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The Filipino Labor Diaspora in the United States: A Narrative of Colonization, Perseverance, and Opportunities


The abundance of Filipino workers in the United States, especially nurses in the healthcare system, might seem like a fluke to many, but this phenomenon is the result of a colonial past, labor exporting policies, and lasting American influence. Motivated by the American dream and necessitated by a developing economy back home, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are hailed as modern-day heroes and contribute plenty to both the Philippines and the United States.

US-Philippine Labor Migration History

Despite the history of colonization underlying the relationship between the United States and the Philippines, the two nations continue to foster robust partnerships across all diplomatic areas. Following the Spanish-American War and the annexation of the Philippines by the United States in December 1898, Philippine immigration fulfilled labor demands in Hawaiian plantations and farms in California. It was not until the 1970s, however, that the Filipino labor diaspora in the United States truly began to take shape. Under the administration of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., the government initiated measures to incentivize the Filipino workforce to seek employment overseas. These measures were aimed at easing unemployment rates and stimulating remittances back into the country.

President Marcos, Sr. established three departments in 1974: the Overseas Employment Development Board, the Bureau of Employment Services, and the National Seamen Board which ultimately contributed to a mass exodus of Filipino workers. According to an East-West Center report on Filipino immigration, the number of Filipinos in the United States doubled in size, increasing by 445,163 individuals from 1970 to 1980. Notably, a majority of OFWs cited potential economic benefits as a main motivator for immigrating to the United States. Migration has played a central role in driving the economic advancement of the Philippines ever since the enactment of the 1974 Labor Code (Presidential Decree 442), which introduced measures to manage and promote the movement of laborers. Data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) indicated that remittances from OFWs amounted to USD 37.2 billion in 2023, indicating an increase of 3 percent from USD 36.1 billion in 2022. This creates a cyclical pattern in which migration contributes to development, consequently increasing the attractiveness of overseas employment.

An Interview with the Philippine Labor Attaché

The East-West Center conducted an interview with the Philippine Labor Attaché in Washington, DC Saul De Vries, to gather his perspectives on the bilateral labor relationship between the United States and the Philippines. Upon the creation of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), the Labor Attaché’s Office, formerly known as the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), is now called the Migrant Workers Office (MWO). The DMW is mandated to “protect the rights and promote the welfare of OFWs. The office was created by virtue of the DMW Act or Republic Act No. 11641, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on December 30, 2021. By institutionalizing the establishment of a cabinet position and a dedicated agency for migrant workers, this action essentially reinforces the Philippines’ strategy of generating migrant labor. This prompts an inquiry into the status of the bilateral labor relationship between the United States and the Philippines, highlighting key areas that require attention for the benefit of both OWFs and Americans. Labor Attaché De Vries offers his insights below:

What do you think OFWs contribute to the United States, to the Philippines, and to the bilateral relationship between the two countries?

Filipino migrant workers in the United States contribute to the economic development of both [countries]. In the United States, Filipinos fill manpower shortages in healthcare, education, finance, IT, manufacturing, oil and gas, and other sectors. The skills, talents, and expertise these workers bring to [US] industries are immensely aiding the [United States] in achieving its socio-economic goals and maintaining its competitive position in the global economy. The Philippine economy, on the other hand, benefits from Filipinos employed in the [United States] who are sending remittances to their families in the Philippines. Generally, the money sent to the families increases their purchasing power, generates savings, and improves foreign exchange reserves. These, in turn, lead to increased production of goods and services and more funds for capital investments. The presence of Filipino migrant workers in the [United States] also helps improve bilateral relations between the two countries through people-to-people linkages. To a large extent, [the ability of Filipinos] to assimilate in foreign land creates the condition for close friendship and cultural affinity between them and the Americans. The close personal relations built in workplaces and communities between these peoples provide a solid ground for Philippine-US bilateral engagement.

In your experience, what are some successful initiatives or programs that have supported the welfare and integration of Filipino migrant workers in the United States?

Employment contract verification has been one of the most effective measures implemented by the MWO, formerly called the POLO, to protect the rights and promote the welfare of Filipino migrant workers. This function is exercised by the MWO to ensure that workers’ employment contracts are consistent with prevailing employment laws, standards, and practices in both the Philippines and the United States. Contracts that do not conform with minimum labor standards are subjected to modifications or amendments before the same can be approved and the recruitment of Filipinos can proceed.

Accreditation of employers also plays an important part in ensuring that Filipino migrant workers are not victimized by illegal recruiters and labor traffickers in the United States. Accreditation is the process of granting authority to employers to recruit Filipino workers, which requires MWO scrutiny of the legitimacy and capability of US employers to hire foreign workers. The process involves validation of business permits and the financial standing of employers, among others. The Pre-Departure Orientation Seminar (PDOS) complemented by the Post-Arrival Orientation Seminar (PAOS) likewise prove to be effective tools for empowering workers by making them aware of their labor rights, work settings, expectations, culture, traditions, and practices in the United States. These seminars serve to help them integrate seamlessly into US society.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues or concerns facing the Filipino migrant worker community in the United States today, and how can stakeholders collaborate to address them?

While Filipino workers in the United States largely enjoy better pay, higher benefits, and more protection mechanisms, there are also many who are faced with employment/labor-related issues and concerns, namely: medical professionals, particularly nurses, experience contract substitution and exorbitant breach fees (liquidated damages) ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 when they pre-terminate their employment contract. They also complain of [the] high nurse-to-patient ratio (i.e., 1 nurse for every 35-40 patients) and the lack of proper training for their assigned job at healthcare facilities.

Filipino teachers who are being employed through the J-1 or the Exchange Visitors Program (EVP) are placed in disadvantaged positions since many are required to [pay] shoulder placement-related costs, which are not regulated. There is also no pathway for regularization of J-1 teachers since they are required to return to the Philippines for two years after completing the program. Notably, teachers hired through the H-1B visa program do not pay immigration fees and can be sponsored for permanent migrant status (green card). Similarly, young Filipinos being recruited under the summer, work, travel (SWT) category of the J-1 visa program in the hotel/hospitality industry are also required to pay placement fees and subjected to long hours of work.

The American Dream and the Model Minority Myth

Evidently, Philippine labor migration is mutually beneficial for the United States and the Philippines, as it bolsters both economic and social ties. However, Labor Attaché De Vries believes that concerns facing the OFW population point to a historical disconnect between the idealized notion of the “American Dream” and the reality experienced by some immigrant populations. For generations, immigrants from around the world have viewed the American lifestyle as a beacon of freedom, a quest for personal fortune, an opportunity for adventure—and a chance at the American dream.

Nearly a century-old idea, the “American Dream” has been used both as an incentive and a promise for the American public and the broader international community, with politicians and mainstream media promoting the idea that tireless hard work inevitably leads to economic success and upward mobility. Yet, this rhetoric fails to accurately represent the American immigrant experience, especially for Filipino American communities. OFWs, who constitute the fourth largest immigrant population in the United States, are oftentimes exposed to racial and gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Over 60% of Filipinos in the United States reported in a 2023 Pew Research survey that anti-Asian hate acts as a significant barrier within American society, and 68% of Asian female respondents suggested Asian discrimination is not adequately addressed in the United States.

In part, the dismissal and continuation of prejudice against OFWs can be attributed to the Model Minority Myth. Coined in the 1960s, the harmful stereotyping of all Asians as a model minority inaccurately generalizes Asian Americans, Native Hawai'ians, and Pacific Islanders (AA and NHPIs) as high-achieving, independent, family-oriented, and compliant. This monolithic perspective not only obscures the nuanced difficulties of varied socioeconomic backgrounds but also adversely impacts AA and NHPI's mental health and professional development. Fortunately, strides have been made by the Biden-Harris Administration to address this false rhetoric. In September of 2023, President Biden acknowledged the presence of the Model Minority Myth and committed to supporting Indo-Pacific communities both economically and socially.

Additionally, the recognition of OFWs has gained momentum through mainstream media, such as the musical production of Larry the Musical: An American Journey. Through its portrayal of union leader Larry Itliong’s pivotal role in the 1965 Grape Strike, the musical sheds a light on the profound contributions of Filipinos to the United States. By amplifying OFW voices, this cultural narrative celebrates their resilience and underscores their indispensable presence in American society. Beyond cooperation between governments, recognition from ordinary Americans of the importance of migrant workers substantially aids in cultivating better working conditions for these individuals who have played a historical and ongoing role in the progress of the United States.

The authors would like to thank Labor Attaché Saul T. De Vries for his generous time and insights and Jo Mari Rifareal, Administrative Staff at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC, for coordinating our interview.

Kyle Ta-ay is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington and a Young Leader at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu. He is pursuing an M.A. in International Affairs at American University’s School of International Service. He is also an International Student Advisor at the International Student and Scholar Services, a Research Assistant for the ASEAN Studies Initiative, and the Vice President of Finance of the Graduate Leadership Council.

Denise Sievert Geronimo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a recent graduate from Colorado College, where she studied International Political Economy and Journalism. She is also 2024 Charles B. Rangel Fellow with the US Department of State.