Someone once jokingly said, “One day, Filipinos will rule the world,” because of they’re so spread out across the globe. Kidding aside, no matter where you go, you really are bound to see a Filipino or two (or a whole lot more) living abroad. All that may be rooted in the Filipinos’ search for better opportunities abroad, with the Philippines being a third-world country. Most resort to relocating overseas because they believe that’s where the money’s at. The individuals, who leave the comforts of their homes for work in order to provide for their families, are who we call the overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs for short.
After India, Mexico and China, The Philippines is the fourth largest labor exporter; consequently, its people is the country’s top export. One in eight Filipinos is an OFW– that’s approximately 10-12 million out of a total population of 92 million. More women leave the country than men, hence the OFWs are predominantly domestic workers, with seamen coming in second. The top “destinations” for them include Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Japan, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. All in all, OFWs have immigrated to 170 countries. Because of their sacrifices and hard work, OFWs are referred to as bagong bayani back home, or “new heroes” in English. With a total remittance of 20.8B USD in 2015, they have continuously given their families better lives with the hard-earned money they sent back home.
In order to raise awareness on the socio-economic situations of OFWs, two photographers, Ryan Arbilo & Xyza Cruz Bacani, have chosen to shed light on these Filipinos through their photos.
Ryan Arbilo, a fashion photographer currently residing in Paris, didn’t have it easy at first. His mother moved to France for work in the 90’s in order to provide for Ryan and his siblings. At first a domestic helper, she was able to climb her way up and became one of France’s expert tailors for horse jockey uniforms. Ryan followed in 2007, and became a domestic worker as well. After realising that cleaning homes wasn’t for him, he tried out photography and excelled at it. He was able to earn from weddings to food catalogues, and fashion shows to the Cannes Film Festival.
Chicken Hands by Ryan Arbilo
Ryan’s project Chicken Hands pays tribute to his mother and her friends. He focuses on their swollen, worn out hands; due to years of hard labor, they now look like chicken hands, hence the title. For him, their hands symbolise the ‘sacrifice and demeaning treatment they endure.’ In an interview with The Guardian, Ryan says, “This is a great humanitarian calling for me, to somehow inspire people and our governments to focus on finding a way for families to stay together and thrive above the poverty line and not have the need to go abroad.”
At the Far East, street photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani focuses on the tougher struggles domestic workers have to go through in Hong Kong through her photography. Just like Ryan, Xyza comes from humble beginnings; she, too, had a mom working as a domestic helper, but in Hong Kong. She decided to stop her collegiate studies and follow her mom’s footsteps. Many Filipino labourers have it quite hard there due to Hong Kong’s strict policies and abusive employers, but fortunately for Xyza, she was able to work for a kind family who loaned her money for camera to practice photography, an interest she developed back in college. For a decade, she worked for them six days a week and spent her day-off out in the bustling streets of Hong Kong documenting the street life. With her talent, she was granted a six-week photography course in New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. Her photos have been showcased in renowned museums and universities, such as Guggenheim and Yale University.
Modern Slaves by Xyza Cruz Bacani
Despite normally being last resort for distressed foreign domestic workers, the Bethune House has felt like home to more than 20,000 migrant women and their children since its establishment in 1986.
Here, residents support each other emotionally, socially, and if totally needed, financially. Most of the workers who run to the Bethune House have been unjustly fired from their jobs, were physically or sexually abused by their employers, forced to work under extremely harsh conditions, underpaid or weren’t paid at all, or victimised by illegal recruiters.
Shirley can be seen here with bandages on her shoulders. She suffered from burns on her back and arms when a pot of boiling soup fell on her after her employer “accidentally” placed it on the shelf where Shirley would place her shoes. Instead of paying for her hospitalisation and permitting her sick leave (required according to Hong Kong law), her employer terminated her contact instead. She stayed at the shelter for nine months during her recovery.
Queenie holding her seven-day-old baby, Yuan. Upon finding out that she was pregnant, Queenie asked her employer if she could return to the Philippines. The next day, the policemen came looking for her, claiming that her employer reported her for stealing an earring. She believes that her former employer accused her of this in order to avoid paying for her maternity leave. She was convicted of the crime and imprisoned, but was brought to a hospital by the police to deliver her baby. After serving her sentence and with nowhere to go, she was referred to the Bethune House after a priest saw her crying in a church.
You may view the rest of the photos from Xyza’s project, Modern Slaves, here.
Many take photos merely as a hobby, but the ability of a single photo to raise awareness on social problems shouldn’t be underestimated. Ryan and Xyza are admirable for their willingness to serve as voices for the overseas Filipino workers through their photos. Instead of veering away from their difficult past, they continue to remember their roots, help those who are still struggling as labourers, and honour their sacrifices through their photography. Despite no longer being domestic workers, Ryan and Xyza, too, can be considered as two of the Philippines’ new heroes.