest migrant-sending nations in the world.3Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), “Total number of OFWs estimated at 2.3 million,” 30 April 30, 2019. Before the pandemic, state agencies deployed close to 1 million Filipino workers to overseas jobs every year. These migrant workers sent millions of dollars in remittances back to the country, accounting for 9.3 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product in 2019.4The World Bank. Personal remittances – Philippines. Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BX.TRF.PWKR.DT.GD.ZS?locations=PH
As Covid-19 grew into a global health crisis, the Philippines’ labor export system experienced multiple forms of disruption. First, international border closures curtailed the deployment of Filipino workers to foreign employers, creating a 75 percent drop in the number of workers leaving the country.5International Organization on Migration, “COVID-19 Impact Assessment on Returned Overseas Filipino Workers” (Manila, Philippines: IOM, 2021). Second, the pandemic’s impact on the global economy triggered the return of more than 300,000 Filipino workers who lost their jobs in hard-hit places within Europe and the Middle East.6Ibid.
Things were not much better at home. Nationwide lockdowns had taken a toll on the Philippine economy, creating a record-high unemployment rate of 10.3 percent in 2020.7In 2019, the Philippines’ joblessness rates was 5.1 percent, according to the IOM. Government leaders also struggled to stem the spread of the virus and the country’s case numbers ballooned to the second highest in Southeast Asia.
Our research study focuses on two groups of Filipino workers caught amidst these disruptions: aspiring migrant nurses unable to leave the Philippines due to border closures and a government ban on health worker migration; and cruise ship employees who were repatriated after Covid-19 shut down the cruise line industry.“The Covid-19 pandemic upended these workers’ migration plans and suddenly changed the value of their labor.”
Before the pandemic, the Philippine government enthusiastically exported both groups of workers. The Philippines is currently the world’s primary source of foreign nurse labor, while Filipinos comprise up to 30 percent of service staff in the global cruise industry.8→William C. Terry, “The Perfect Worker: Discursive Makings of Filipinos in the Workplace Hierarchy of the Globalized Cruise Industry,” Social & Cultural Geography 15, no.1 (2014): 73–93.
→Nicola Yeates and Jane Pillinger, International Health Worker Migration and Recruitment: Global Governance, Politics, and Policy (UK: Routledge, 2019). However, the Covid-19 pandemic upended these workers’ migration plans and suddenly changed the value of their labor.
Essential skills with an expiry date
For Filipino nurses, the pandemic brought the paradoxical dilemma of having their skills suddenly deemed too essential for labor export. Faced with the nation’s first deluge of Covid-19 cases, the Philippine government banned the emigration of Filipinos in 13 healthcare occupations in April 2020. Among these professionals, nurses comprised the largest group, with hundreds unable to leave for jobs waiting in places like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.
Philippine state officials argued that the ban would “redirect” nurses toward national health needs and provide much-needed help to the country’s overwhelmed hospitals.9Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Governing Board Resolution No. 09, Series of 2020, April 2, 2020. They also emphasized that the ban was temporary—a precautionary measure that would be lifted after the pandemic was under control. Yet, for nurses stuck in the Philippines, their immobility had long-term consequences.“Rachel worried that the pandemic could jeopardize her entire application.”
Rachel, a nurse originally bound for Ireland, was anxious that the ban would outlast the validity of her immigration documents, all of which were expensive to obtain. Just having the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland validate her credentials cost Rachel more than US$300. The IELTS exam that certified her ability to communicate in English cost another US$230. Submitting these papers to her recruitment agency in Manila meant courier delivery and at times, domestic air tickets from her home province in Cebu. For a nurse earning barely US$120 a month, such expenses meant years of savings. Rachel worried that the pandemic could jeopardize her entire application.
“It’s like a domino effect. In order for you to acquire one document, you have to apply for another,” she explained. “And for me, all my documents are expiring soon.”
If Rachel failed to leave for Ireland on time, she would have to go “back to zero” in restarting the immigration process. This setback meant thousands of pesos and years of work going down the drain.
For Filipino nurses, the ban was especially cruel, coming from a state that used to uphold migrant nurses as national heroes whose remittances kept the country’s economy afloat. The state had been so focused on deploying migrant nurses, it failed to address problems within local hospitals that drove nurses overseas in the first place. The fact that government officials now saw their skills as “essential” did not erase decades of low wages and overwork in local health institutions.“Rather than be redirected to the country’s Covid-19 response, nurses like Rachel chose to fight the ban instead, arguing that the barring nurses’ emigration was akin to imprisoning them within their own country.”
As such, rather than be redirected to the country’s Covid-19 response, nurses like Rachel chose to fight the ban instead, arguing that the barring nurses’ emigration was akin to imprisoning them within their own country. In protest, 27 of the 55 nurses we interviewed chose to not work in any hospital at all. They entered jobs as company nurses for call center agencies or set up home businesses in the hope of waiting out the pandemic.
Excess skills with no recognition
Filipino cruise workers faced an opposite problem. While nurses’ labor was valorized as too essential to let go, cruise workers found that their country had little need for their skills.
When the cruise industry ground to a halt in March 2020, the Philippine government spent millions facilitating these workers’ return, with state officials vowing to “leave no one behind.”10Department of Foreign Affairs, “DFA welcomes 742 OFWs, vows to leave no one behind amid pandemic,” April 9, 2020. However, our interviewees argued that their biggest worry was not the experience of getting stuck at sea, but the struggle of being unable to leave home.
Cruise workers had to find alternative sources of income “on land” as they awaited updates from their companies and manning agencies on when they could sail again. Financial stability was a constant worry—not only due to everyday expenses but monthly payments for investments and insurance plans.
Before the pandemic, continuous job contracts with the cruise line industry assured our interviewees a steady income to put toward new homes, cars, or land—all considered “wise” purchases for cyclical migrants like themselves. Now that the cruise industry seems unlikely to fully resume until 2022, cruise workers face the prospect of losing all that they had gained through years of working at sea.
Phoebe, a former gaming supervisor in her cruise ship’s casino, had resorted to selling face masks online so she could continue paying for a condominium she purchased before the pandemic. Her biggest worry is surviving the long wait for cruise operations to resume.
“I’m worried about my finances. I invested in property. If I don’t work, it’s not as if the monthly payments for my condo will stop coming. I also bought insurance. And of course, I have to think of my family. So yes, I’m super worried. To be honest, I find it hard to sleep at night.”
Philippine government programs offered a variety of aid: a one-time payment of 10,000 pesos, loans for home businesses, and a push for former seafarers to “repackage” their skills for new careers. Yet, all of these were easier said than done. Jobs that paid relatively well were available in the Philippines’ call center industry. Yet, most new hires were required to have their own laptops and speak grammatically correct, American-accented English—capacities that were not required in the multicultural workplace of the cruise ship.“Our interviewees’ plans for the future are still focused on returning to sea once again.”
A few cruise workers found call center jobs that paid a regular salary. Yet even this was not enough to keep up with insurance premiums and monthly installments for investments they had built over the years. As such, our interviewees’ plans for the future are still focused on returning to sea once again. In a series of follow-up interviews we conducted in February and March 2021, all but one of the 45 cruise workers we interviewed were still in the Philippines, waiting for the cruise industry to restart.
A matter of reallocating, rechanneling?
Much like the reports of disrupted commodity chains, analyses of the pandemic’s effect on labor-exporting nations have largely been told in economic terms: lost incomes, declining remittances, labor shortages and surpluses. However, we found that as our interviewees grappled with these challenges, what emerged was two very different stories of skill.
In response to the damages caused by Covid-19, the Philippine state attempted to reallocate and rechannel its citizens’ labor in the interests of the nation: banning travel for workers labelled “essential” for public health, while reabsorbing those who had become expendable to their foreign employers. Yet, lost in these efforts to manage labor were the experiences of the people who embodied these skills.
Our study found that in many instances, policies meant to utilize or redefine workers’ labor merely exacerbated their problems. For nurses like Rachel, the “temporary” ban on the overseas deployment of health workers failed to recognize the years of savings and sacrifice she already invested in applying for work overseas.
Meanwhile, for cruise workers like Phoebe, the state’s fervor in ensuring their repatriation often overshadowed the more difficult situation of being stranded at home. In many ways, the pandemic had highlighted the vulnerability of the Philippine state’s reliance on overseas employment. Our project reveals how the tendencies to see these people only as labor, undermines individuals’ capacity to cope with and recover from the pandemic’s impact on their lives.
Banner photo by Jay Rommel Labra.
→Nicola Yeates and Jane Pillinger, International Health Worker Migration and Recruitment: Global Governance, Politics, and Policy (UK: Routledge, 2019).