The Philippines’ migrant workers, and the children left behind

No mother wants to leave her child — but in the Philippines, it can feel like there’s no other choice. Unable to earn enough money at home, an estimated 2.2 million Filipinos worked overseas last year, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. The majority were women, many hoping to give their child a better future.

They work as nurses, hospitality staff, nannies and cleaners. Last year, they sent $33.5 billion back to the Philippines in personal remittances — a record high, according to the country’s central bank.

More than 2.2 million Filipinos worked overseas in 2019The top five destinations were in Asia and the Middle East

Source: Philippines Statistics Authority

But their income comes at a high personal cost. Mothers can miss out on entire childhoods. Sometimes their relationship with their children remains damaged and distant, years after they return. Other times, their children’s lives can veer off course without a parent at home.

In Hong Kong, the vast majority of Filipino migrants are domestic workers, often raising other people’s children. CNN spoke with several of these women, and adults who grew up in the Philippines without their mothers, about the emotional toll of being separated for years.

“It’s really hard to leave. You don’t want to leave, actually … (but) I don’t have really a choice.”

These conditions, which have persisted for decades, push more than a million Filipinos to leave the country every year for work abroad, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The additional income provides much-needed security — not just for children’s education, but for other crucial needs like medical costs or recovery from natural disasters.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte praised these workers for their economic contribution at a 2019 event. But the migration of Filipino workers has also left millions of children without a parent at home.

Now, more than ever, we need you, the (overseas Filipino workers) and your families, to take part in our nation-building efforts. I thus call on you to … continue to make our country proud.”

Rodrigo Duterte President of the Philippines

The dream of education

College tuition can cost up to $6,600 a year, far out of reach for millions of Filipinos. Many migrant workers spend decades working overseas to save up for these fees.

But there’s no guarantee that a degree can grant success and stability, as so many parents hope. Many workers who go overseas tochase this generational dream had high school diplomas and college degrees themselves, that were of little help in the job market.

Even Duterte acknowledged the hardships that pushed workers abroad in his 2019 speech, saying that one of his top priorities was to provide “sustainable work and livelihood opportunities in our country.”

“I told him, this is a trade-off. If I look after other kids, I can send you to school, you can have greater education. But usually they don’t understand that.”

The tragic reality

“The absence of mothers is consistently identified as having a more pervasive influence on the lives of their children,” the study added.

The researchers said some of these children end up failing classes or dropping out due to a variety of factors.

They may feel more responsible to care for their siblings in their parents’ absence, drawing attention away from school; they may feel like they don’t belong with peers; or they may simply stray from studies without the structure typically provided by parental presence.

“I can never leave my babies, I can never go abroad and be apart from them; I could never do what my mother sacrificed for us.”

A survey of 5,023 domestic workers last year found that 15% had been physically abused during employment and 2% reported being sexually assaulted or harassed. Nearly half said they worked more than 16 hours a day; Hong Kong has no laws around maximum working hours per day or week.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong report high rates of poor working and living conditions

Source: Mission for migrant workers, 2019

Other complaints include not being given enough food to eat, not having a proper bed or privacy at night, and being asked to work on their days off.

But for some, the hardest part of the job is being separated from their children.

“When I became a mother, I realized her sacrifices. I loved her more because it is hard for a mother to be separated from her children.”

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