THEY are described as the country’s modern day heroes. Estimated at 2.2 million, the OFWs, or overseas Filipino workers, are scattered in more than 200 host countries around the world in search of greener pastures.

Working abroad is not a bed of roses; it comes with a number of risks. Incidents of rape, violence, and other abuses against Filipino women workers are common in the Middle East. The same is true with the overseas male workers.

Early this year, Filipino household worker Jakatia Pawa was executed in Kuwait, while another Filipino, Elpidio Lana, is on the death row, following a death sentence handed down by the Kuwaiti Court of First Instance, convicting him for the killing of a fellow Filipino, Nilo Macaranas, on June 17, 2014.

Last year, 26 Filipina domestic helpers were repatriated from Kuwait. They ran away from their respective employers, citing poor working conditions, maltreatment or abuse, contract violations, and personal reasons.

Joselito Zapanta, of Bacolor Pampanga, and Joven Esteva, of General Santos City, were executed on separate occasions in Saudi Arabia after their convictions of killings. A construction worker, Zapanta had killed his Sudanese landlord, in 2009, and, Esteva, his Saudi employer.

There are 27 other Filipinos facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the risks, however, OFWs still leave their native country for lack of better opportunities and wanting to provide a better life for their families.

Statistics show that since the 1970s, at the height of the oil boom in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middles East, the number of Filipino workers leaving the country has consistently increased every year. Even during the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, OFW deployment still increased to 12.1 percent.

It was the money sent by OFWs to their families back home that kept the Philippine economy afloat during the global financial crisis. Remittances were pegged at a record high of $17.348 billion in 2009 and $18 billion the following year.

Results of a 2016 survey by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that the number of OFWs who worked anytime in April – September was estimated at 2.2 million. Overseas contract workers or those with existing contract comprised 97.5 percent of the total OFWs during the said period, while the rest or 2.5 percent were without contract.

Countries in the Middle East continued to be the leading destination of OFWs. About 24 percent, or one in every four OFWs, worked in Saudi Arabia. The other preferred destinations were the UAE, or United Arab Emirates, with 15.9 percent; Europe, 6.6 percent; Kuwait, 6.4 percent, Qatar, 6.2 percent; Hong Kong, 5.6 percent; and Singapore, 5.6 percent. Some other countries in Asia had 21.5 percent of the total number of OFWs, while North and South America had 5.6 percent, Australia and Africa had 1.4 percent each, and the rest had 0.03 percent.

There were more females than males among the OFWs, with the former comprising 53.6 percent. Also, the females were generally younger than the males.

Total remittances from OFWs during the period April – September 2016 reached P203 billion, including cash sent home at P146 billion, cash brought home at P45.7 billion, and, in kind, at P11.1 billion.

Majority, or 60.3 percent, of OFWs sent their remittances through banks, while the others opted to pass through agencies or local offices (2.4 percent), door-to-door delivery (1.2 percent), friends or co-workers (0.3 percent), or other means (35.8 percent).

Records at the country’s central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), on the other hand, show that OFWs sent home $16.095 billion during the first seven months of the year from $15.323 billion for the same period in 2016. Last year’s total remittances amounted to $26.9 billion.

While OFWs remain a backbone of the Philippine economy, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd said one of the top priorities of the Duterte administration is the generation of better-paying job opportunities to encourage Filipino migrant workers to return for good and reverse the country’s decades-old labor export policy. “The final aim of the President is to get our OFWs back, and [for them] not to return [abroad],” he added. He pointed out, however, that even with the country’s continued economic growth and improved domestic wages—which should encourage OFWs to return to the country—the increasing number of returnees was due to crises, disasters, and wars in the host countries.

Last year, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) worked out for the repatriation of more than 11,000 OFWs from Saudi Arabia who had lost their jobs as a result of the economic crisis brought about by a drop in oil prices in the world market.

Bello has urged businesses to “open your windows for partnership with OFW groups” and asked families of OFWs to prepare for their reunification. “I call on the local governments to make each province, city, and municipality a haven to go back to,” he said at a recent summit on OFW reintegration, held at the BSP. He added that government agencies must “nurture an environment conducive to OFW return.”

Being the culminating activity of the government’s ERPO, or Enhancing Reintegration Program for OFWs, the summit was tasked to draw up a national master plan for the absorption of returning migrant workers into the local economy. It was spearheaded by the

Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA), the National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“The task seems disconcerting because of the huge number of our returning OFWs...” Bello said. “We need to keep the house in order.” He added there has to be sufficient jobs and businesses available, and infrastructure and peace and order because “this is everyone’s business.” He also said the demand for skilled construction workers, laborers, and professionals would definitely shoot up once all the construction projects of the Duterte administration are in full swing. The impending construction boom would generate thousands of jobs, he stressed.

Duterte has committed to spend a record of at least P890.9 billion on vital infrastructure this year, in line with plans to further hike expenditures up to 7 percent of the GDP within the next six years. In addition, the trips the President had made to Japan and China were expected to create around 2.4 million jobs from the billions of dollars in prospective investment projects that would pour into the country from Tokyo and Beijing.

Besides the construction workers, Bello pointed out, the government’s “Build, Build, Build” program, which would be realized mostly through the Japanese and Chinese investments, could create more employment opportunities in the construction-related sectors. “We are studying the level of shortage of our skilled workers in the country,” Bello said. “Even I had experienced this. Before, I could easily get a plumber with a much lesser cost. But, now, even if you offered a considerable amount of fee, these skilled workers would ignore you. So we should now slowdown in processing the deployment of these skilled workers.”

According to the DOLE’s BLE, or Bureau of Local Employment, the country is not producing enough skilled workers to meet the demands here and abroad. Local demand in the construction industry, it said, averages 200,000 but only 80,000 is filled, so there is a shortage of 120,000 skilled workers.

Bello said the creation of 7.5 million jobs by 2020 is up in the DOLE’s priority agenda, which is part of the overall plan of the government geared toward convincing OFWs to return home. He also said the DOLE is committed to contribute in the attainment of full employment by keeping unemployment rate at 5 percent.

While the private sector is primarily responsible for generating employment, he noted, the DOLE is mandated to help increase the capacity of the economy to produce goods and services with an adequate and steady supply, as well as the movement of skilled and trained human resources.