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Danger of Working Abroad Hits Home in the Philippines

IN an eastern slum of Manila, Gertrudes Ingreniero waits in her brick-and-cardboard hovel for news from her daughter Lourdes, working in Oman.

Since February, letters and regular remittances of $250 from Lourdes have stopped, her mother says, soon after Lourdes wrote to say she wanted to return home because her employer kept her a virtual prisoner in his home.

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Mrs. Ingreniero's requests to the Philippines Labor Department to help locate her daughter draw a blank. ''I keep writing ... but I get no reply,'' she says.

Ingreniero, like millions of other Filipinos, is paying the emotional price of having a relative work overseas. Official statistics place the number of Filipinos working abroad at 4.2 million, out of a population of about 66 million. They help keep the economy afloat with their remittances, having sent over $18 billion home over the past 10 years.

They are the country's biggest foreign-exchange earners, yet the government is helpless in protecting them abroad, where they are often subject to harsh working conditions, alien judicial systems, and personal mistreatment.

The recent case of a Filipina maid, Sara Balabagan, sentenced to death last month by a United Arab Emirates court, has refocused the nation's attention on the issue of overseas Filipinos.

The death penalty meted out to Ms. Balabagan for killing her employer, who raped her, shocked the country, which is still smarting from the March hanging of another Filipina maid in Singapore.

The verdict in the retried case of Balabagan was much harsher than the seven-year sentence meted out at her first trial. In the original verdict, she was also awarded damages for being raped by her employer, whom she says she killed in self-defense.

The Philippine government, having learned from the public backlash in mishandling the Singapore case pulled out all stops to aid her. It hired a top lawyer for the teenager (who had traveled to the UAE with a forged passport that gave her age as 28), and tried to give her moral support. A member of the Muslim minority in the predominantly Christian Philippines, Balabagan had left her remote village in the southern Philippines at age 15.

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Balabagan's case once again reminded Filipinos of their strong desire for high-paying jobs overseas in spite of the social costs and risks. Eager to send money back home to their families, English-speaking Filipinos are known as maids, bar girls, drivers, and seamen to the world.

Ingreniero, like many other residents of her slum area, known as Minahan Main, scrapes a living selling snacks along the potholed streets amid the stench of communal toilets.

Her neighbor Juliet Reyes, an abandoned wife, fares no better. Money from her construction worker husband in Saudi Arabia stopped after he took up with another FIlipina working there. When the money stopped coming, her oldest of four children dropped out of school.

Both women are aided by a private group, Kakampi, which assists families of migrant workers. Mrs. Reyes received a small loan to set up a little food store.

In Minahan Main, every other household has one or two family members working abroad. It is a microcosm of the country's poverty and the modern-day diaspora it has spawned. A 1990 census shows that out of the village's 26,000 voters, more than 5,000 were abroad, and those were only the ones who left legally.

No detailed studies have been carried out on the strains overseas deployment have wreaked on the country's social fabric. But social workers constantly cite instances of broken marriages and families and the psychological effects of separation on children.

KAKAMPI'S chairman, Fe Nicodemus, is an overseas contract worker's wife. Her husband has worked in Saudi Arabia for 10 years and comes home once a year. Her son carries a pair of his father's slippers to school every day, desperately longing for a parent he doesn't really know.

Politicians have renewed calls for a ban on maids going abroad. The Department of Labor, however, rejects it as impractical. Hundreds, however, return each month, either dead or insane from maltreatment or penniless after being swindled by fake recruiters.

The debate on the social costs of overseas employment has no conclusion. A study by the Labor Department, however, insists that the benefits outweigh the costs. ''The misery index ... has been immeasurably affected by the remittances,'' the study says.

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