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In her own words: Pandemic realities of Filipina economic migrants in Bangkok and Metro Manila

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Self-portrait by Juniper*, a multimedia artist, in her rented apartment in Quezon City in Metro Manila, Philippines. She said when asked whether she identifies as a migrant: ‘Am I a migrant? I don’t know. I’ve been away for so long. Do you know what it’s like to lose your identity? I do. I can’t relate to my family. Here in Manila, I’m by myself. I’m isolated. I’ve lost my connections to my childhood friends. Pero napakalawak ng mundo. (But the world is vast.) I want to be more than just a factory worker back home. I want to keep striving and doing my best. That’s why I’ll continue to stay here no matter how tough it gets.’

Filipina women economic migrants, both in-country and abroad, have long assumed (re)productive duties to keep their families and communities afloat. This was made even more challenging by the COVID-19 crisis. Nuanced narratives reflecting pandemic realities of the most affected people and groups continue to be under-documented. Our conversations with Filipinas based in Bangkok and Metro Manila revealed critical issues that remain unaddressed because of their multiple and intersecting identities as migrants, women, and economic providers. 


Barely surviving in Bangkok


Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, has long been a prime tourist destination and a melting pot for migrants, including Filipinos, seeking greener pastures. However, the COVID-19 crisis changed it all: tourism hit rock bottom and other sectors and industries quickly followed. Migrants continue to face heightened risks due to job losses, limited social protection, and restricted access to vaccines. A 2020 survey by Pinoy Thaiyo, an online magazine by the Filipino community in Thailand, shows that out of 1,047 Filipino respondents living in Thailand, 81% were ‘directly and indirectly’ affected by COVID-19. Tala* (50) and Minda* (28), both teachers, were among many whose lives turned upside down.


For Tala, the COVID-19 crisis enhanced the ‘multiple levels of exploitation faced by migrant workers’ for years. ‘I was not entitled to any social security and health insurance. The only benefit that I got was free food’, she said. Minda recalled, ‘it came as a shock that the school had to cut costs and fired me’. The ‘no work, no pay’ provision embedded in migrant labour contracts became a harsh economic and mental health reality. Minda eventually found a work-from-home gig several months later, while Tala was forced to fly back to the Philippines. 


Both Tala and Minda said that the pandemic taught them to be self-reliant and resourceful because they could not access the usual social supports. Tala remains unvaccinated, while Minda reached out to informal channels and found a way to get herself vaccinated.


Apart from visa extensions, the Philippine government provided minimal assistance to Tala and Minda. Tala even doubts that the government cares for its people, ‘nandoon ba sila?’ (do they even exist?). Minda has given up on receiving any help: ‘Ayoko nang umasa (I don’t want to expect [help from the government]). I feel frustrated with the Philippine Embassy. They didn't even try to reach out and help us when we needed it the most.’


According to the World Health Organization, the number of COVID-19 cases recorded in Bangkok continues to rise, averaging 26% each day in September 2021. For many Filipino migrants, it has become a fight or flight situation. Tala’s decision to flee Thailand was difficult. ‘Hindi ko na kayang magtagal sa ganitong sitwasyon’ (I cannot endure this situation any longer). Minda remains optimistic. ‘I still want to resume teaching in Thailand when the situation permits. I feel like this is my calling.’


Seeking reasons to stay in Metro Manila


When discussions on Filipina migrants arise, a common notion is that only those living and working abroad are included. Internal migration patterns have a long history of being undocumented and invisible. The latest figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority show that the National Capital Region, also known as Metro Manila, hosts the largest number of domestic migrants. Luisa* (31) and Juniper* (27), who moved to the capital for work, were caught off guard by the pandemic. Luisa, a humanitarian aid worker, has since returned to Davao City, while Juniper has chosen to stay because she still believes that she has better economic prospects as a creative in Manila than in her hometown in Batangas. 


Luisa shares that the first four months of the lockdown in the Philippines, among the longest and strictest in the world, were the hardest. She could not fly home to Davao because all modes of transportation were suspended and, in any case, she did not want to risk infecting her family. She recounts having a hard time securing a ‘quarantine pass’ which would have allowed her to go out to buy essential goods. She waited for two months for her pass and had to covertly buy her essentials in a nearby public market. Since the start of the lockdown in March 2020, many arrests of quarantine violators continued, with reports of inhumane punishment and deaths. ‘Super at risk ako, pero sinong bibili ng pagkain ko?’ (It was very risky, but who else will buy my food?”). Luisa said that she is confident that her harrowing pandemic experiences would not have happened if she were back in Davao. 


Paying rent, on the other hand, was Juniper's greatest challenge. She said her freelance film and photography gigs had all but dried up. She chose to stay in Manila despite her struggles. ‘Ayokong bumalik sa probinsya. (I don’t want to go back to the province.) I have more opportunities here even with the pandemic. And my relationship with my family improves when we are apart.’


Both Luisa and Juniper shared that sheer will has kept them going. Luisa, for example, attributes her survival to ‘kulit’ (to pester) – ‘If I hadn't pestered my landlord, and he hadn't pestered our local government, we could have been delisted from receiving social support, or worse.’ Although Luisa received ayuda (government cash support), she gave her share to her neighbours who lost their jobs and had childcare responsibilities. ‘I’m living alone so I don’t need a lot of food. In Davao we can ask for help anytime. Here in Manila, if you’re an outsider, you won’t get anything unless you have a car and lots of money.’


Juniper had a different experience receiving support in Metro Manila. ‘When I was living in downtown Cubao in 2020, the local government voluntarily gave me ayuda. Hindi ko-inexpect na magbibigay sila (I didn’t expect that they would give me anything) because I was not a registered resident in the barangay (village) or in Quezon City. But the support stopped after three months.’ Juniper also underwent surgery in December last year. Fortunately, Juniper had her government health card, which her mother had sent by courier from Batangas to Juniper's hospital in Manila.


Her stories always matter


Pandemic response and management must include and be informed by the voices and perspectives of the most affected people and communities. It is critical to understand how the gendered experiences of Tala, Minda, Luisa, and Juniper influence their agency in navigating social and economic barriers to equality amid the pandemic. They are best placed to identify what type of support they need. 


Women economic migrants have their own stories to tell, and they must do so without having authority figures or policymakers construct it for them. Addressing the gendered experiences of economic migration also means ensuring that women not only survive, but are able to thrive, on their own terms, and in their own words.


*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality. 


Further reading and resources:


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Joel Baysa-Barredo

Joel Mark Baysa-Barredo is Programme Director of SHAPE-SEA, a research and education programme on human rights and peace in Southeast Asia. He is a proud Southeast Asian queer-feminist academic activist and economic migrant. He holds an International Master’s Degree in Human Rights from the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University (Thailand). Connect on Twitter with SHAPE-SEA @shape_sea and Joel @beardedadvocate

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Patricia Miranda

Patricia Miranda is a lawyer, campaigner, and migrant working on gender equality and human rights in healthcare regulations. Her research interests revolve around legal determinants of health that improve health outcomes of women and girls during disasters and emergencies. She is a fully funded Wellcome Trust LL.M. Health, Law, and Society student at the University of Bristol, funded through Wellcome's Humanities and Social Science Master's Programme Award in conjunction with the University of Bristol Law School. Find her on Twitter @pa3ciamiranda

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