By Jerome Aning
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—As the country marked the 15th Migrant Workers Day on Monday, a former labor undersecretary called on the incoming administration to strengthen its delivery of effective and quicker assistance to distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), many of whom have become victims of human trafficking.
“The growing number of victims of human trafficking and contract substitution throughout the world poses a major challenge to the next administration. Increasing poverty has driven many Filipinos to clutch at empty promises of bogus recruiters and human traffickers,” said Susan Ople, president of the OFW advocacy group Blas F. Ople Policy Center.
Ople noted that the overwhelming support bestowed by overseas Filipino voters on apparent president-elect Benigno Aquino Jr. came with high hopes that the labor and OFW sector would receive the priority it deserved.
“Even as we honor our modern-day heroes today, we all know that as their number rises the more difficult it is for government to reach them at a time of personal or collective crisis. The solution remains here at home, where job creation is imperative and the quality of jobs must improve,” she said.
More than 8.2 million Filipinos live outside the country, including at least 4.25 million OFWs. They sent home P138 billion in remittances in 2009, accounting for about 10 percent of the gross national product.
Ople said that Aquino’s lead in the overseas absentee voting had raised high expectations among leaders of various Filipino communities worldwide.
Due to the continuing global financial crisis and harder economic times, many Filipinos are seen to be considering the option, if not the necessity, of finding work abroad.
“The increasing trend toward contractual work has become a major push factor for migration as more Filipinos consider migration as the first option for economic advancement,” Ople said.
Ople, the youngest daughter of the late Foreign Secretary and Labor Secretary Blas F. Ople, lost her first senatorial bid under the Nacionalista Party but vowed to continue her work as a labor advocate through the center.
Migrant Workers Act
Migrant Workers Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the signing of Republic Act No. 8042, or the Migrant Workers Act of 1995.
While the Department of Labor and Employment and its attached agencies, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), were busy leading a program to honor OFWs at Rizal Park in Manila, some OFW groups were engaged in battles abroad to protect their sector.
The Quezon City-based Center for Migrant Advocacy is leading an Asia-initiated campaign at the ongoing International Labor Conference in Geneva to convince the governments to work for an international agreement that would set standards for domestic helpers.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Migrante-Middle East issued a statement over the weekend calling on the Bureau of Internal Revenue to remind remittance firms that the OFWs need not pay documentary stamp tax when sending money home.
The Ople Center suggested several institutional and legislative reforms that the incoming administration should immediately embark on.
The center called for the granting of additional seats for OFW representatives on the OWWA board of trustees so that the agency could provide more benefits to its members.
One-stop assistance center
Ople said a one-stop interagency OFW assistance center should also be established in every province to cut red tape and facilitate the provision of services to OFW families, particularly in the areas of repatriation, reintegration and legal assistance.
She said the executive and legislative branches should also allocate budgets for the immediate deployment of legal and social welfare attachés to countries with a high incidence of human trafficking and other welfare cases, such as in destination points in the Middle East.
“Philippine embassies and consulates must be prepared to file cases against abusive foreign employers and agents, especially in cases involving contract substitution, rape and maltreatment of workers, rather than just repatriate the workers involved,” Ople said.
She said the Philippine government should be ready with its contingency plans for Filipino workers in countries facing crisis, such as South Korea, where there are over 80,000 OFWs.
“We need to keep an eye and be more vocal about the need to defuse this ticking bomb in our backyard,” she said, referring to escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula arising from the sinking of a South Korea naval boat by North Korea.
The number of overseas Filipinos is variously estimated at 8 million to 11 million, most of whom are OFWs.
Surveys on OFWs
The Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimates the number of Filipinos abroad as of December 2008 at around 8.2 million, of which 3.9 million were permanent residents, 3.6 million temporary (mostly workers) and about 650,000 irregular or undocumented.
The National Statistics Office’s survey of the 1.91 million OFWs who left the country in 2009 said most of the departing workers came from the Metro Manila, Calabarzon and Central Luzon regions where job losses and factory closures were widespread at the height of the global financial crisis.
Of the OFWs who left in 2009, 52.1 percent were deployed to the Middle East, and 17.5 percent went to East Asian destinations such as Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.
Another NSO survey broke down the 1.91 million in terms of occupations, namely laborers and unskilled workers (32.3 percent), trades and related workers (14.9 percent), service workers and shop and market sales workers (14.8 percent), plant and machine operators and assemblers (13.9 percent) and professionals (10.1 percent).
The survey said 42.8 percent of the OFWs who left in 2009 were aged 25 to 34 years.