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Millions of Filipinos leave the country for jobs that earn higher salaries than what they make at home, but they are not always treated and paid equally like the citizens of their host countries or of high-income countries, even if they perform similar jobs.
In the Middle East, there are hospitals where hourly rates depend on what passport the worker is holding. Katrina*, a 32-year old Filipino with more than 10 years experience as an intensive care unit nurse, said Filipino-Canadians with Canadian passports typically received double or triple her salary when she worked in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She has since moved to a hospital in North Carolina in the U.S.
It’s the same in private hospitals in Dubai, where “Westerners” can get almost four times the rates of Filipinos, said James*, who moved from Manila to the Middle East in 2014. “The Americans, Canadians, British, and Irish nationals can get 25,000 to 30,000 UAE dirham. Arab nurses get around 16,000 UAE dirham while Filipinos get 8,000 UAE dirham,” he said.
“Pabor na pabor sila sa mga puti. Ang mga CEOs ng hospitals puti (They favor white people. The CEOs of hospitals are white),” he said.
Filipino seafarers all over the world are also paid less than Westerners although they are not at the bottom rung of the salary ladder, because they may get more than their colleagues from other parts of Southeast Asia.
“Kahit same po ang rank mas mataas po ang rate ng mga Europeans kaysa sa mga Pinoy. Kapag Asian naman po, mas mataas ang sahod ng mga Korean at Japanese… lalo na kapag ang owners ay kalahi po nila (Even if the ranks are the same, the rates of Europeans are higher than Filipinos. Among Asians, the Koreans and Japanese have higher wages especially if the owners are of the same race),” said Raymond*, a 36-year-old officer who has served various routes all over the world since 2015.
In cruise ships, salaries tend to be the same across nationalities, said Angela*, a 31-year-old worker who has served a cruise line for five years. But she said Filipinos are sometimes discriminated against in promotions because bosses favor workers from their own countries.
“Kapag kalahi nila, ‘yun ang priority nila i-promote,” she said. While seniority was usually considered, she said politics and palakasan or favoritism within the workplace placed other workers who deserved a promotion at a disadvantage.
Front line: U.S. naval base in Diego Garcia
In a U.S. naval base in Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean, the Philippine government is in a wage dispute with one of the U.S. government’s biggest defense contractors, Kellogg Brown and Root, Inc. (KBR).
The Department of Migrant Workers is pushing to raise the salaries of its Filipino workers to match the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or $1,256 per month. It will make their pay on a par with the private sector and in the federal, state, and local governments in the U.S.
It is a wage dispute that has caught the attention of migrant groups, which saw the opportunity to elevate the issue to a bilateral dialogue between the Philippine and U.S. governments in order to set standards for the salaries of Filipinos in U.S. bases around the world.
“It has to be a government-to-government conversation,” said Migrante chairperson Joanna Concepcion, because it was the U.S. government that hired KBR and could enforce U.S. federal laws on its contractor.
The company denied it was underpaying its Filipino employees on the island, saying its compensation package for Filipinos “exceeds the mandated hourly rate” when benefits such as housing and medical coverage were added in. The Philippines rejected the computation, however, arguing that benefits should not be included in the hourly rate.
To press the issue, the government has conducted “consultative meetings” with the U.S. government, according to Bernard Olalia, DMW undersecretary for adjudication and licensing services and concurrent POEA officer in charge. He said they had spoken to the U.S. Embassy in Manila and the U.S. Labor Department.
Kanishka Gangopadhyay, spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, told PCIJ the embassy had discussed the issue with KBR and the U.S. Defense Department.
Migrant pay gap
Unequal pay is the reality that Filipinos share with migrant workers from other countries.
According to a December 2020 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), the salary of migrant workers in high-income countries like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Hongkong, Qatar, and Singapore — where many OFWs work — was 12.6% less than what a local worker in the same occupation got.
ILO analyzed the migrant pay gap in 49 countries, which host nearly half of all international migrants and roughly one-third of migrant workers worldwide.
The study showed that higher-educated migrant workers in high-income countries were less likely to attain jobs in higher occupational categories, and the situation was worse for women migrant workers, who earned 20.9% less than what a male counterpart got.
The report was part of the ILO’s contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals on equal pay for work of equal value and protection of labor rights for all workers by 2030.
Wage issues can be indications of deeper issues, too, including labor violations amounting to human trafficking.
Concepcion cited a 2011 legal case filed by 14 Filipinos who were promised an hourly rate of $8 and food allocation to work in a hotel in Virginia in the U.S. Instead, they were paid less than $4.75 and were housed in poor conditions in Mississippi.
“They signed contracts. It was clear who will be their employer, what their rates will be. It was all legitimate in the Philippines, but it can become labor trafficking outside the country if the situation changes. And it wasn’t a mere contract violation or contract substitution,” Concepcion said.
The manpower agency was ordered by the POEA to pay back the fees collected from the Filipino workers and award them damages. The company’s Philippine license was canceled.
Poor alternatives back home
Conditions back home, where decent-paying jobs are scarce and the cost of living is skyrocketing, have made the country’s diaspora willing victims of unequal pay overseas.
“They look for jobs overseas because they cannot survive on their salaries here in the Philippines,” said Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA).
“When they arrive in a foreign country, they’re very happy because they are able to send money to their families back home. But if you compare their salaries with the local workers in the country of destination, migrant workers are paid so poorly. But it’s high compared with their salaries in the Philippines,” she said.
For Filipino workers in Diego Garcia, the choices are clear.
“Ang taas na kasi bilihin po e. Kapag compare mo same work sa Pinas and abroad, mas malaki talaga dito sa abroad (Consumer goods are so expensive. So if you compare the work in the Philippines and abroad, [the salary] would still be higher abroad),” said a worker interviewed by PCIJ.
The desperation of Filipinos for jobs is underscored by constant lobbies by Filipino migrant groups to lift deployment bans in active war zones.
“Kahit sa buwan kung may trabaho doon pupuntahan ng Pinoy,” said public relations practitioner and recruitment specialist Emmanuel Geslani, who has led media campaigns from 2008 to 2011 calling on the government to ease labor policies in U.S. bases in the Middle East during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result, as many as 8,000 Filipinos – many of whom were recruited via hubs in Dubai – were able to keep their jobs in U.S. bases. Under POEA rules, Filipino migrant workers have to go through accredited recruitment agencies in the Philippines. Otherwise, they are considered “undocumented.”
Geslani said an undocumented laundry staff in U.S. bases at the time earned as much as $2,000 a month, more than the salaries of white-collar workers in the Philippines, although an American counterpart would easily be paid double for the same task.
To this day, Dubai remains an active route for the direct hiring of Filipino workers who use tourist visas to stay in the country while they process their papers and wait for new documents, PCIJ’s interviewees said.
This route has allowed Filipinos to defy a ban on the deployment of domestic workers, said Marlon Gatdula, Migrante’s representative in the Middle East. “Pero hindi lang naman domestic worker. Pati professional at ibang mga line of work,” he said.
Construction workers, engineers, nurses and other health workers have flocked to Dubai using tourist visas.
Low wages as competitive advantage?
The campaign for equal pay is not always black and white, however.
One worker in Diego Garcia who asked not to be identified said he was worried that if the POEA continued to be strict, their employer, KBR, might stand its ground against salary increases and stop hiring from the Philippines.
Another worker claimed the wage dispute has also resulted in KBR hiring other nationalities — Indians, Nepalese and Kenyans — instead of Filipinos. These workers got higher rates, too, he said.
“That is unfair! We’ve been working here for (many) years and these newcomers get a higher salary than us,” a worker said.
It echoes a dilemma in the seafaring industry, where some groups are not keen on calling for wage increases. They want to keep Filipino workers’ wages “low but not the lowest” because it is the country’s competitive advantage.
“Most cargo sector employers want cheaper labor but combined with reasonable skills and competence. The Philippines is often seen as a source of this – not the cheapest or most expensive and not the best quality or the worst,” said Helen Sampson, director of the Seafarers International Research Centre based in Cardiff University in the U.K.
Sampson supports a global wage standard, where employers hire seafarers on the basis of quality. In this situation, countries that provide quality training will be preferred, she said. “I guess some seafarers would gain and some lose in such a situation,” she said.
The Philippines, however, has faced challenges in maintaining international maritime standards on training.
There are no clear answers all the time. The best protection is still to provide jobs for Filipinos in the country, migrant groups said.
“Kawawa naman talaga na ganito ang sitwasyon ng mga migrants kaya din hindi puwede na kay BBM (President Marcos) na deploy pa more ang kanyang trajectory (The situation of migrants is unfortunate. President Marcos can’t pursue a policy of continued deployment of workers),” said Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy.
Migrante’ Concepcion agreed. “The Philippine government can prioritize job creation here (in the Philippines). They can implement higher wages, too,” said Concepcion. END
This story was produced as part of the Trafficking Inc. investigation by journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Washington Post, NBC, WGBH Boston, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
Illustration by Joseph Luigi Almuena