Before that, processing an application was a Herculean task that could take months and was extremely costly. Many OFWs come from provinces around the Philippines, and had to find room and board in the capital for the duration of the application process, as well as travel around sprawling, congested Manila to gather their paperwork.

Tin, another member of the Hong Kong group who didn’t want to use her real name, said she waited almost four months to process her papers in Manila before arrived here as a domestic helper. The 33-year-old spent some 100,000 pesos (about $2,000) in the effort. The trip from her factory workplace into the capital took two hours—and she had to make it frequently. The whole process was humiliating, she said tearfully. Still, Hong Kong wages are so much higher than what she can earn at home, that Tin stuck with it. Now she has a nine-year-old daughter in the Philippines who she sees only once every two years.

Duterte also promised throughout his campaign to start a fund of one billion pesos for every region in the Philippines to help micro, small, and medium enterprises, which is especially beneficial for OFWs who want to start their own business upon returning home. The Department of Trade and Industry’s plan for 2017 said it is devoting half of its 4.8 billion peso budget toward the initiative, with plans to promote products manufactured by small businesses in the country.

Duterte has been actively trying to help overseas workers facing difficulties abroad, too. A month-long government mission in August also aimed to help an estimated 11,000 OFWs stranded in Saudi Arabia, after their employers broke contracts as the local economy suffers under low oil prices. The problem is being compounded by Riyadh’s “Saudization” program, which aims to gradually replace foreign workers with locals, said Migrante International, an alliance founded by OFWs.

Duterte himself greeted 128 of those who were able to get back to the Philippines as they arrived at the airport. Mindful that many hadn’t been paid for months, he announced that each would be given 5,000 pesos. “Give me time to fix the economy, and you will have the opportunity to work here,” he told them.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte poses with OFWs upon their arrival in Manila airport, Aug. 31, 2016. The workers were repatriated back to the country from Saudi Arabia.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte poses with OFWs upon their arrival in Manila airport, Aug. 31, 2016. The workers were repatriated back to the country from Saudi Arabia.
Image: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Limits to Duterte’s power

While Duterte is building goodwill in the OFW community, some promises are wildly optimistic.

Anjo Dimacali, a representative of Migrante International, said that the impact of the government’s relief program in Saudi Arabia has been limited so far. For example, only 1,392 of the 11,000 or so workers had been repatriated as of early September, and a 500 million peso relief fund is already used up, with many affected workers unable to claim assistance.

While Duterte has the “political will” to help OFWs, “the only solution that will solve the issue of the Saudi OFWs is the [Filipino] government’s complete deviation from its labor export policy,” said Dimacali. The Philippines continues to suffer from poverty and a lack of jobs, which is why many Filipinos still want to work in the Middle East despite the worsening conditions there.

As such, Dimacali said the Saudi mission so far amounts only to a “band-aid solution to a deep wound.”

To heal that wound, the Philippines needs transform from a low-wage, agricultural economy into one that provides enough higher-paying jobs that make it economically viable for people not to leave home. The Philippines’ huge call-center industry is one bright spot, and is closing in on OFWs as the biggest contributor to GDP, but there are worries that Duterte’s ongoing anti-American rhetoric could undermine US investors’ confidence in the sector. Deep-seated corruption and poor infrastructure remain serious impediments to economic development. Duterte has vowed to tackle those problems too.

But some doubt whether the Filipinos working overseas now will see these problems fixed in their lifetime. Alejandro Reyes, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s politics and public administration department, called Duterte’s promise to create enough comparable jobs at home so OFWs can return a “holy grail idea.” Overseas wages are so much higher that “you’re not going to get to that level of pay in any short-term period” in the Philippines, he said.

Duterte’s Hong Kong fans are convinced, though. In between nightmarish stories about living abroad and inside jokes shared with the other women, Ces, who is single, talked about her dream of settling back in the Philippines by 2018. She’s unwavering in her conviction that Duterte will deliver on his promises, “because he succeeded in Davao.”

In her vision of the future, she is back home in crime-free Davao, and her drug-taking brother, who surrendered himself to the police earlier this year, is rehabilitated. She is running a funeral services business and knows she’ll never have to work overseas again—all made possible by Duterte.

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