To many Filipinos in the southern Philippines, Sabah represents salvation. Beckoned by the vast palm-oil plantations in the Malaysian state, they go there in droves seeking employment that they could not find in their homeland. Once there, however, many of them are confronted with the reality of neglect and abuse that is far brutal than the one they had left behind.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – They do not get paid the salaries that were promised them. They are charged exorbitantly for government fees, such as those for passports. Many of them cannot extricate themselves from the stranglehold of usurers, who collect high interest rates. They are not allowed to venture outside of their work area. If they complained about their conditions, they can be deprived of food and other basic necessities.
These are some of the conditions that many Filipino workers experience in the palm-oil plantations and poultry farms of Sabah, the Malaysian state that is less than 50 kilometers away from Mindanao. These are by far the worst Migrante International, the migrant-aid group, has seen.
“We have discovered that aside from the refugees that the Philippine government should worry about, there is the increasing number of labor complaints of migrant workers in palm oil plantations and poultry farms in Sabah,” said Roy Anunciacion, Migrante’s vice-chairman who joined a fact-finding mission to Sabah last month organized by the Hongkong-based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM). Among those who joined the mission was Gabriela Rep. Luz Ilagan and members of the academe from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Anunciacion said the abuses committed in Sabah against OFWs are worse than those in the Middle East.
Although many of them were promised higher wages, workers in the poultry farms and palm oil plantations of Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan earn only about 11 ringgits, or P150, a day. To think that the minimum wage in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, where many of the Filipino refugees and migrants in Sabah are from, is P210 a day.
If they work without days off for the whole month, they would earn 300 ringgits, or about P4,100, slightly higher than the monthly salary of a househelp in Manila.
The 15 distressed OFWs in Sabah. (Photo courtesy of Migrante International)
On top of all this, they still need to pay 50 ringgits every month for their working permits until they are able to pay for the whole amount of 260 ringgits. Most of them also need to pay the 4,000 ringgits they owed usurers or their employes to pay for their fare to Sabah.
“This means that 100 ringgits would be deducted from their monthly salary until they are able to pay the whole amount,” Anunciacion said.
But the OFWs in the poultry farms still cannot send the remaining money from the 300 ringgits – about P2,700 — for their families back home because they need to buy food and other basic necessities at work.
“If you have P1,000 money to send for your family, they would not be able to receive the whole because Western Union, one of the biggest money transfer corporations in the Philippines, would still deduct from the money for their services,” Anunciacion said.
Since the families of the OFWs in their hometown cannot live on P1,000 a month, these Filipino poultry farm workers are forced to take out loan from their employers. “This means that the longer they stay, the bigger their loans become and the less likely they can leave the plantations,” Anunciacion said.
Escape as an Option
Escaping is always an option but there are several things going against those who would consider it. For one, the Philippine government does not have a consulate in Sabah that can shelter distressed OFWs, Anunciacion said. As a result, many disputes involving Filipino migrants and Sabah employers remain unresolved in the plantations.
Besides, the mission found that the plantations and farms in Sabah are so vast that Filipinos who suffer from abuse do not even consider escaping because, according to Anunciacion, “they might die of hunger while they are on their way out.”