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Flor Contemplacion left for Singapore to become an overseas Filipino worker (OFW). All she wanted was to provide her children a better life and future. It was a future she would never see. She was executed in Singapore in 1995 for allegedly strangling to death another Filipina OFW, Delia Maga, whose Singaporean ward was also found dead in the bathtub. According to police, Contemplacion confessed to the crime; her supporters insist that she was either framed by Maga’s employer or at least suffering from some mental instability.
Some questions will never be fully resolved. What is not up for debate is the difficult life and path Flor represented as soon as she went abroad to work, and the travails that were compounded for her family especially after her execution.
Flor Contemplacion left four children behind. Her three sons have recently been sentenced to life imprisonment for selling illegal drugs. Flor's husband, Efren, and his live-in partner, Violeta, remain in jail as they were arrested for drug peddling in 2008.
As tragic as this story has become, and as extreme as Flor’s case was, the fate and pitfalls confronted by her family is not isolated among the millions of Filipino families tested and strained by overseas work.
The promise of a better life is a lure that drives workers from underdeveloped nations to look for greener pastures abroad. National Statistics estimate that about 10 percent of the Philippine population is composed of migrant workers, and the number continues to grow. OFWs have proven to be a boon on a macro and micro level, uplifting the Philippine economy while at the same time improving the lives of the families they leave behind.
As we see in the story of the Contemplacions, however, there are social costs to migrant work. In our work with OFWs, common problems they report include marital and relationship conflict, family and parenting difficulties, homesickness and loneliness, work-related adjustment, cultural adjustment and financial issues. There are also reports of employer abuse and even violence among domestic workers and unskilled laborers.
Migrant work also has social costs on the children left behind. Children of migrant mothers report higher levels of anxiety and loneliness compared with children of migrant fathers or non-migrant parents. This is worrisome given the increasing trend of women OFWs. In her book Nawala ang Ilaw ng Tahanan, Dr. Honey Carandang says that while they do appreciate the economic benefits of parents working abroad, children of OFW mothers report a pervading feeling of sadness and a deep longing for their mother to come home. When the fathers are unable to cope with running the household, these children often become the “tagasalo” — they inherit the parental burdens — and are forced to grow up and lose their childhood.
How can children of OFW parents be helped? Dr. Carandang suggests that play and expressive activities like art, music, dancing are other forms of coping and self-expression. She warns that expensive gifts are not substitutes to communication and expressions of love from the absentee parent. In addition, because men have not been socialized to nurture relationships and run households, Carandang stresses that fathers need to be supported and taught how to be effective single parents.
All these suggest that the decision to work abroad should be thought of and discussed within the family very carefully. Leaving one’s country and family to work abroad is a sacrifice that OFWs chose in order to help their families. But even this supreme act of giving is not without costs.
Dr. Gina Hechanova is an Associate Professor at the Ateneo de Manila University's Department of Psychology, and the Executive Director of the Ateneo Center for Organization Research and Development (CORD). She founded OFWOnline (http://ofwonline.net) a site that provides free online counseling for OFWs and their families.