“The reasons why many Filipinos choose to move away from their homes and families loom larger than the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Dr Gretchen Abuso, Tenured Instructor at the Sociology & Anthropology Department, Xavier University, Philippines
Michelle Silvertino came to Metro Manila in hopes of joining the millions of Filipinos working abroad to support their families in the provinces. Michelle was a single mother who left behind four children aged between 4 to 11 in her hometown eight hours, by bus, south of Manila (Agoncillo, 2020). Sadly, she failed to pass the health check and was unable to work abroad, leaving her with little choice but to work as house help in the city to continue supporting her family. This is where she found herself when the entire island of Luzon was placed under strict lockdown in mid-March. Longing to go back to her family in the province, Silvertino decided to head home when the quarantine measures were finally eased in June. Her employers brought her to the bus station only for her to find that there were no buses plying that day. She then decided to walk to a bus station in another city hoping to catch a bus from there. It was on the footbridge near that station where she was found unconscious five days later. She was still brought to the hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. Michelle’s death certificate declared her as a probable COVID-19 case (Agoncillo, Aurelio and Florida, 2020).
Michelle was just one among thousands of Filipinos who found themselves trapped in the Philippines’ capital when the government imposed restrictions on people’s movements across the country in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. In this commentary, I highlight the situation of internal labour migrants in the Philippines and the challenging journey to their hometowns in the middle of a pandemic.
Internal Migration in the Philippines
An estimated 2.2 Million Filipinos worked outside the Philippines in 2019 and sent home US$33.5 billion in remittances to their families in that same year. In 2018, the country, with about 108 million in population, placed 4th among top remittance recipients and over the years, this economic lifeline has boosted household consumption and lifted the country’s foreign exchange reserve, current account and deposits in the banking system (Le Borgne, 2009). Since the 1970s, overseas labour migration had been the rational economic strategy of poor and lower-middle income households to move out of poverty and improve their living standards (Semyonov and Gorodzeisky, 2008: 634).
Filipinos, who are unable to work overseas and find little economic prospects in their rural hometowns, would opt to move to the urban centre of the country. The 2018 National Migration Survey of the Philippines revealed that 49% of Filipinos aged 15 and older have changed residence within the country (Mapa, 2020) with most of them heading to Metro Manila (PSA & UPPI, 2019: 48), the top migrant destination in the country. A study commissioned by Plan International found that, just like Michelle Silvertino, many arrivals in Metro Manila travel to the capital with the intent of landing a job overseas. Their plans consist of gaining work experience, saving money to pay for placement fees and transport costs, and processing their visa applications (Anderson et al., 2017: 6).
The migration study also revealed that young people aged 20 to 29 accounted for the majority of internal migrants (44%) and there are slightly more women than men (52% vs. 48%) that moved places within the country. For both women and men, the most common motivation were better employment prospects in their destinations. The uneven distribution of the country’s population and varying economic opportunities creates urban-rural disparities since these areas offer different types of work and non-work related opportunities. The same study also found that rural-rural flows still account for the majority of in-country movements at 49% while rural-urban constitute 35% of the migration flows (PSA and UPPI, 2019: 48-51).
Manila-centric Development and Return to the Countryside
The Philippine capital of Metro Manila is already home to almost 13 million people and is the most densely populated region in the country with 21,000 persons for every square kilometre and considered one of the most populous urban centres in the world (Anderson et al., 2017: 6). Because of a Manila-centric development policy of the central government (World Bank, 2016), Metro Manila has been the gateway to the Philippines, with both major international airports and seaports located in the region. The global health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has, however, placed the capital region in a more vulnerable situation compared to other regions in the country (UPPI and DRDF, 2020). As of mid-August, Metro Manila already logged more than 88,000 cases of COVID-19.
The first case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was recorded on 30 January while the first case of local transmission was confirmed on 7 March. Ten days later the entire northern island of the country, Luzon, was placed on “enhanced community quarantine” or ECQ. By then, the Philippines had already 140 infections and 12 deaths due to COVID-19. The ECQ mandated strict home quarantine measures, “suspension of transportation lines, regulation of provision for food and essential health services, and heightened presence of uniformed personnel to enforce isolation procedures” (Merez, 2020).
With non-essential work and transportation suspended, migrant workers found themselves trapped in the country’s capital with little to no means of sustaining themselves in the urban jungle. This is where Marlon Dalipe (Mercado, 2020) found himself just two weeks into his work as a construction worker in Metro Manila. With just P500 ($10.18) in his pocket and no means of transportation available, Marlon decided to make the journey to his province on foot. It took him five days of walking to reach his home almost 300 kilometres south of Metro Manila. When asked of his plans, Marlon says he intends to return to work in Manila once restrictions are lifted.
Sadly, stories of stranded workers like Michelle and Marlon are not few and isolated. A polling body in the Philippines reported that in the month of May, up to 4.1 million working-age Filipinos were stranded across the country when lockdowns were imposed. The varying levels of community quarantine across the country made it even more difficult for them to travel home because requirements to cross borders would differ from place to place (CNN Philippines, 2020). The latest survey revealed that there are still an estimated 3.5 million locally stranded individuals (LSIs) in the country as of July. The sad ordeal of stranded individuals was evident in reports of returning overseas workers and LSIs sleeping on the bare grounds of Manila’s international airport. There were also those who took refuge on the sidewalks beside a cemetery, all of them waiting for any means of transport that would take them to their hometowns in the provinces. Many of those who found themselves homeless during the pandemic had journeyed to the capital city with high hopes of eventually leaving the country to work overseas, only for their dreams to be shattered when the pandemic hit, and Luzon was placed on strict lockdown. The labour department had already announced that 2.6 million Filipinos nationwide had lost their jobs and warned that the number could reach 10 million by the end of the year.
More than a month into the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon, the national government rolled out the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa (Back to the Province with New Hopes) programme, which sought to decongest the capital region of residents during the pandemic by “encouraging people, especially informal settlers to return to their home provinces” (Balik Probinsya, 2020). At the same time the program is meant to be the long-term solution in achieving a balanced urban and rural development that would eventually stem the flow of migrants by empowering local industries, ensuring food security and agricultural productivity, social welfare, health and employment and development of infrastructure (UPPI and DRDF, 2020). Additionally, the government also launched the Hatid Tulong (Bring Help) Program, a more short-term initiative that would assist migrant workers stranded in Metro Manila due to the travel restrictions and in the first week of July, the program already sent home more than 10,000 LSIs to the countryside. However, the early days of implementing these two programs had been less than ideal as the sheer number of locally stranded individuals heading home to their provinces have overwhelmed the program itself and the receiving local government units.
These programs that were meant to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant workers trapped in the country’s capital have been linked to the emergence of COVID-19 cases in provinces that were previously free of the virus. Two towns in Leyte province traced their first confirmed cases to the Balik Probinsya program. A town in Palawan, a well-known remote tourist destination, also attributes its first case to an LSI returnee. Eventually, major cities outside Manila recorded spikes in their COVID-19 cases as overseas returnees and LSIs continued to arrive. In late July, the government admitted lapses in its conduct of a “grand send-off” organized under the Hatid Tulong program as an estimated 8,000 stranded individuals awaiting transportation were cramped inside a stadium, clearly ignoring health protocols (Gascon and Corrales, 2020).
No End in Sight
At the beginning of June 2020, lockdown measures in Metro Manila were eventually eased, which allowed mass transportation like buses and trains to resume operations at reduced capacity. Sadly, the iconic Jeepneys of Manila are still prohibited to ply their routes and many drivers have resorted to begging on the streets to survive. However, after pleas from the medical community who sounded an alarm on the country’s strained health-care system as cases in the capital continued to rise, the government reverted Metro Manila to stricter lockdown, which once again suspended most public transport and domestic flights. On August 6, after placing most of the country on strict quarantine for almost 5 months, the Philippines overtook Indonesia in the most number of recorded and active cases of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia.
The reasons why many Filipinos choose to move away from their homes and families loom larger than the COVID-19 pandemic. Underdevelopment in the countryside and lack of economic prospects for a burgeoning working-age population render many Filipinos with little choice but to look elsewhere for better futures. A core-periphery dynamics (Tusalem, 2019) characterises the socio-economic relationship of the capital with the other regions of the country wherein public and private sector spending and investments are largely funnelled to Manila (Mendoza and Ocampo, 2017). Locally referred to as “imperial Manila”, this dynamics is what generates the economic development and opportunities that pull internal migrants to the capital.
Cities in the global South, like Manila, is home to almost one billion people living in informal settlements making their residents more susceptible to COVID-19 (Corburn et al, 2020), as households are more likely cramped in co-sleeping spaces with poor ventilation (Manderson, 2020: 368). Urban slum communities are also likely to be sharing the same water source and toilet facilities, making quarantine and physical distancing impossible. These, along with their strained healthcare system, makes urban centres in the global South more vulnerable to COVID-19. This is where millions of Filipinos ended up stranded in their own country in the middle of a global health crisis that turned them homeless and helpless in the harsh conditions of the country’s capital. While many states in Southeast Asia are slowly lifting strict lockdowns and easing into their new normal, this possibility may still be far from reality for many Filipino workers.
ABS-CBN News, 2020. 10 million jobless in Philippines due to COVID-19 crisis is ‘possible,’ says labor chief. ABS-CBN News. Available at: https://news.abs-cbn.com/business/05/21/20/10-million-jobless-in-philippines-due-to-covid-19-crisis-is-possible-says-labor-chief [Accessed August 16, 2020].
Anderson, Kirsten et al., 2017. Analysis of Migration, YEE and Gender in Vietnam and in the Philippines, Plan International France & Plan International Asia. Available at: https://coraminternational.org/wp-content/uploads/Analysis-of-Migration-YEE-and-Gender-in-Vietnam-and-the-Philippines-ENG-v2.pdf [Accessed August 7, 2020].
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Semyonov, M. and Gorodzeisky, A., 2008. Labor migration, remittances and economic well-being of households in the Philippines. Population Research and policy review, 27(5), p.619.
Tusalem, R.F., 2019. Imperial Manila: How institutions and political geography disadvantage Philippine provinces. Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, 5(3), pp.235-269.
University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) & Demographic Research and Development Foundation, Inc. (DRDF), 2020. “Balik Probinsya” in time of COVID-19. UP Population Institute. Available at: https://www.uppi.upd.edu.ph/research/covid-19/rb5 [Accessed August 9, 2020].
World Bank, 2016. Moving Full Speed Ahead: Accelerating Reforms to Create More and Better Jobs, Available at: http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/845151468185031838/pdf/104611-WP-P149001-PUBLIC-Philippine-Economic-Update-PEU-April-2016-edition-final-for-release.pdf [Accessed August 8, 2020].
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.