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Why 10 million Filipinos endure hardship abroad as overseas workers

Why 10 million Filipinos endure hardship abroad as overseas workers
Aurora Almendral December 2018 National Geographic

Families in the Philippines receive billions from the ‘new heroes’—nannies in Hong Kong, sailors in the Arctic, and domestic workers in the Middle East.

Recuerdo Morco was 22 when he first saw snow. Wrapped in four layers of coveralls and parkas, he looked up into the swirling sky as huge flakes settled onto the deck of his cargo ship.

He carved his girlfriend’s name into the snow and circled it with a heart. Recuerdo had grown up in the Philippines on a tropical island rimmed with white sand and coconut palms. Standing on the cargo ship slicing through the icy waters near the Arctic Circle, snowflakes tickling his face, was a dream come true. “I’m really here,” he thought.

They pulled into the port of Kemi, Finland, in the wake of an icebreaker, jagged blocks of white peeling off the sides of their ship. Recuerdo stepped ashore and went on what he calls the “seaman’s mission”: find the nearest shop and buy a SIM card so you can call your mother.

Now 33, Recuerdo has spent the past decade working as a merchant sailor on cargo vessels. He has called his mother, Jeannie, 66, from Finland, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, and nearly every country with a port between Sweden and Australia. Jeannie can’t keep track of where her son calls her from, but she’s always happy and relieved to hear from him. Hearing her voice, Recuerdo says, “takes away the boredom, homesickness, and sadness.” He adds, “She’s the most important person in my life.”

Recuerdo is one of an estimated 10 million Filipinos—roughly a tenth of the country’s population—who work overseas as a way of escaping unemployment, low wages, and limited opportunities at home. The money sent back by overseas Filipino workers (known as OFWs) amounts to $31 billion a year—about 10 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product. Filipinos are domestic workers in Angola and construction workers in Japan. They staff the oil fields of Libya and are nannies to families in Hong Kong. They sing on the stages of far-flung provinces in China and help run hotels in the Middle East. A quarter of the world’s seafarers are Filipino.

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.