Ever since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in May, Ces, a 32-year-old Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong, said she feels “very happy to go home.”
That’s because Duterte has done something to stamp out one of her biggest fears about flying back to Manila: “bullet planting.” Airport officials would extort huge bribes from travelers, after surreptitiously inserting bullets in their luggage and then detaining them for illegally carrying live ammunition. One Filipino domestic helper on her way back to her job in Hong Kong fell victim to the trap last year.
“I carried my bag like a baby,” Ces, who has worked in Hong Kong for two years after a stint in Kuwait, said of her previous trips home. Last year when she went home she kept pictures of Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City, in her bag so that anyone who opened it would be afraid.
Duterte’s bloody crackdown on drugs and insults of former allies have sparked criticism, but his staunch support of the rights of Filipinos working overseas—known as Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs—has won him widespread support from the community. They were key to him clinching the presidential election in May, and, interviews with over a dozen workers in Hong Kong show, remain among his most loyal fans.
They’re also one of the country’s economic engines. Over 10 million Filipinos working abroad send back billions of dollars every year, contributing around 10% of the country’s GDP.
Despite their hefty contributions to the economy, at great personal and social cost, many OFWs say previous presidents have not taken their plight seriously. Duterte, though, has cracked down on the airport scam, streamlined the red tape involved with working overseas, and is promising the ultimate dream for many—a domestic economy so good they no longer need to leave their families to work again. This will be the last generation of OFWs, he has promised.
Previous presidents “only paid lip service to providing assistance and honoring the contributions” of OFWs, said Noel Pangilinan, an adjunct professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York who teaches Philippine history. Since the Ferdinand Marcos regime adopted the Labor Export Policy in the 1970s, “no Philippine government ever drafted a program to bring them home,” he said, “because they bring in money that props up the economy.”
During his presidential campaign, Duterte warned the staff of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport about bullet planting. “Everyone linked with bullet planting, kindly consider yourselves retired from government service,” he said. Then, he threatened to force anyone caught practicing the scam to swallow the bullets.
It didn’t come to that. Shortly after his inauguration, the president banned authorities from detaining passengers caught with bullets. This got rid of the fake investigation process, and scammers’ ability to intimidate and extort money from victims afraid of missing their flights or being charged. In Duterte’s first 100 days in office, transportation authorities said, there were zero reports of bullet planting.
Duterte’s Hong Kong fan club
Ces—who does not want to use her real name for fear of being attacked by Duterte’s numerous opponents on social media—belongs to the Hong Kong branch of a Duterte support group with 172 chapters around the world. She, like many others in the group, comes from Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, in the troubled southern part of the Philippines that has been long-neglected by the central government.
The women vigorously nodded in agreement at Ces’s bullet-planting fears, nearly all teared up as they discussed the husbands and children they had left behind, and were unanimous in one belief—that Duterte is the man who will give dignity and choice to the millions of OFWs around the world.
They call him Ang Huling Baraha, which in Tagalog means “the last card”—their only hope.