OFWs and Philippine Foreign Policy

OFWs and Philippine Foreign Policy

By: Ricardo Roy A. Lopez



The welfare of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and foreign policy were one of the issues discussed in the 3rd round of the 2016 Philippine Presidential Debates. However public discourses rarely include issues linking OFWS and foreign policy.  With this, there is a need to examine how Overseas Filipino Workers can affect the conduct of Philippine Foreign Policy.  More specifically, how does the government attempt to address the welfare of OFWs when doing so may affect its commitment to other state actors.


In order to explain the role of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the conduct of Philippine Foreign Policy, there is a need to utilize Jennifer Sterling-Folker’s (1997) argument on how domestic variables affect foreign policy decision-making. She claims that in the context of “environment-based theory” such as neorealism, it is domestic actors “involved in domestic processes” who determine how survival is pursued in an anarchic setting. Traditionally, domestic variables are seldom included in environment-based theory as its proponents argue that outcomes are decided mainly by the anarchic setting. The inclusion OFWs in understanding the conduct of Philippine Foreign Policy is warranted given their capabilities to participate as voters in national elections. Most of them are able to vote thru the different foreign legations. Further, advances in communication, specifically social media have enabled OFWs to contribute to discourses regarding national issues.


Further, Hagan (1994) proposed of the concept of elite survival, which he posits that “war proneness” can be attributed to the ruling elite’s fear of domestic opposition. While Hagan’s work focused on determining the linkages between domestic political systems and the likelihood of states’ going to war, the framework could also be utilized in conducting scholarly inquiry into the other aspects of foreign policy.  Given the capabilities of OFWs to participate in the national elections, political elites have to include this particular group in crafting policy. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (2015), there is an estimated 2.4 million Filipinos working overseas. In addition, the Philippines’ House of Representatives is already occupied with OFW partylist groups such as Migrante International and OFW Family Club. Aside from representing OFWs in the Philippine Congress, these partylists are also vital in shaping public opinion in favor of this group. Given the number of OFWs and the inclusion of partylists representing them, political elites would set to lose support when they act against the interest of this group.


The government of the Philippines had recognized the importance of OFWs by declaring the “protection of the rights and promotion of the welfare and interest of Filipino overseas” as the third pillar of its foreign policy. Since the 1970s, OFWs had on numerous occasions affected the conduct of foreign policy. A more recent example of this was in 2015 when a Filipina named Mary Jane Veloso was accused of drug smuggling in Indonesia and was sentenced to execution. Days before her scheduled execution, the Aquino administration was being pressured by public opinion to negotiate for Veloso’s release. Migrante International called on the public to write letters in support of Mary Jane Veloso and to be addressed to concerned public officials such as the Secretaries of Justice and Foreign Affairs.


While the Aquino administration was mindful of domestic pressures, it also had to contend with external constraints. Its membership in the ASEAN discourages it from overtly interfering in the local affairs of other member-states. Indonesia, together with the Philippines are both considered as the founding members of this regional group. This prevented Manila from adopting an aggressive policy towards Jakarta. During this time, the Philippine government formally charged a woman who was believed to have deceived Veloso into smuggling illegal drugs in Indonesia. The government then rationalized the ongoing proceedings with Jakarta to have Veloso’s execution indefinitely postponed on the grounds that her testimony is needed. Jakarta granted this request just a few hours before the scheduled execution, which partially relieved public pressure on Manila.  In this scenario, the Philippine government was able to satisfy OFW interest while at the same time adopting a more benign approach in negotiations with Indonesia.


Further, the Philippines also experienced an incident wherein the OFWs greatly influenced the conduct of Philippine Foreign Policy. During the US invasion of Iraq, terrorists in Baghdad kidnapped Angelo dela Cruz, an OFW in July 2004. The terrorists demanded that the Philippines withdraw its troops from Iraq. The deployment of Philippine soldiers in Iraq was due in part to Manila’s participation in the “Coalition of the Willing” under the US-lead Global War on Terror (GWOT). Prior to the kidnapping of dela Cruz, Iraqi terrorist groups have previously abducted American nationals and then beheaded them when Washington ignored their demands for troop withdrawal. There were concerns in Manila that the dela Cruz might suffer the same fate as the American hostages. Reeling from a controversial re-election a month before, the Arroyo administration could not afford to suffer from public discontent. With this, the Filipino community in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia petitioned President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to withdraw Philippine forces in exchange for his freedom (Arab News, 2004).


After a few days, Manila announced the withdrawal of Filipino troops from Iraq. While this lead to the release of dela Cruz, this also strained Philippine relations with the United States. In order to dispel concerns that Manila will withdraw support from GWOT, the Philippines continued engaging the United States in military exercises such as the Balikatan.


Using Sterling-Folker’s (1997) analysis of domestic-variables in foreign policy-making and Hagan’s (1994) concept of elite survival, it is argued that OFWs can affect how the Philippines conduct foreign relations. While Manila political elites is eager to show support to OFWs, they are also cautious in ensuring that their obligations to their allies abroad are not compromised.



Arab News . (2016, April 28). Don’t Go to Iraq, Hostage Tells Fellow OFWs. Retrieved July 11, 2004, from Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/252293


Hagan, J. D. (1994). Domestic Political Systems and War Proneness . Mershon International Studies Review , 38 (2), 183-207.


Philippine Statistics Authority. (2016, April 14). Philippine Statistics Authority: Solid, Responsive and World-Class. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from Total Number of OFWs Estimated at 2.4 Million (Results from the 2015 Survey on Overseas Filipinos) – See more at: https://psa.gov.ph/content/total-number-ofws-estimated-24-million-results-2015-survey-overseas-filipinos#sthash.AvwSqUh0.dpuf: https://psa.gov.ph/content/total-number-ofws-estimated-24-million-results-2015-survey-overseas-filipinos


Sterling-Folker, J. (1997). Realist Environment, Liberal Process, and Domestic-Level Variables. International Studies Quarterly , 14 (1), 1-25.






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