MAYBE it was the dust collected at the tips of a whisk broom her wrist flicked rightward. Maybe it was the doldrums of wiping the top of tables in the family-owned travel agency that has seen its last customer in 18 months ago.

Whatever: after 120 days of clicking on a mouse and getting “no job opening” messages, returned overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Reign Barcelona became Archimedes; outside a bathtub.

Her eureka moment—a pink microfiber cloth abruptly stopped in the middle of swiping a table’s top—was to offer jobs rather than seek employment.

Thus, Cleanica Express, which offers disinfection services to homes and offices in the Calabarzon region, came to fruition.

“Before my savings dry up, something must happen,” Barcelona told members of a social-media group of overseas Filipino entrepreneurs.

Thanks to online instructional videos and self-study, Barcelona assembled a disinfection team dispatched after securing a cleaning contract via its website (

Barcelona’s venture fits the era echoing the 18th-century phrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Cleanica Express shows Barcelona changing gears after lockdown measures disrupted the overseas-labor market and workers’ source of income.

Crash landings

A Coast Guard personnel holds
placards directing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and non-OFWs to their designated areas upon arrival in the country at the national airport in this January 13, 2021, file photo.

BARCELONA is one of the more than 700,000 OFWs who voluntarily or involuntarily returned home.

They returned home not on a red carpet but on an economy in the red: two consecutive quarters of contraction in gross domestic product and a swelling rank of the jobless.

Repatriated and retrenched OFWs want to return to their jobs abroad. But there’s limited demand for foreign workers in many economic sectors of labor-receiving countries. The numbers tell it all: In 2019, the Philippines deployed 2,156,742 OFWs as new hire and rehired workers. That number plunged by 75 percent to 549,841 last year.

The overseas recruitment sector felt the crunch: the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) reported late last year that the recruitment sector has around 600 agencies to 700 agencies closing shop. (

In a recently released survey (N=54) of recruitment agencies, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Philippine office reported that nearly eight in 10 recruitment agencies have fully or partially closed operations.

Last year, cash remittances from overseas Filipinos were initially feared to drop by some $3 billion to $6 billion ( less than the $30.133 billion sent in 2019. Heroically, Filipinos abroad still managed to send home $29.903 billion in 2020, or just some $230 million less (0.76 percent) year-on-year. (

For this year’s first seven months, the $17.771 billion of cash remittances were higher by some $969 million year-on-year. (

Outbound seafarers get their vaccination jabs against Covid-19 at the Bonifacio High Street Mega Vaccination Hub in Taguig City in this July 7, 2021, file photo.

Health crisis

OVERSEAS employment was cemented with a provision in the 1974 Labor Code of the Philippines that regulates recruitment of workers for jobs abroad.

For nearly five decades, several laws and regulations added layers to the burgeoning industry. These also sealed overseas migration as a “development strategy” from just merely a temporary policy to boost the country’s dollar reserves.

The pandemic and government’s handling of the health crises have altered the country’s approach to international migration and the Filipino families’ fantasies that dollar earnings conjure.

The pandemic provided “a wake-up call” to rethink the place of overseas migration in development, Maruja M.B. Asis of the Scalabrini Migration Center (SMC) told the OFW Journalism Consortium.

“I think at both the national level and at the level of individual migrants and their families, working abroad may not be realistic in the next three to five years,” Asis, executive director of SMC, said.

“We cannot always wait for overseas job prospects to come,” she added. “Even our migrants and their families should also manage their expectations—or even tighten their belts.”

Interacting with customers

GIVEN the continued droves of repatriated and returning OFWs, the Philippine government’s migration management agencies have been handing out P10,000 cash assistance. Employees of these agencies have also been facilitating mercy flights, quarantine stays and return trips of OFWs to home communities for over 702,000 returnees.

Such is why a gamut of government agencies, including government-run financial institutions, have rolled out numerous credit programs for returnees. ( Interventions related to economic reintegration for returnee OFWs became a whole-of-government approach.

The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) had already devoted a separate chapter in the mid-term Philippine Development Plan for overseas Filipinos. ( This “strategy” sees the country continually protecting the welfare of overseas Filipinos and maximizing their earnings for productive purposes in the home country, including for migrants’ reintegration.

Yet with businesses continuing to reel from the newer SARS-CoV-2 variants, economic activities in foreign countries and in the Philippines are still hampered. The current situation even challenges returnees’ start-up businesses that bank on interactions with customers, according to Asis.

Pandemic, digitalization

THE Philippines may be feeling the social and economic pressures of a reverse exodus of Filipino workers.

A survey of returnees (N=8,332) by the International Organization for Migration-Philippines (IOM-Philippines) finds that eight in 10 returnees were jobless three months upon arrival. Half of these returnees sustained a 60- percent drop in their household incomes.

The primary challenge for nearly eight in 10 of returnees surveyed is finding a job or an income-generating activity; nearly half (48 percent) of surveyed returnees want to re-migrate.

Backing up the need for overseas job opportunities, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said last September 26 that the Duterte administration is forging bilateral labor agreements with Russia, China, Canada and Thailand to “help bring back” overseas jobs for displaced OFWs. (

For Alvin P. Ang of the Ateneo de Manila University, the pandemic and the rising shift to digital e-commerce limit the need for many “low-skilled” workers in both developed and developing countries.

“The pandemic has facilitated the digitalization of many work processes, creating a downstream effect to other low-skilled work that employs migrants,” Ang said. “Work from home became the mode to deliver output, creating a lack of foot traffic for restaurants, accommodations, retail and transportation, while also limiting the need for cleaners and other basic services.”

Ang, ADMU Department of Economics professor, added that the pandemic and digitalization reinforce each other.

Prospects dim

THE pandemic may have also sanitized the re-migration wishes of returnees: 45 percent of IOM’s respondents want to do business at home.

However, Asis noted that two features of the Philippine economy—a small manufacturing sector and feeble agricultural productivity—may sap the entrepreneurial spirit of migrant returnees.

Until vaccination rates ramp up, Asis said finding bright prospects for the country’s economy “will remain difficult.”

The government needs to “re-focus” its migration policy, according to Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA)-Philippines.

Sana, executive director of the nonprofit group, clarified that to re-focus is not to stop migration “but to [use reintegration to] seriously address the adverse drivers of migration in the Philippines.”

Barcelona is addressing one of the drivers today with her start-up.

Yearnings, actions

ACCORDING to Barcelona, a psychology graduate, Cleanica Express’s initial clients were those in San Pablo City and nearby towns and cities in Laguna, a province 98 kilometers south of the capital.

Barcelona said her staff of at least a dozen people provides anti-bacterial mist treatment, aroma steam sterilization and post-construction scour. According to her, the disinfecting solutions they use are approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that sanitize dust mites, bacteria and even the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

According to her, she employed her marketing skills honed overseas to reach target clients. Barcelona is a marketing professional hired in Singapore in February last year but was retrenched a month later.

She said she would continue her business even after Covid-19 cases dwindle as health awareness has been rising among Filipinos.

Barcelona appears to have pivoted from overseas work.

Maybe it’s due to the scent of a newly polished table. Maybe it’s the doldrums of waiting for the “new normal.”

Whatever: after more than a year of searching for a source of income, Barcelona decided to rely on herself.

Image courtesy of Nonie Reyes

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