Lessons from an OFW

By Jelica R. Enriquez

I was excited to come home.

These were my first thoughts when I boarded the plane on my return flight to Manila. The thrill of traveling abroad after the height of the pandemic had worn off. My feet had blisters. My arms were sore. Dark circles formed under my eyes due to lack of sleep. Travel fatigue was creeping in. For the first time, I did not want to stay behind in a foreign land. I just wanted to fly back home and sleep on my own bed.

A Filipino female passenger was waiting for me as I walked towards my assigned seat. “Hello!” she said, flashing a wide smile. After a week of communicating with foreigners, I felt at ease to be seated with her.

“Sayang! I forgot to put the lotion in my checked-in baggage,” she said. She recounted how the security officers at the boarding gate collected bottles of lotion from her hand luggage. “I was supposed to give them to my sister,” she said.

My seatmate is a mother of two from Cavite. She is an Overseas Filipino Worker. She has been working in Singapore as a domestic helper for 10 years. Her female employer is Singaporean. Her employer’s husband is Malaysian. The grandmother also shares space with them.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are approximately 2 million OFWs deployed to different countries. More than half of the OFWs are women, and a significant number of them work as caregivers or domestic helpers. In Servants of Globalization, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’ esteemed study on female OFWs, she found out that her respondents felt estranged in their migrant community.

Recalling how some foreign employers treat the Filipino migrant workers, I asked my seatmate how her employer is. “Oh, she is kind to me,” she raved. “She and her husband are considerate,” she said.
I also asked if she receives a fair compensation. She smiled. “The grandmother even gave me SGD 700 (Php 29,000) as baon for my Philippine trip,” she shared.

Her primary house duties are cooking and cleaning. She boils vegetables and steams fish. Her Malaysian employer is not a fan of herbs and spices. “They do not like Filipino food because they find it too salty,” she chuckled.

Her accommodation and food are provided by her employer. The grandmother even gives her a hefty bonus every Christmas. She considers herself lucky because domestic helpers usually pay more than SGD 800 (Php 33,000) for rent and food every month.

We briefly talked about politics. “Did you watch it on YouTube? I can’t believe they are a corrupt family!” she exclaimed. We talked about Singapore’s impressive train and bus systems. She gave me tips on where to buy chocolates. “Chocolates in Lucky Plaza are cheaper than the ones in Mustafa,” she remarked.

The late afternoon sun emanated yellow and orange hues as we stared out the window. She tapped my arm. “When you were in Singapore, did you notice the sun was still up at seven o’clock in the evening?” she asked. She explained that the designated time zone involves trading affairs. The time zone has to be synchronized with Singapore’s major business partners, including China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Taiwan. “That’s what my employer told me,” she said.

With Christmas around the corner, I asked if she would spend the next two months in the Philippines. She shook her head. Her relatives expected that they would receive boxes of chocolates, perfumes, clothes, and other souvenirs. “They thought that the OFWs are living the good life,” she griped.

The last time she returned to the Philippines was 2018. There were vacation plans in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic happened. “I miss home-cooked Filipino food, my friends, and my kids. Especially my kids,” she said.

The pilot instructed the cabin crew to prepare for landing. As the plane slowly descended in the capital, the radiant lights from the buildings ignited the city highways. Bodies of water emerged in the view. She poignantly looked at the window. “The Philippines is so beautiful,” she said.

She pulled out her mobile phone to show me a photo of her two children. Her 24-year-old daughter is beautiful and bright-eyed, while her 10-year-old son gave a cheeky smile. “I’m excited to see them,” she beamed with pride as she swiped the photos.

I saw her for the last time in the immigration area. Her face lit up, and she waved when she recognized me.

Clearly, she was also excited to come home. But for her, home is not sleeping at the comfort of her own bed. For her, home is where she belongs. After being away for years, she could finally return home to the arms of her children.

About the author:
Jelica R. Enriquez is an assistant professor of the Business Intelligence and Analytics Program under the School of Management and Information Technology in De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. She is a doctoral student at De La Salle University Manila. Before joining the academe, she worked as a bank marketing associate and software engineer.

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