The regime of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo changed the face of labor migration in the Philippines. It pursued its labor-export policy aggressively, begging receiving countries to accept more overseas Filipino workers. In the meantime, it shirked its responsibilities toward OFWs in distress, in many instances even becoming complicit in the abuse of overseas workers.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — Nine years of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has changed the face of labor migration in the country. From being a temporary measure in the 1970s, it has become a regular fixture in the ’80s, a means to prop up the economy in the ’90s, and a measure to cushion the worsening unemployment and poverty, to delay the impending fiscal crisis, and to stimulate the ailing economy under the Arroyo regime. Labor migration has been pursued aggressively, with the Arroyo government almost begging receiving countries to accept more overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
The country has become the fourth largest remittance-receiving country next to India, China and Mexico, whose economies are much larger than the Philippines.
But cases of abuses, contract substitution, among others, have increased, so did the number of distressed OFWs, those in foreign prisons, and the number of dead bodies being repatriated . With 3,700 OFWs now leaving daily to work abroad, excluding undocumented Filipinos, cases of “criminal neglect” of distressed and abused OFWs by government officials and agencies supposedly tasked with protecting Filipinos abroad have also been increasing.
Abuse and Neglect
Under Arroyo the past year, 41 Filipinos are in death row abroad and some 23 Filipino migrants have died mysteriously. Cecilia Alcaraz, an OFW in Taiwan, was sentenced to die by firing squad. Alcaraz was accused of killing a broker, her friend named Chou Mei-yun.
But the family of Alcaraz asserts that she is merely a victim of a frame-up, especially after Taiwanese police claimed to have accidentally deleted a video that could have possibly identified the two men who, according to relatives, killed the victim. While Alcaraz’ s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Migrante International, an OFW group helping to save Cecilia, said the government had done nothing to work for a more favorable decision from the Appellate Court of Taiwan, which handed out its verdict on May 4.
Alcaraz had actually sent a letter to his family saying that on the first day of the hearing of the Appellate court, she appeared without a lawyer. According to the judge, they had received a memo stating that her lawyer had been busy. The lack of legal representation among OFWs imprisoned abroad has become common under the Arroyo administration. In the 2009 report of Migrante, 14 of the 17 OFWs imprisoned in various jails abroad lacked legal representation.
The 23 Filipino migrants who died under mysterious circumstances also suffered from neglect and the lack of political will of officials of Philippine embassies and consulates, according to Migrante. Philippine embassy officials are wont to just accept the reports of host countries without conducting their own investigation.
On August 7, social welfare attache Finardo Cabilao was found dead in his apartment. Cabilao was among the very few Philippine embassy officials who are well-loved by OFWs because he steadfastly fought for the rights and welfare of abused and distressed OFWs. His family told Bulatlat that Cabilao must have uncovered a big syndicate behind the massive employment of undocumented Filipinos that resulted in many Filipino women being sold into prostitution in Sabah. This, they surmised, could have been the motive behind his brutal murder. And yet, despite his service to the Arroyo administration, his case remains unresolved.
But his family can still be considered lucky for having Cabilao’s body repatriated the soonest possible time. Others have waited for their dead kin, many of whom were frozen in morgues for more than six months. After only four days of leaving their destitute life in Misamis Occidental on November 8, 2008 to work abroad, Emy Pepito died in an accident, after being buried alive in sand mixed with boiling asphalt while working on the foundation of a building they had been constructing.
Still other Filipino migrants workers live and work abroad under inhumane conditions. A group of tile setters working in Qatar went home in April to denounce the injustices they experienced. They did not get the salaries stipulated in their contracts. Worse, their request to their employer was denied, forcing them to stop working. To survive, they begged in the streets of Qatar to feed themselves and so they could buy plane tickets. Ebreo and his colleagues Edwin Anonuevo and Larry Canlas remembered that there were some Filipinos who took pity on them and gave them food and money.
They were eventually repatriated after seeking help from friends in the media. When their story came out through The Filipino Channel and GMA 7, the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Association immediately acted on their case. But the P4,500 ($97) they needed to pay to their employer was made possible through donations from the Filipino community in Qatar and not the Philippine Embassy, which had turned down their request for financial help.
The same fate happened to distressed OFWs in the Maldives who were able to return home not through the help of the Philippine government but through the government of their receiving country. To survive while awaiting repatriation, the distressed OFWs had to drink rain water and catch fish to eat. Their plight later caught the attention of the Maldives government. The Committee on Human Rights of Maldives immediately arranged for the OFWs’ trip back home. They were given airplane tickets amounting to P13,000 ($281) each by the Maldives government and received the equivalent of P1,200 ($25.95) from the International Red Cross for their food and other necessities.
Worse, some OFWs who had fought for their rights abroad ended up being abducted and terminated from work.